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After giving up 24-point lead, Golden State knows it can’t cruise through season

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry  drives past Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry drives past Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)
By Tim Bontemps Washington Post

OAKLAND, Calif. – In the vast majority of their games this season, the Warriors have coasted, relying on what usually is a significant talent advantage to carry them to victory. It’s a formula that’s largely worked, as the Warriors entered Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies here at Oracle Arena with a league-best record of 31-5, the league’s best offense and tied for the league’s second-best defense.

But the truth is that the Warriors have been playing with fire. The general indifference with which they’ve gone through the regular season has made them a different team from the one that rampaged through the last two regular seasons, despite the fact that the Warriors are on pace to win 69 games this season.

Their lackadaisical approach caught up with them Friday night. The Warriors blew a 24-point third quarter lead, found themselves outscored 49-21 after third quarter and fell 128-119 in overtime to the Grizzlies in front of a befuddled home crowd whose confusion was possibly only surpassed by that of the Warriors themselves.

The Warriors are now 0-5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Grizzlies, and the air of inevitability and invincibility that surrounded this team isn’t quite as impregnable anymore.

“We’ve got to be better,” Draymond Green said.

For all of the attention deservedly given to superstar scorers Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Green is the team’s voice and heart. That was fully on display Friday, when he tore into Durant in the middle of the court for breaking off a pick-and-roll with Curry to hold the ball for an eternity at the top of the key, as well as when Green tried to drag the Warriors back into the game in overtime with a layup that drew a foul, followed by a three-pointer.

It was also on display, as it always is, at the podium following the game, when Green – never shy with his opinions in normal situations – didn’t back down from them this time, either.

“We have to be better executing in the fourth quarter,” Green said. “Our fourth quarter has been atrocious. Everyone only notices in losses, 1/8but 3/8 I actually pay attention to things when you win, also.

”I’m actually happy we lost today, because there are some things we need to correct in order to win a championship… . I want to see us get better each and every time we step on the floor, and I don’t feel like that’s been happening for things we need to get better at.“

Golden State’s late-game offense has been a problem throughout the season. While the Warriors have overcome it at times, it’s caused spectacular collapses in two games in particular, Friday’s setback against Memphis and the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. In the holiday showdown against a fellow superpower, Golden State blew a 14-point lead with 9:35 to go in the game. Friday night, it was an 18-point lead with 7:47 remaining.

The culprit in both games was the same thing: a stagnant offense that got away from the ball movement and egalitarian play that has defined the Warriors since Steve Kerr took over as coach prior to the 2014 NBA season. Some of that falls on Durant, who has too often reverted to the same predictable isolation plays he so often ran late in games when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the Warriors also have gotten into a habit of flipping a switch when they need to.

When that becomes commonplace, sometimes the switch short circuits.

”It’s a sucky feeling going into the locker room tonight,“ said Curry, whose 40-point performance was forgotten due to Golden State’s late-game ineptitude. ”There’s some common threads of how we lost this game, the Christmas Day game, some other leads … we need to get stops, and we need to put together focus for 48 minutes, and continue to look at our down the stretch, fourth quarter play calling and execution.“

That pretty much covers it.

Integrating Durant into the mix has gone about as well as anyone could have expected. It’s been nothing like the trials and tribulations that the Miami Heat went through during the first season LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh played together, or even what the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like in the first few months of the 2014-15 season, when James returned to Ohio to play alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

But the difference between those teams and this one is that the pieces for Golden State fit together far better, far more seamlessly. There wasn’t a need to figure out a new offense, or figure out ways to make players that do similar things co-exist on the court. That, along with the overwhelming talent advantage they’ve often had, has given the Warriors the ability to pile up wins without having to play on a regular basis with the focus and execution that Curry referenced.

It also gives the Warriors solace that all is not lost, even on a night that ends as embarrassingly as this one did for everyone involved. Kerr pointed out that his team is 31-1 against everyone outside of the league’s elite.

”We’re doing great,“ Kerr said. ”It was a tough loss, a bad loss. 1/8It was 3/8 a game we should’ve won, but we didn’t. It’s a hiccup, and we have to pick up and get better, but we’re doing fine.“

There’s no question the Warriors are doing fine. But there’s also no question they’ve been on cruise control for large portions of this season, sporadically focusing for those brief few minutes needed and then settling back into a comfort zone.

These are the dog days of the regular season, as Green aptly said, and boredom will set in. But for the past two seasons, the Warriors were operating at peak efficiency virtually from start to finish, honing a fine edge that led them to one title and to the brink of a second.

So far this season has been the opposite – a dullness that only leads to a sharpened focus when necessary. And, because of their skill level, those occasions have been few and far between, thanks to a schedule severely backloaded to appease the league’s television partners with plenty of marquee matchups once the NFL has released its grip on the American sporting public.

That will give the Warriors plenty of chances to do what Green said: sharpen their focus and begin making the necessary improvements to win another title. After the way last season went and how the offseason unfolded, that outcome is the only acceptable one for these Warriors.

But Friday showed they still have to cover plenty of ground to get there.

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