Most of the regular season suspense is gone, leaving the final 30 games for the Warriors answer three questions.
Can they continue to handle their status as the NBA’s marquee attraction?
Can they win a regular season game in San Antonio?
Can they reach the 73 wins required to surpass the record 72 set by the 1995-96 Bulls?
Based on the first 52 games this season, the Warriors are capable of all three – largely because of the way they’ve thus far answered Question No. 1.
Led by MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors are the NBA’s latest version of traveling rock stars, filling every road arena, where they have a growing contingent of fans. This is comforting because it means they have support within a hostile environment. It’s alarming, too, because it automatically lifts the intensity in the building.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, however, has another word for it.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s more exciting that way. It gives our guys a boost. We often have a lot of our own fans in opposing arenas, which is great to see and hear. But it’s also good because every game is a big game. The last two games at home (against the Thunder and Rockets) felt like playoff games – in February.
“So it’s good for us. Whether it’s on the road or at home, it’s good for us to feel the energy of the crowd and feel the importance of each game.”
The Warriors tend to summon their best when the stakes are raised. Of the 30 remaining games, that in San Antonio on March 19 has by far the highest stakes.
The Warriors last won a regular season game there in 1997, when a lineup featuring Chris Mullin, Latrell Sprewell and Joe Smith posted a 108-94 victory. It was a battle of two bad teams; the Warriors finished 30-52, the Spurs 20-62.
A man named Tim Duncan was drafted four months later, and the Spurs have been the league’s gold standard ever since.
The Warriors are on a mission to topple them – and all other contenders – and are confident they have the goods to do so.
“Steph got better, which is hard to imagine,” Klay Thompson said. “Draymond (Green) does everything and we have guys who do it every night or a different guy to do it every night, which is great. We don’t just rely on a couple guys. We rely on nine or 10 every night.”
The Warriors and Spurs happen to be the deepest teams in the league.
Though the Warriors aim to supplant the Spurs as the NBA’s model franchise, it is the Bulls that remain the object of their historical pursuit.
The Warriors must go 25-5 to reach 73 wins. The five most challenging games would figure to be Feb. 20 at the Los Angeles Clippers, Feb. 27 at Oklahoma City, March 19 at San Antonio, March 30 at Utah and April 10 at San Antonio. All five games are on the second night of a back-to-back set.
But of the four Warriors losses this season – all to teams around .500 or below – are any indication, there is no earthly way to project the dates of future losses.
The key for the Warriors is their approach to each specific game, and the possessions within. When intensely focused, they’re almost impossible to beat. But intense focus relies upon consistent energy, which at times can be tough to muster.
“The coach can do a great job game-planning and scheming and motivating,” Curry said. “But if we’re not locked in and we’re not focused and we’re not together, then I don’t think anything would be successful.
“So it really starts with the guys’ individual mentality when they step on the floor. They know they’re going to impact the game and we definitely hold each other to a high standard and we motivate each other with that expectation. We’re lucky to have the group that we have.”
That’s the magic of this team, a diverse collection of personalities that somehow understand they are much better as a unit than as a talented individuals. Though many teams aspire to mimic their style, no team has as many shooters and playmakers on offense or the ability to switch as comfortably on defense.
The crucial factor over the final 30 games, assuming good overall health, is whether Curry can continue to wreck defenses and inspire his teammates. He has in his mind that the record is achievable, and he can be relentless in such situations.
“What goes unnoticed is Steph is a killer,” Kerr said. “He is an unbelievable competitor.
“Maybe people are fooled because of the way he looks, or his demeanor. Everything seems to be so easy for him. But he is an absolute killer competitor. And we’ve got a lot of those guys on the team. Andre (Iguodala) and Draymond . . . we’ve got guys who really, really want to win and get mad when we don’t. That’s a similarity that with Bulls team.”
The Warriors can get to 73. They’re playing it right, putting it behind the overall goal of winning another title, but they want the record. And they have become a team that usually gets what it wants.