Just over an hour before the Warriors tipped off against Sacramento on Wednesday, a backroom off the Warriors locker room erupted into cheers. Moments later, several players exited looking like they’d just won something.
In a way, they had.
Utah, part of a group of six teams contending for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference, just put the finishing touches on a collapse at Cleveland, which allowed Golden State to extend its lead over the Jazz to 2.5 games later in the night.
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Being in contention for the postseason has turned the Warriors into fans of teams they’d usually have no interest in monitoring.
“It’s a little bit of a different mindset,” All-Star forward David Lee said. “We’re watching Utah play and we’re watching Houston play before our games start and the Lakers play. We’re all excited about the outcomes of those games and we’re rooting for teams in the Eastern Conference.”
A year ago, a late-season Jazz at Cavaliers game would have meant about as much to the Warriors players as a first-round NIT game. Because the Warriors were irrelevant, so was the rest of the league.
“At this point last year, we were having conversations about where we’re going on vacation after the season because we knew we weren’t making to the playoffs,” Lee said. “That’s not to say we we’ve giving up on any games, but it’s a different mindset knowing you’re really playing for a spot in the playoffs.”
That sense of urgency hasn’t necessarily translated to smooth execution over the past several games, but with 14 of the 20 games left on the schedule at Oracle Arena, it would take a miserable run for the Warriors to miss out on just their second playoff berth since 1994.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson said he’s always interested in what’s going on around the league -- that hasn’t changed -- and he hasn’t resorted to watching specific games due to any vested interest. His focus remains on improvement and instilling a belief in the team that the playoffs should be an expectation.
“One thing I did the other day, before this home stretch, I basically had my video guys go up to each player and ask them how do they feel about making the playoffs,” Jackson said. “And we talked about it as if it was a foregone conclusion.”
It's a new concept for the Warriors and that's not limited to the franchise. Of the starting five, only Andrew Bogut has been on a team that qualified for the playoffs.
“It’s not even comparable. Taking 43 losses (in a lockout-shortened season), that was never fun,” guard Klay Thompson said. “This year, winning makes a big difference, more fun for the fans, more fun for the Bay Area. Especially for us, we see our hard work pay off.”
Of the six teams vying for the final three spots -- Golden State (35-27), Houston (33-29), Utah (32-29), the Lakers (31-31), Portland (28-32) and Dallas (27-33) -- the Warriors have the easiest road to the finish line.
Golden State will look for its third straight win and first in three tries against Houston on Friday, when the Rockets -- fresh off a loss at Dallas -- come to Oracle Arena.