The Golden State Warriors were one possession away on Sunday night from winning their two biggest games of the season back-to-back, steadying themselves for a top-six playoff seed in the wild Western Conference. But Kyle Anderson deflected Draymond Green’s pass as the Warriors tried to chew up more clock up one with 16 seconds left, setting the stage for Karl-Anthony Towns’ go-ahead triple on the other end.
Golden State’s last good chance to avert another vexing crunch-time loss in a regular season full of them came up empty.
With the Warriors down 98-96, Jordan Poole’s bounce pass went straight out of bounds instead of finding Steph Curry, who’d stopped his basket cut short while being tracked by Jayden McDaniels.
The Dubs could’ve answered Friday’s pivotal victory over the Dallas Mavericks not just by putting more distance between themselves and a fellow foe fighting to bypass the play-in tournament, but also won another crucial head-to-head tie-breaker. Instead, an all too familiar crunch-time collapse leaves Golden State in sixth at 39-37, a half game ahead of the Wolves and just one-and-a-half games up on 10th-place.
The Warriors gave away a very winnable game to the Wolves, squandering a key tie-breaker and wasting Gary Payton II's return in a loss.
— Warriors Nation (@WarriorNationCP) March 27, 2023
Among the teams so tightly packed in the standings just below the defending champions? The New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder, two of their final three opponents at Chase Center before the postseason finally dawns.
Golden State’s loss to Minnesota was just its eighth at home all year. Disjointed as they were offensively by the Wolves’ size and length and commitment to making role players beat them, the Warriors remain close to a juggernaut in San Francisco. It’d be truly shocking if they fell to the Pelicans and Thunder at Chase Center with so much at stake.
Even before 2022-23 tipped off, though, very little has gone how Golden State hoped or anticipated. In immediate wake of yet more abject disappointment, let’s take a look at the Warriors’ nightmare seeding and matchup scenarios—inside and outside the play-in fray—for the 2023 NBA playoffs.
Warriors fall to play-in tournament, emerge with No. 8 seed to meet Nuggets in first round
Golden State doesn’t quite control its own play-in fate. Minnesota is 38-37, with one more game left to play than the Warriors, and the teams split their season series 2-2 after Sunday’s affair. With neither the Dubs nor the Wolves set to win their divisions, the next tie-breaker comes down to conference record—where Minny currently has a one-game lead.
Even winning out wouldn’t keep Golden State from the play-in tournament if the Wolves do the same.
The Warriors, basically, are at real risk of beginning their road to a second consecutive championship through the play-in. If that possibility comes to pass, no potential playoff path from there would be worse than Golden State nabbing the eight seed for a first-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic is the most un-guardable player in basketball. He dissected the Warriors’ far superior defense in the first round last year despite playing without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., averaging 31.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game on 64.3% true shooting.
The Nuggets operate on a different level offensively with Jokic surrounded by worthy talent. Their offensive rating with Jokic, Murray and Porter on the floor this season is a ridiculous 126.3 in 878 minutes, per NBA.com/stats. For context, no Golden State triumvirate that’s notched at least 500 minutes has an offensive rating better than 119.9.
Say what you will about Jokic’s defensive deficiencies. He’s a major liability in drop coverage, allowing opponents to shoot 68.9% at the rim, and isn’t exactly well-equipped to meet Curry, Jordan Poole and even Klay Thompson at the level of screens both on and off the ball. But Jokic is consistently scheme sound when engaged and has elite hands swiping at dribbles and crowing passing lanes.
Denver has surrounded him with an array of active, versatile defenders—Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown most notable among them—who mitigate Jokic’s deficiencies while making life hard on primary scorers, too. The Nuggets’ defense isn’t elite and will always lack a degree of flexibility at the highest levels due to Jokic’s presence, but their peak on that end has never been higher.
Combined with the palpable home-court advantage altitude provides, Jokic’s singular inevitability, the presence of Murray and Porter and an improved defense make Denver the West’s most likely winner with some two weeks left in the regular season. The Warriors need to avoid another playoff battle with the Nuggets for as long as possible.
Needless to say, keep your fingers crossed Golden State finishes in the top-six.
Golden State finishes fifth for epic first-round battle with Suns
There isn’t a world in which being relegated to the play-in tournament is better for the Warriors. They need all the rest they can get before another postseason run, and there’s obviously no guarantee—especially with Andrew Wiggins’ status still up in the air—the Dubs would advance past the play-in if they fell there.
The Wolves, Thunder, Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers are hardly push-overs. Don’t forget that Zion Williamson could still return for New Orleans, either, among the biggest potential postseason dominoes in basketball.
The heaviest likely to fall, though? Kevin Durant being available for the Phoenix Suns. The two-time Finals MVP with Golden State seems set to play on Wednesday after twisting his left ankle during pre-game warmups on March 8th, giving Monty Williams’ revamped team crucial time to coalesce before the playoff pressure cooker.
Not that the Suns necessarily need it. Durant is the most seamless plug-and-play superstar in league history, and Phoenix owns a 131.7(!) offensive rating in the 67 minutes he shared the floor with Devin Booker before going down with injury, per NBA.com/stats.
Is that small sample size theater? Sure. It also could be the realistic ceiling for an offense featuring two imminently flammable all-court scorers who are supplemented by an all-time table-setter and dynamic interior scorer with legitimate size at center.
The Suns lack quality depth beyond Durant, Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. Teams won’t guard Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright in the playoffs. Terrence Ross doesn’t offer what that quartet needs defensively, and T.J. Warren has only just begun getting regular rotation minutes.
It may not matter.
Durant and Booker are good enough to be the two best players in any playoff series, even against the Warriors. That prospect alone is justification for Golden State wanting to avoid a matchup with Phoenix in the first round, especially as the five seed in the West—and a Conference Semifinals tilt with the Nuggets looming if the Dubs manage to take down Durant and company.