Stephen Curry shook his head. Another Warriors meltdown was underway.
LeBron James’ 3-pointer off Donte DiVincenzo had extended the Lakers’ lead to 11 points midway through the third quarter. The TNT cameras panned from the swishing net to a frowning Curry clad in a white hoodie on the visitor’s bench.
Golden State had moved within a stone’s throw of the lead minutes earlier, but old habits kicked in. A few fouls and misses of unideal shots later, the Lakers were on an 18-5 run and pulled away with the 124-111 win.
No Curry can adapt and rescue them.
Now the Warriors are back under .500 at 29-30 and in the 10th seed of the Western Conference with only 23 games left. With Curry eventually back alongside Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and most of this Championship squad, a foot in the door means more than enough room to run to the Finals against a mediocre Western Conference even as a play-in contender.
“We have 23 games left,” Thompson said Thursday after the Warriors’ loss. “We have a great opportunity to finish strong and continue to give our very best and have fun doing it.”
Higher seeds are well within reach; they are two games behind the sixth seed and three games behind the fourth. But those slim margins look miles long considering how they play without Curry or completely sane. The defense is lax on the edge and the offense cannot create easy shots.
If the Warriors want to escape the play-in round — not to mention not miss the playoffs altogether — and restore their championship identity, they need Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Gary Payton II together .
Of course, the postponed team reunion is not something that can be controlled. Curry will be out at least until March 1 with a left leg strain sustained on February 4 against the Dallas Mavericks.
Wiggins, who missed the last two games due to a family issue, is out for 22 career games with an adductor strain and several illnesses. His timeline for return is unknown. As did Payton’s, who returned to the Warriors at trade deadline with an injury from his off-season core surgery that will sideline him for at least a month and possibly longer.
The Warriors failed to win the championship last season without all three players — which explains Golden State’s extensive trade to reacquire Payton from Portland at deadline. They went on the 21-0 run to finish Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Boston together.
With Curry on the field, the Warriors have an offensive rating of 117.4 that would rank second in the NBA, behind Boston’s rating of 118.2. They have an offensive rating of 109.8 with Curry on the bench, ranking 27th in the NBA.
In the 32 games played together on the field with Curry and Wiggins this season, the Warriors score 120.1 points per 100 possessions and allow 110.9 pp/100, one of the biggest differentials in the league.
With Curry, Wiggins and Payton together on floor last season, the Warriors averaged 114.5 pp/100 and allowed a miserly 103.2 pp/100 on defense.
At their best this season and last season, Golden State used a disruptive defense to generate their demoralizing transition offense. The Warriors haven’t had a chance to fully become their best selves this season.
An opportunity for a higher-ranked player is within reach as the entire Warriors reunite on the field this season. But with those timelines uncertain with only 23 games left, the next few days or weeks could look a lot like Thursday’s grim loss in Los Angeles.
Optimism seems high, even after a new crisis.
“There’s still a lot of basketball left, believe it or not,” Thompson said. “I know we have greatness ahead of us. Will never disbelieve in this team. We’ve done too many great things not to.”