OKLAHOMA CITY -- At shootaround before Friday’s Warriors-Thunder game, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut didn’t look like injured players on the mend. Sure, their knees were draped in a glacier’s worth of ice crags, but that’s not entirely uncommon for veterans. They were in uniform and resting, having just gotten a good practice run on the court. They could have played in Friday night’s game if the situation necessitated it. It’s looking like Steve Kerr will keep deciding that certain situations just aren’t worth it. Friday’s nationally televised showdown was such an instance, and Golden State’s defense collapsed without two of its pillars, ceding major points to a furious Thunder attack in a 127-115 loss.
On Dec. 14, before the Warriors played New Orleans, Kerr scoffed at the notion that his current team could challenge the 72-win record of his former team. There was good reason for that. First, challenging the 1996 Bulls’ record is somewhat impossible. Second, the Warriors don’t really want to try. Wins are nice, but the process is paramount. As the schedule shifts into the “dog days,” as Kerr keeps calling these January contests, that process is intertwined with staying healthy for future games that matter. The word around Oracle is that Kerr’s gone Popovich, giving players days off, giving bench guys solid runs. Shaun Livingston was rested for two games, just to recalibrate himself, Kerr insists. This represents a huge shift from how Golden State used to do things. Curry played 31 minutes in this high-profile game in which the Warriors just couldn’t close the gap. Two seasons ago, he averaged 38.5 minutes.
Teams like the Thunder, in all their defense-wrecking glory, provide even more reason for Golden State to favor caution. You could kill yourself striving for the 1-seed only to face this monstrously talented team as a reward. So what’s the point? Why spend energy and risk health trying to win the standings when the goal is to win a championship? The NBA runs its teams through an overlong regular season, and teams are starting to game the games by giving full effort in fewer of them.
One theoretical benefit of sitting core players is that you learn about your bench. In this particular game, Golden State employed lineups they might be wise to avoid. “We just never made our mark defensively with any of the lineups we had out there,” Kerr explained after the game. If veterans are going to miss more games, Kerr might have to tinker some more.
Livingston and Lee have been helpful to the Warriors when fitted with the right mix. It remains to be seen if that can happen with Barbosa. Kerr speaks highly of the Brazilian backup point guard and says he’s earned his way back into the rotation. That might well be true, but the results haven’t been pretty so far. Barbosa is minus-60 in his floor time this season, difficult to pull off on a team that’s 31-6. He’s often a joy to watch in transition with his low-slung, high-arcing layups, but he’s not providing much defensively and hasn’t shot well enough on 3s to demand defensive attention. On Friday, the 32-year-old guard looked out of place trying to keep pace with Oklahoma City’s athletes.
The reserves weren’t the sole reason for the defeat, though. The Warriors gave up 16 offensive rebounds, scuttling a few of their better defensive possessions. Stephen Curry summarized, “A lot of second-chance opportunities, a couple breakdowns in the pick-and-roll game, and they made shots, obviously.”
Indeed the Thunder did. Kevin Durant was something beyond incredible, scoring 34 points and missing only four shots. Russell Westbrook had 17 points, 17 assists and 15 rebounds. Serge Ibaka dominated the paint to the tune of 27 points.
Curry and Draymond Green had atypically spotty games, somewhat offsetting good offensive performances from Klay Thompson, Marreese Speights and Harrison Barnes. That’ll happen on occasion for a Warriors team that’s given us stretches impressive enough to briefly erase the solid knowledge that they are indeed human.
Friday was a reminder that human beings sometimes miss, sometimes throw the ball away, sometimes suffer defensive lapses. Human beings also benefit from extra rest. Golden State’s dominance isn’t a constant. At least the Warriors are recognizing their human vulnerabilities early, though, and sacrificing the short term for the long term. There’s just a lot of work to be done with this bench in making such sacrifices not so painful.