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Kurtenbach: The Warriors messed around and found out this season. It might just work out for the best

Kurtenbach: The Warriors messed around and found out this season. It might just work out for the best

The Golden State Warriors messed around on the hardwood for the last six months.

In Sunday’s regular-season finale, they found out what doing that gives you:

A bus ride and one more game in Sacramento on Tuesday.

Win it, or get back on that bus and go home for good.

Which is to say it doesn’t give you much.

“We’re happy to have a shot,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Sunday.

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Sure, we’ve suspected for a while and known with certainly for a bit that the Warriors would be in the play-in tournament, and going into the final game of the regular season, it wasn’t hard to game out the likely scenarios for the team.

But this checkpoint, this moment of finality, shines a bright and cold light on the 82 games the Warriors played this regular season. They all mattered, save for Sunday’s contest, which had no bearing on the standings, with the Kings and Lakers winning their simultaneous games.

Regardless, the reflection is less than flattering to the Warriors.

The most expensive team in NBA history will need to win two games to make the playoffs, and they won’t even host those games. That might be the worst return on investment in NBA history.

And while the Warriors have been adamant that they are, in fact, a better team this season than last season—they won more games, they’re arguably deeper, and they have some really nice young players in the mix these days.

They might even be right.

But there’s just one thing the Warriors are overlooking in that positive spin:

A bunch of other teams in the West improved, too.

Year-over-year progress is a nice thing to sell, but these Dubs aren’t rebuilding. They’re all in. As such, all that matters is how much better you are than your peers.

The Warriors only finished with better records than five teams in the West.

But they have a shot, and they are playing much better basketball as of late.

“I’ve got a good feeling about what’s ahead,” Kerr said. “I think we still have a good chance to do something special.”

It would, indeed, be special for the Warriors to surpass last year’s ending and make it to the Western Conference Finals.

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Golden State is banking on their recent form to carry into the postseason. They’ve been a top-10 team in the league since the All-Star Game and an even better team over the last ten games.

But that success hasn’t translated into wins against top teams. The Warriors ended the season with a 4-19 season against the top six teams in the West, and the only top-10 team they had a winning record against was the Lakers (3-1).

But if the play-in was inevitable, the Warriors might have lucked into a best-case scenario.

Sacramento is not a top team. They’re down two key role players and have lost five of their last six games going into Sunday’s contest (a win against the tanking Blazers). That losing run included a must-win game Friday against the Suns, when they choked away a 16-point lead.

The Warriors can then play in Los Angeles or New Orleans. There are no easy wins, but the Warriors could theoretically beat both teams in a one-off.

Win those, and the Dubs will take a trip to Oklahoma City, which clinched the No. 1 seed in the West Sunday.

The Thunder are no joke. They’re long, talented, and precocious. They have a bonafide MVP-caliber player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and two young stars in Jalen Williams (of Santa Clara) and the impossibly long Chet Holmgren.

But they are babies. The average age of their starting five is 23 years old and they have not played a playoff series yet — much less hosted one as the favorite.

Of the three teams vying for the No. 1 seed, the Warriors would have picked this one to be their opponent. Golden State isn’t as good as Oklahoma City—no sir—but the Dubs have a massive experience gap, and it could come into play.

But that’s only if the Warriors do, in fact, play in the playoffs. They have two elimination games between now and then, and neither is a gimme.

If the Dubs are to survive the week, they must raise their game to an even higher level in the coming days.

Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are going to have to drink from the fountain of youth. (Or “flip the switch,” in their salad-day parlance.)

The Warriors will need Andrew Wiggins — the second-best player on the 2022 title team — to tap into that form once again.

Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis will need to continue to show wisdom beyond their years, and the uber-talented Jonathan Kuminga will have to lock in on his responsibilities on both ends of the court, because the Warriors are going to throw a lot his way.

And perhaps they can all do it. The significance of the moment at hand can be a galvanizing and focusing force.

The Dubs’ season has been one of mediocrity, tragedy, and ups and downs, and it will all be defined game by game moving forward.

Are these the final days of the Warriors as we know them, or the start of that something special Kerr envisions?

We’ll find out soon enough, and after six months where definition and clarity seemed fleeting, we’ll take that as a win.