The Golden State Warriors are playing more than one opponent in the Western Conference Finals.
The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the official foe for the NBA champions, but Steve Kerr and his roster know that an opponent as formidable as OKC can be found within the Warriors’ own bones and marrow.
Golden State is its own toughest opponent. The Warriors are good enough to be able to say so with great credibility. Their 14-point fourth quarter in Game 1 certainly underscored the notion that Golden State’s biggest task in these West Finals is to get out of its own damn way.
Whether or not you agree with the idea that the Warriors are their own biggest obstacle on the road to the NBA Finals, this much is clear: Golden State — though a machine-like masterpiece when hitting on all cylinders — is still made of mortal and flawed flesh. This machine hums with glorious efficiency when “on,” but it’s not always able to operate with seamless ease and fluidity.
This inconsistency in an undeniably great team is never more apparent than after layoffs of at least three days.
This year and in 2015, the Warriors have struggled in the playoffs after long breaks between games.
It happened in Game 3 of the Memphis series last year. It happened in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last year against Cleveland… and the Dubs’ ability to steal that game might ultimately have represented the difference between winning and losing that series against the Cavs.
This year, before the playoffs even arrived, the Warriors were terrible in their first game after the All-Star break, a blowout loss in Portland against the Trail Blazers. Months later, a three-day break before Game 3 of a playoff series turned the Warriors into mush. They once again handled a layoff with all the skill of a 35-win NBA team, not a 73-win juggernaut.
Between the end of the West semifinals and the start of the West Finals, the Warriors faced a four-day layoff. They actually started Game 1 against the Thunder in fine form, but they descended into disorder in the final 15 minutes of regulation. They thought they had handled the layoff problem… until it turned out they didn’t.
The challenge of overcoming rust — defined here as the disruption of every-other-day basketball — is profound and paramount for the Warriors as they arrive in Oklahoma for Game 3 on Sunday.
No other games in this series will occur after a long break. It is as though Games 1 and 2 existed on an island, and after the Warriors split them, this series can settle into a best-of-five with a consistent rhythm… after Game 3.
This is the last game which exists in an unusual schedule-based context. It’s the last game in which OKC might hope to get the Warriors when they’re off their game.
If the Warriors can slay the demon of rust, their aspirations might be healthier than at any point since the start of Game 1 in the Houston series, before the Steph Curry injury altered the trajectory of this particular NBA springtime.