I hesitate to ever use the term “must-win.” Unless the Golden State Warriors are facing elimination, no game is really a must-win. The play-in contest against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2021 was a must-win. Game 7 against the Houston Rockets in 2018 was a must-win.
But regular season Game No. 73 when the team is solidly in the play-in bracket and just half a game out of the playoffs? That’s not really must-win territory.
And yet ... it sure feels like tonight’s game against the Rockets is exactly that.
The Warriors are once again floundering on the road, and with half of their 10 remaining games slated to be away from the Chase Center, they’re running out of opportunities to gain any sort of momentum on the road, or any understanding of how to fix their underlying issues.
They’ve lost 11 straight games away from home, having not won since a January 30 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. To put in perspective how long ago that was, Steph Curry was still three games away from suffering an injury that he’s now returned from, and Andrew Wiggins would play six more games before stepping away from the team to deal with family matters.
All season long there’s been a case that the Warriors road woes were simply a case of not turning it on. The Dubs have the third-best defense and fifth-best net rating in the NBA when at home, according to Cleaning The Glass. Those numbers plummet to 28th and 27th, respectively, when on the road.
This isn’t a case of a mediocre team playing mediocrely. This is a case of a team selectively alternating between excellence and atrocious. Outside of James Harden’s gentlemen’s club extravaganzas, there’s no tangible reason why a team should have an alter ego when playing in a different environment. Every team gets worse on the road, but there’s really no logical basis for being any worse, relative to your home performance, than any other team.
That led to the compelling case that the Dubs, fresh off another long season and nursing yet another championship hangover, were just not quite putting it together on the road, and just needed to flip the “on” switch. That case was compelling in November and December, and you could even make the case for it in January and February.
But now it’s March. Late March. They’ve played 37 games on the road and won just seven of them. They have only five remaining.
If the switch could be flipped, it’s inexcusable that it hasn’t been yet.
They’ve come close. Steph Curry put together one of his finest performances of the year last week against the Los Angeles Clippers, resulting in a close loss against a good team. Two days later his teammates put forth the kind of performance that would have propelled them to a convincing victory against LA, but with Curry not at his sharpest, it was another close loss, this time to the Atlanta Hawks.
Had Curry and the team combined their two strong efforts, Saturday’s game against the Grizzlies would have been a statement win. Instead, they did the opposite, and it was a pathetic flop.
Now they’re being hand-fed a team more interested in positioning themselves for Victor Wembanyama than winning games. A victory wouldn’t be a statement. A blowout victory wouldn’t even be a statement. But a loss sure would.
Monday might not be a must-win for the Warriors. But it damn sure is a can’t-lose.