In loss to Kings, Golden State Warriors’ past failed experiment shows new life

SAN FRANCISCO — The ball was in Steph Curry’s hands. Draymond Green was open at the top of the key off the pick-and-roll, the trap on Curry leaving feet of space in front of him to work with. Five seconds remained, the Warriors were down one point and the Kings’ defense wasn’t quite set.

It could have been Sacramento’s worst nightmare.

That’s because these Warriors have always feasted on defenses caught off-guard. A Curry-led offense is most lethal in mayhem and can be neutralized by order. So hope in Chase Center was high and taking that last timeout seemed foolish as Curry took his two defenders across the court, final seconds ticking.

But all that hope crashed when Curry succumbed to the trap, bounced the ball off his leg and De’Aaron Fox scooped it up to seal Golden State’s loss. It served as another reminder that what worked for these Warriors at their highest peak won’t always cut it now. In the cold, harsh light of Golden State’s new reality, taking that timeout might’ve been a good call.

“These guys have been together for so long,” Kerr said. “I prefer the scramble situations at the end of games where defenses can’t get set up and make subs. This is one that keeps you up at night.”

Kerr and his team have had a few sleepless nights this year. Blunders and what-ifs are magnified by the 31 games they’ve played in crunch time. This identity crisis —  the league is adjusting to neutralize everything that made Curry’s Warriors unstoppable — gives them a completely new challenge to work with as they still vie for a playoff run. In the middle of a season this organization hoped to comfortably contend, they’ve had to re-imagine what can make them unstoppable again.

A solid five-man (maybe four-man) lineup that’s eluded the Warriors all year may have emerged out of the heartbreaking loss.

Since Green’s return from suspension against Memphis on Jan. 15, the lineup featuring Curry, Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga has outscored opponents by two points in 14 minutes together over three games. Swap in rookie Brandin Podziemski for Thompson and the Warriors have outscored opponents by a total of 27 points in 15 total minutes played together over the same three games.

That first group closed out the final four minutes of Wednesday’s game and, game-losing turnover aside, looked like one of the best lineups this team has yet. This group quickly closed a seven-point deficit behind Jonathan Kuminga’s fearless attacks on the rim, punctuated by an ability to draw contact and be a lob threat. His alley-oop dunk off Curry’s feed and dunk off a Green feed put the Warriors up one with 48 seconds remaining.

“I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing with JK and Wiggs together,” Kerr said. “They struggled together early in the season but we’re trying to streamline some things and having them out there with Draymond, Steph and either BP, Klay or or Dario so we have an extra shooter and playmaking lineup was good tonight and good last night, too.”

The defensive miscommunication that made Kuminga and Wiggins a nightmare pairing early on this season are smoothed out with Green directing the traffic at center. Playing Green at center with those two also keeps open a spot for another scorer to space the floor.

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“Our challenge this whole year is continuity and finding out what our identity is,” Curry said. “The rotations and understanding we have so many injuries with the revolving door there and guys trying to understand or having an expected role every night. It’s been helpful to have certain looks we can go to and develop a chemistry there. That’s our challenge, to continue to self-assess.”

A dynasty built on consistency is still in search of one thing that sticks. There have been little hopes, and this lineup that looks good on paper — two young, athletic wings, two great shooters and a mastermind — may be just another glimmer. But a heartbreaking loss this Warriors team didn’t use to lose makes some sense in this new reality.

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