We’re a little less than a week in to the first round of the NBA Playoffs, and so far things are progressing mostly as anticipated. Teams that were expected to dominate their first-round opponents—Denver, Boston, and Philadelphia, for example—are thus far doing so, while both 4–5 series (Cleveland vs. New York in the Eastern Conference, Phoenix vs. the L.A. Clippers in the West) are knotted at 1–1. The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks lost their first game to the Miami Heat, although after the Bucks’ emphatic trouncing of Miami on Wednesday, Milwaukee appears on their way to righting the ship.
The closest thing we have to a surprising development is happening out West in the late games, where the Sacramento Kings have jumped out to a 2–0 lead against the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors. On paper this doesn’t seem like it should be any sort of stunning turn: The Kings are the 3-seed, and therefore are hypothetically supposed to win this series. But these are the Warriors, winners of four titles in eight years, the greatest team of the 21st century, and before this year, the Kings hadn’t even appeared in a playoff game since 2006. Many, many people expected the Warriors to win this series handily—in an ESPN poll of 18 NBA reporters and analysts, 16 picked the Warriors to defeat the Kings, with many predicting they’d do so in six games. Instead the Kings won both games on their home floor, and on Thursday night will attempt to take a 3–0 lead in San Francisco, in a game in which the Warriors will be without their mercurial lynchpin Draymond Green, who was suspended on Wednesday for stomping on Kings center Domantas Sabonis during an under-the-basket scrum in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
Make no mistake: It’s completely possible that Golden State wins both of the next two at home and ends up winning this series in six or seven, and from there gets their groove back and ends up running through the Western Conference like they did last season. But right now, that seems very unlikely.
Through their first two games, Golden State has appeared both unmoored and outmatched in ways we’ve never really seen from a healthy playoff version of these Warriors. Golden State has struggled with consistency and focus all season, as evidenced in their brutal 11–30 road record. Still, many of us assumed that they were simply coasting or otherwise taking it easy after last season’s grueling championship campaign. Once the playoffs arrived, the real Warriors would emerge. Right?
Ernest Hemingway’s famous description of bankruptcy—that it happens “gradually, then suddenly”— also tends to apply to the end stages of sports dynasties. Stars get older, role players get restless, little moves around the edges don’t pan out like they once did, and then one day you’re just no longer the best. Now that they are two losses away from going home for good, all of the rockier aspects of the Warriors’ 2022-23 season—the road woes, the injuries and absences, the incessant speculation on the future of the team’s front office—now seem less like quirky stumbles and more like harbingers.
The future certainly doesn’t look as bright as it did at this time last year. The Warriors’ trio of star players who’ve been the backbone of those four title teams—Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry—are all in their mid-30s. Green is a free agent after this season, and there is rampant speculation that his Warriors tenure may be nearing its end; Thompson is eligible for a contract extension, but it remains to be seen if the team will offer him one to his satisfaction. It wasn’t long ago that the Warriors were touting an ambitious “two timelines” plan of winning now with their stars while simultaneously developing blue-chip youngsters to take over the winning ways in the future, but this hasn’t really worked out. In February, Golden State unceremoniously jettisoned 2020’s second overall draft pick James Wiseman to Detroit, and 2021 lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody haven’t taken the second-year leaps forward that the team was hoping for. Even 2019 draft pick Jordan Poole, who just last season seemed to be an emerging star, seems to have stagnated, a concerning development for a player whose four-year, $140 million contract extension doesn’t even kick in until next season.
It’s grimly fitting that everything once again comes back to Green, a brilliant player who’s bound for the Hall of Fame but who has long had a penchant for self-destructive mischief. Back in 2016, Green was the recipient of arguably the most consequential suspension in playoff history when he was banned from Game 5 of the Finals after punching LeBron James in the nuts in the closing minutes of a Golden State blowout. LeBron’s Cavs won Game 5 and went on to win Games 6 and 7, snatching a championship from the 73-win Warriors, who’d once held a 3–1 series lead.
And Green, too, was at the center of things before the start of this Warriors season, when a video leaked of him decking guard Jordan Poole during a preseason practice. That incident has lingered over the Warriors for all of this underwhelming campaign, and now Green finds himself once again in the most undesired kind of spotlight. Green’s Game 3 suspension will continue to be controversial, as will the league’s rather remarkable acknowledgement that the suspension was based in part on Green’s “history of unsportsmanlike acts,” an admission that suggests the league is fed up with his antics and will from here forward be holding him to a different standard of on-court behavior. (One has to imagine that this detail did not escape the attention of the Warriors or any other team who might be considering offering Green a sizable new contract this summer.)
Game 3 isn’t literally a must-win for the Warriors, but it’s about as close as you can get: No NBA team has ever come back from a 3–0 deficit, and winning without Green is still markedly more difficult than winning with him. At 33, he isn’t quite the player he once was, but he’s still critically important to the Warriors. He’s one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the sport (he’ll likely be named to his eighth all-defensive team in the coming weeks) and an indispensable totem of the team’s identity on that end of the floor. The fact that he’s no longer much of a scorer tends to obscure how important he is to the team’s offense as a passer and initiator as well. The Warriors play faster and more fluidly when Green is on the court.
Again, it’s entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, that the Warriors win on Thursday and all of this becomes a footnote, at least for the immediate future. They are a fantastic home-court team, even in this relatively cursed year, and Curry and Thompson don’t tend to shy away from the moment. If they lose, though, “suddenly” might have arrived even more suddenly than anyone expected