SAN FRANCISCO — LeBron James finalized another Warriors heartbreak at the free-throw line late Saturday night. Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson had already fouled out, leaving Steve Kerr without two of his primary options on James. That placed Cory Joseph and Brandin Podziemski in the fray.
James put a target on the rookie’s back. He got Podziemski switched onto him in the deciding possession, blasted past and muscled into a Draymond Green foul to earn two free throws with 1.2 seconds left in double overtime. He made both. That flipped the score. The Lakers won 145-144. It was the Warriors’ third overtime loss this season and second one-point loss this week.
“Lot of games have stung this year,” Thompson said.
This spirals the Warriors further down the crowded conference ladder. They’re 19-24, in 12th place, now three games back of a Lakers team that they could’ve pulled to within a game of Saturday night. They need seven fingers to count all their heartbreakers this season.
• Two overtime losses to the Thunder after leading by three in the final 10 seconds of both games. Chet Holmgren hit a 3 to tie it in San Francisco and three free throws to tie it in Oklahoma City.
• Two one-point losses to the Kings. They blew a four-point lead in the final 30 seconds in Sacramento and didn’t get a shot off down one against them in the final seconds Thursday night.
• Blew a 22-point lead to the Clippers in Los Angeles and watched Paul George ice them with a game-winning wing 3 with eight seconds left. Draymond Green missed a corner 3 at the buzzer.
• Blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic capped the comeback with a 40-foot rainbow bank at the buzzer.
• Blew a 15-point lead to the Lakers, including a nine-point cushion in the final four minutes of regulation. Had a chance to close it out in both overtimes and failed. James delivered the free-throw dagger that felt fitting given the game script.
“My Mom is here and I want to be on my best behavior,” a frustrated Kerr said after the game. “So I’m not going to comment on the 43 free throws to our 16. I’m not going to comment on Steph (Curry) shooting three free throws in 43 minutes.”
Steph Curry on the officiating in Lakers-Warriors tonight. He said he was frustrated with the inconsistencies. pic.twitter.com/5g6fLoARU5
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) January 28, 2024
Considering how jam-packed and competitive the West is this season, the hole might be too deep and the first few months too damaging. They’re now six games out of the sixth seed. The Warriors might be doomed. Saturday might’ve been another dramatic chapter in the dynasty’s fading days.
But there was a surprising glimmer of optimism emanating out of the home locker room after the loss to the Lakers. There are contextual reasons to believe the Warriors might be trending in the correct direction, even if they’re sprinting the opposite way in the standings.
Reason No. 1: Green. He has looked excellent since his return. Kerr and Rick Celebrini tried to keep him on a minutes restriction early, but he’s looked conditioned and been so needed that he’s blown through that. Green played 31 minutes against the Kings and 46 in the double-overtime loss to the Lakers.
Here’s the stunning stat: The Warriors were a plus-31 with Green on the floor against the Lakers and a minus-32 in the 12 minutes he sat. That is where they lost this game. They were unable to guard or even show any level of survival without him conducting the offense and holding the defense together.
Green is now this team’s starting center. It gives them a speedy, sharp identity that they’d been struggling to find all season. The Warriors are a plus-65 with Green on the floor in his first four games back and a minus-33 in Kevon Looney’s 49 minutes in those same four games. Looney played only five minutes against the Lakers. They were outscored by 14. Kerr went to Trayce Jackson-Davis in his place in the second half, and that’s where the playing time appears to be trending.
Reason No. 2: Green’s readiness to take over the starting center spot has allowed the Warriors to play Jonathan Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins together. Kuminga and Wiggins were such a disaster as a two-man combination most of the season — a minus-106 in 171 minutes before Green’s return — that Kerr declared it nearly impossible to pair them.
But circumstances change and Green changes circumstances. Because he holds up the backline and gives any lineup an extra ballhandler at the center spot, lineup combinations that include Kuminga, Wiggins and Green (without an extra big) appear to be working. In 77 minutes together since Green has been back, the Kuminga and Wiggins combination is a plus-27. But it’s deeper — 66 of those 77 minutes are also with Green. That trio is a plus-41.
This reality has led Kerr to his latest starting lineup, which profiles as their best chance to find a sustainable five-man unit that can both score and defend, start and finish: Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green. Expect them to stick with it for the foreseeable future.
“We’re trying to maximize the number of possessions that those guys play together,” Kerr said. “We’re in a position now with Wiggs playing at a high level and JK having come around, Klay, Steph, Draymond back after the suspension. We’re in a position where we can put those guys together and it’s probably our best five. So we want to maximize the number of possessions they have together.”
That has Kerr optimistic despite what the standings might suggest.
“I think we’re going to turn this around and have a great season,” Kerr said. “I really believe that. I love our guys, they’re amazing, they’ve been through so much this year, and I know who they are, I know how connected they are, I know how much they care about each other, and about the game. We’re going to turn it. Tonight we didn’t get the result but our guys showed who they are tonight.”
(Photo of Draymond Green blocking a shot by LeBron James in the third quarter Saturday: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)