SACRAMENTO — The Warriors believe in appeasing the proverbial basketball gods. Their fealty towards the hardwood’s higher power is part of their ethos, at the core of the rampant success they’ve had over the last decade. They constantly pay tribute with selfless screens, extra passes and running the floor hard. All in the name of “playing the right way” and “not cheating the game” and “strength in numbers.”
Tuesday night, they sinned. Against Moses.
Moses Moody, by the Warriors’ own belief system, should’ve closed that game against the Kings. He earned at least a few more minutes. Because in the Warriors’ denomination, the hot hand gets fed and, especially with this year’s depth, those playing the best stay on the court.
Against Sacramento, with Golden State’s In-Season Tournament hopes fading, with a once-24-point lead trending towards a loss, with two critical injuries altering their rotation, Moody was a revelation. He scored 11 points in 7 minutes to start the fourth quarter. He was 4-for-4 shooting, not counting the two 3-pointers he made that were negated by off-the-ball fouls. He made everything he threw up.
Then, suddenly, he was on the bench. He’d just hit his third straight 3-pointer when he was taken out for Andrew Wiggins. A casualty of loyalty.
“Moses was awesome tonight,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We needed (Wiggins) on the floor for defense against (De’Aaron) Fox, and we decided to go with Klay (Thompson) and our vets. We thought about keeping him out there. But we made the move that we made.”
Their core players, their champions, then proceeded to squander the victory in crunch time, swallowing a hard 124-123 loss from the hands of their NorCal rivals. The Warriors went with their best lineup, the one that was great last year, the same collection of players that was central to delivering a championship just 17 months ago. They chose resumes over results.
It cost them the game. The way they lost — a whistle that grew increasingly sensitive, some unconscionable turnovers and a suddenly frigid offense — felt like a rebuke from the basketball gods. It was a meltdown of epic proportions, as epic as can be this early in the season, costing them a shot at the NBA Cup and eventually the game.
To be clear, the Warriors didn’t lose that game because of that substitution at the 4:26 mark of the fourth quarter. They were up a basket with their best players on the court, including Steph Curry. They should be able to win that game. It’s fair to expect them to.
For the record, putting Wiggins back in the game made perfect sense. This wasn’t the struggling Wiggins. This was the 2022 playoffs version of Wiggins. He was stellar on this night.
But if you believe in the Warriors’ ideology about basketball, it was clear that spiritual violation was at the center of this latest collapse. Perhaps it’s the basketball gods prodding them to do some soul-searching.
Because, once again, they’ve got a youngster pushing the incumbents. Actually, they might have a couple of them currently in Moody and Brandin Podziemski. They’d love a third, Jonathan Kuminga, to put them in this kind of betwixt. For the first time in this era, it’s clear their best players aren’t nearly as automatic as they used to be. They don’t seem dominant enough anymore, their roster isn’t constructed aptly enough to summarily dismiss youthfulness on principle.
Warriors’ loss to Kings was a ‘gut-punch’ but Steve Kerr says there’s no ‘free fall’
The pressure is on them to perform or be fine with the nights the youngsters earn those minutes. The pressure is on Kerr to give the youngsters the rope they deserve, especially knowing that over the last couple of years, the superstars are as likely to blow a game as they are to take it over.
The Warriors lost this game because of their desperation to get their best players going as a unit. A fair and reasonable plan until Moody presented them with a reason to change it. This was a tangible instance of their dedication to their past champions costing them in the present.
The truth, though, is their chances at another championship must include the youngsters. And, fundamentally, must include a willingness to go in the direction necessary to win. Their legends can’t just will themselves to victory like they once did. Sure, at times, they can be brilliant. It just doesn’t come on cue, as they still seem to think. They are older. The league is better. The horizon line is visible.
At their best, the Warriors are formidable. There is no question about it. Fully healthy, the Warriors can be a problem. The issue, though, is recognizing their vulnerability when they are not at their best. And that’s more often now. Just when they thought they were getting healthy, two players — Chris Paul and Gary Payton II — went down on Tuesday.
“We’re a team that, obviously, every piece matters with the way that we’re built,” Curry said.
Knowing that their strength really is in their numbers, they perhaps need to lean into that earnestly.
This won’t be the last time Kerr is faced with this tough decision. Because everything about Moody’s play this year screams “I’m coming.” The same feels true for Podziemski. Though Kuminga hasn’t maximized his opportunities, it still feels possible for him to force his way in.
Moody’s rise feels especially imminent because he’s paid his dues. He abides by the Warriors’ prescribed tenants. He handles the uncertainty of his career with the kind of class they rave about. It was just last April when Curry had to give a speech about buying in. He wasn’t talking to Moody. They laud Little Rock’s finest for his professionalism and unselfishness.
“It’s just the way he is as a human being,” said point guard Cory Joseph, a 13-year vet with vast experience as a reserve. “That’s just how he is. He’s very professional. He approaches the game with a great mindset. Obviously, he’s very talented and skilled, but the reason why he does as well as he does is because of the way he approaches it.”
The other thing about Moody and Podziemski is they fill glaring holes in the roster. The Warriors do not have a second player who can just go create offense, go get a bucket or set someone else up for one. They have shotmakers. But they don’t have creators. They don’t have anyone who puts pressure on the rim consistently outside of Curry. When the Warriors double-teamed Fox on Tuesday, Kings guard Malik Monk went to work attacking off the dribble.
Golden State leans heavily on the system to create offense. Wiggins at his best can go get a bucket, but ideally against proper matchups, and they’re usually just for him. Paul’s ability to get to his midrange jumper figured to be a huge value add, but he hasn’t pulled it out as much.
The issue with that reality for the Warriors is they’re prone to go cold. After making 12 of 25 from 3 in the first half, they probably should’ve expected a shooting slump in the second half (5 of 16). When the opposing defense ratchets up and the legs get heavy at the end of games, the probability of their shots dips. That’s why Moody should be playing. He’s shooting 38 percent from 3 this year, 49.5 percent from the field. Like the other scorers, he doesn’t create much offense. But he gives them another guy who can make good offense pay off.
They needed it badly Tuesday against the Kings. Sacramento was rallying, going from getting run out of the gym to surging towards the NBA Cup. And on his first touch of the fourth quarter, Moody blew past Monk on a baseline drive, dunking with two hands for his first points of the game. The next time down, he rattled home a wide-open 3 from the left corner. It was wiped away by an off-the-ball foul.
Three-plus minutes later, the Warriors’ once-huge lead trimmed to two, Moody got the same look from the same corner. Drilled it.
“The shot was just feeling good,” Moody said. “After I hit the first one that didn’t count, then I hit the second one in the same spot, I was feeling it from there.”
That was proven out by two more 3s, one off the dribble and another answering a 3 by Kings’ sharp-shooter Sasha Vezenkov.
Needed a bucket
Moses delivered. pic.twitter.com/1gdIzlvrfp
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) November 29, 2023
We’ve seen Moody get hot before. We’ve seen him come up big for the Warriors in spots. It should be understood that when Moody gets going, he’s a plus on the court.
But 29 seconds after his third 3-pointer, Moody was back on the bench.
That was the plan all along. Kerr told Moody he’d be out of the rotation with the return of Draymond Green. But the injuries to Paul in the first quarter and to Payton in the third quarter opened a door for Moody to play.
Mr. Stay Ready came in, made an immediate impact, and was on a heater while the other Warriors had cooled off. He deserved a chance to see where this night was headed. The only thing that might’ve been hurt if Moody stayed on the court was someone’s pride. But the Warriors are always preaching sacrifice. Their essence is to not be held hostage by ego.
But the Warriors’ title hopes definitely rest on their best players. The plan was clearly to get them going. They played exceedingly well in the first half. All that was left was for them to close the deal. So Kerr went to them for crunch time, violating their own code.
The basketball gods punished them with a meltdown they won’t soon forget. Repentance is in order.
(Photo: Randall Benton / AP)