Death of a dynasty: Warriors' playoff hopes crushed by Kings, marking the end of an era

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Stephen Curry finally got an open look, finally curled around a screen to unleash one of those momentum-seizing, crowd-quieting moonballs into the night.

The beleaguered look on his exhausted face wasn’t emblematic of the result of the shot — it went in — but the official’s whistle blew to halt any thought Curry’s moment could turn into a movement.

An offensive foul on Warriors rookie Brandin Podziemski was what sprung him open.

This is what the death of a dynasty looks like. New faces, unable to fully capture the rhythm of a precise timing offense. Old faces, unable to capture championship form that created the images tattooed in our minds over the last decade.

The Golden State Warriors wore the jerseys of a champion, and at times this season could conjure streaks producing optimism, but the end was just, swift and decisive at the hands of the bloodthirsty Sacramento Kings.

Night, night.

The Warriors needed two road wins to qualify for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs but didn't come close to meeting the first requirement, their season ending at Golden 1 Center on Tuesday night, 118-94.

If the ending was ugly, and it was certainly a comedy of errors, mishaps and slow movements, the offseason could match their play-in efforts. There’s a clarity to this that wasn’t around when they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the semifinals last May.

The specter of the Draymond Green-Jordan Poole incident hung over the then-defending champions’ heads and spirits all last season, and no resolution was to come until the summer when Poole was traded.

There’s no such excuse this time around, no way to rationalize the ifs so many teams convince themselves of after an earlier-than-expected dismissal from competition. It was a deep team, with signs of promise. Somewhere within the mix of old and young was a good team, but it was going to be impossible for a coach to locate — a perfect job is what was required to pull the Warriors from the muck and back to prominence, and perfection, even for champions multiple times over, is unrealistic.

Balancing the emergence of Podziemski and Johnathan Kuminga and Moses Moody and others with the needs of the veterans is an impossible task.

The emotions of the night were raw, but it didn’t obscure what we all saw, what they all felt. All the principles were in agreement.

“Physically took it to us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They dominated us physically … total domination, they deserved it tonight. Give them the credit.”

For years, the Warriors didn’t have to be bigger than anyone else — they were faster to the ball, quicker with reflexes, and ready when inflection points came to turn momentum or snatch away hope.

Curry could see it himself, pointing out the Kings got every 50-50 ball. It’s a statement that’s almost cliche at this point, losing teams saying the margin between that end result and getting to the other side is minute. But on this night, it symbolized everything the Warriors no longer have, everything other teams have figured out by watching.

With every Warriors championship run, teams were picking up cues. Vestiges of championship DNA were left on the floors of vanquished challengers, other franchises plucked away key personnel from the Bay Area to divulge the secrets.

You could see it in the hugs Curry gave after the final buzzer, embracing former teammate Leandro Barbosa, a member of the Kings coaching staff. Kings veteran forward Harrison Barnes won a championship with the Warriors in 2015, then departed when Kevin Durant was headed there. Kings coach Mike Brown was a trusted assistant to Kerr for years before taking the Kings job a year ago, and after watching Curry explode for that 50-ball in Game 7 last year, the game plan was devised to prevent the same result.

Curry was facing a pass rush, and found no lanes. If it wasn’t one set of hands, it was another. If it wasn’t these Kings, it would’ve been someone else, long limbed and confident, desperate to knock off NBA royalty.

“Tonight was an extreme version, they remember what happened last year,” Curry said. “I know Mike B and the way he approaches the defensive end. It doesn’t surprise me there were bodies everywhere. Tip your hat to them. They took it to us the whole game, no way around it.”

Curry insisted he was fresh, that he would be ready for a playoff game if one was to be played Friday, even if he struggled the last two months of the year.

“I’m built for this and I put so much time in. There’s no sympathy, ‘oh you had this burden to carry.’ I did everything in my power to be available and perform at the level I expect of myself. Again, I just want to win and be in the best situation possible to make that happen.”

It’s been a hell of a ride, the way the Warriors have changed basketball forever. The dancing on their graves only exists because of the broken hearts and damaged psyches along the way.

In an era where dynasties aren’t supposed to exist in professional sports, this one has endured longer than any expected. This Warriors team has gone through various iterations of itself, players going from youthful and fresh to aging and atrophied, and it even had to withstand a real death in the unexpected passing of assistant coach Dejan Milojević in January.

It all takes a toll, the memories of the great moments still so rich, and the pain of what comes on the back end of sweat equity still so fresh.

“We've been through a lot of incredible highs. Some s***ty lows,” Draymond Green said. “But the common denominator through is that we've gone through each and every scenario together.”

Green was referencing his teammate who faces unrestricted free agency in July, Klay Thompson. Thompson stuck around on the floor, taking in the scene following the disappointing loss with full awareness this could be his last game in a Warriors uniform.

And if it was, the taste will be hard to replace for someone so proud and resilient. The man who returned from back-to-back ACL and Achilles injuries, the 34-year old who had a resurgent post-All Star break (18.9 points, 45 percent shooting, 41 percent from 3) couldn’t buy a basket when the Warriors needed some relief for Curry. Thompson missed all 10 of his shots, including six from 3-point range, in 32 minutes.

Still, though, there was the acknowledgment from Curry and Green and Kerr that Thompson is needed. It was the first time that trio has been together and healthy that it didn’t qualify for the NBA playoffs.

“I don’t think there’s any scenario where Klay leaves and that’s the best decision for this team and organization,” Green said. “They’ve shown nothing but respect, loyalty, trust. They did right by me. They did right by Steph, done right by all of us. Klay tore his ACL (in the 2019 NBA Finals). They paid him $160 million.”

“We need Klay back,” Kerr said. “I know he had a tough night tonight but what he represents for us, the spacing. He’s still got good years left. I know I speak for everybody, we want him back.”

“I couldn’t see myself, not with those two guys,” Curry said. “I understand the league changes and you’re not gonna play forever. But they want to win, I want to win. That’s all I’m worried about.”

The reality of the NBA beckons, the salary cap restrictions loom. Yes, the Warriors have deep pockets and an endless reservoir of resources but players get more expensive as they age, and veteran point guard Chris Paul has a non-guaranteed $30 million option the team has to decide on — which could bring relief on the books, but pull them further away from contention.

They’re below one of the two restrictive luxury tax aprons, but that’s without Thompson or draft picks.

And then there’s the other reality that’s connected to the financials, where parity is said aloud — Green acknowledged it in his postgame presser.

Kerr said 46 wins would’ve been enough, in a normal year, to be in the middle of the playoff picture.

But this isn’t a normal year — not in the NBA and certainly not in the Western Conference. And for a team like the Warriors, next year doesn’t sound so appealing — it feels like this could be an ushering of them closer to the bottom than they already are, being 10th of 15 teams.

“I view that as the league has gotten better. You’re either getting better or getting worse, and I think the league has improved,” Green said. “I don’t necessarily view it as, next year if we got 46, we would be the four seed or the six seed. We gotta figure it out.”

Green snaps his fingers, saying he could count off six wins his team gave away — and honestly, it’s probably more. Green’s early-season suspension and later, sabbatical for on-floor incidents certainly didn’t help, and it’s unrealistic to expect for him to turn into a model citizen over the next couple years, regardless of circumstances.

Curry has been Green’s advocate through it all, and it figures he’ll stand up for Thompson when the time comes. He kept repeating the phrase “I want to win,” kept that steely stare but it’s a tough task to fight off natural time and a league that continues to evolve while you’re trying to play the old hits.