Thompson: Now, we learn if these Warriors are championship worthy after getting embarrassed in Memphis

Thompson: Now, we learn if these Warriors are championship worthy after getting embarrassed in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The characteristics of the past championship teams have just been imputed onto this edition of the Warriors. Largely because the three best players — Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are still in the core — it is often concluded this is a continuation of the dynastic era of three titles and five consecutive trips to the Finals.

Now, we find out if these Warriors are worthy of such expectations. The 134-95 loss to the Grizzlies in Game 5 calls their merit into question.

“It was awful,” Thompson said. “Embarrassing.”

This isn’t about ability. The Warriors can beat Memphis. Without a doubt, Golden State can finish the Grizzlies in the sixth game of the series on Friday at Chase Center. The smart money is on them doing so. But how much of that is projection? A presumption this squad has the same constitution of yesteryear? They could very well win this series. The bigger question if they do, though, is whether they have that extra whatever it takes to win a championship. Titles require more than talent. Maybe this becomes a pivotal moment in this collective’s ascension. Maybe they need to get whooped to expose the parts they need to rectify for the rockier roads ahead. Maybe we look back on this as the moment that forced them to become who they needed to be. That’s the most optimistic view of Game 5.

The way they unraveled Wednesday, it’s hard not to wonder if this version is understood of the same fabric that went into Houston and closed out the Rockets on their home court in 2019. If it has the hunger of the Warriors who bounced back against Cleveland in the 2015 Finals, the fortitude to pull magic from their depths against Oklahoma City in 2016, the killer instinct of the 2017 championship squad that set out to demolish.

Nothing about Wednesday’s performance suggests these Warriors are of that ilk. Though many will conclude Game 5 is the evidence of what they’re made of, Curry said the real answer will come in Game 6.

“How the team responds,” Curry said. “Because, apparently, we got beat like this before. Somebody said last year Milwaukee lost by 39 in the playoffs at some point and figured out how to make the necessary adjustments. I think we’ve shown we’re a resilient team this year. We haven’t had a situation where, basically, for 46 minutes of the game you’re just getting demolished. But I feel like we have the right mindset, the right approach, all the tools we need to show who we really are in Game 6. That’s the test or the challenge. Being able to show who we really are.”

The talk after the game was about flushing this defeat down the toilet. But the truth is, the Warriors need this one to go in the compost bin. They need it to become fertilizer for the kind of tenacity they will need the rest of the way.

For sure, Memphis played like a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Grizzlies were driven by a sense of pride, determined not to get punked on their home court. They simply couldn’t bear losing in five games to the Warriors, and having the team they’ve talked so much trash to essentially embarrass them on their own court. But in the process of staving off elimination, they found the underbelly of the Warriors.

When the Warriors have buckled down this series, they’ve been able to get a lot of what they want against Memphis. It’s been tougher to accomplish though, even without Morant, as this series has progressed. The Warriors had incentive to end this series in five games. It would have been to their advantage to get a couple days off while Phoenix and Dallas Duke it out. First, though, getting rid of the Grizzlies is going to tougher than many thought. But even if they do, it’s hard not to watch their absence of a response and wonder if the elements of their demise were exposed.

Without Ja Morant, the Grizzlies play a particular brand of basketball that is antithetical to the Warriors’ offensive approach. Memphis is already a tough matchup for the Warriors because it has a the components to attack Golden State’s strength. They prey on passing and feed on turnovers. So the more passes the Warriors make, the more opportunity the Grizzlies have to do what they do best — deflect, jump into passing lanes and rack up the steals. Through five games of this series, the Warriors are averaging 11.8 turnovers in the first half.

The answer, if the Warriors are determined to run the same offense, is to be strong with the ball. The answer is to be determined and resolved with their moves. The answer is to punish the Grizzlies’ aggressiveness is with aggression. On Wednesday, the Warriors did nothing of the sort.

One of the issues with the Morant-less Grizzlies is the presence of big men. The insertion of steven adams in this series, alongside Jaren Jackson Jr., has all but closed off the rim for the Warriors. In the first three games of the series, the Warriors countered the Grizzlies’ aggressiveness by attacking the paint. But what was once an open lane is now filled with New Zealand bulk. And Jackson flying in from wherever he is on the court to protect the rim.

So with the Grizzlies chasing the Warriors off the line, and the bigs of Memphis turning them away at the rim, where do the Warriors turn? As Green said, the Warriors have been sped up all series. The Grizzlies’ defense has them feeling like someone is always coming. So even when they are open, they are rushing.

“We have to understand that their length and their athleticism is an advantage that they have,” said Mike Brown, filling in for Steve Kerr for the second consecutive game. “Their quickness. And we have to — have to — settle down on the offensive end of the floor to try to limit them.”

Where is the mettle to not be so fazed by their pressure? Where is the resolveness to get to their spots? Where is the willingness to meet them at the rim and challenge Memphis instead of ceding the inside?

They’d better find it for Game 6. Or they could be looking at a Game 7 in Memphis on Monday.

It would be easy to look at this game and have doubts that the Grizzlies can put together another performance like this. They made 18 3s and shot 30 free throws. They got up 19 more attempts than the Warriors and shot a better percentage. It was a perfect night. But the Grizzlies don’t have to be perfect. Their plan is just to be tough, and make it tough on the Warriors. They just have to keep it close. And we’ve seen the Warriors get tight at home in this series, and at points throughout this season. The Morant-less Grizzlies had the Warriors on the ropes in Game 4.

These Warriors have a habit of playing with their food. Their collective nonchalance leaves them vulnerable to opponents getting hot, to cold spells, to pouring hope into teams they should beat. Even the stubbornness of their approach can doom them at times. They can lose Game 6 in Chase Center, and doing so validates the idea they aren’t serious contenders for a championship yet.

And if that’s true, if they are only proving they have levels to climb, then Memphis is giving them a taste of where they have to grow. Without Green playing well — he’s averaging four turnovers in 26.2 minutes in this series — and without Thompson and Curry lighting it up from 3-point range, the Warriors need the rest of the team to produce at levels worthy of the moment. Jordan Poole did not do that in Game 5. Neither did Andrew Wiggins. Even Otto Porter Jr. had a rough night.

Such is truly what makes a championship team. It’s not just the top-end talent, as vital as they are. But it’s how all of them coalesce. This is their high-level adversity together. This is the first time their backs are against the walls. They lose in Game 6 and ghosts of past 3-1 leads will show up to haunt the current iteration.

The Warriors can erase all that with a dominant performance in Game 6. The truth is, they’ve answered just about everything Memphis has thrown at them in this series. For a moment Wednesday, it looked as if they were going to do it again.

The game was taking shape in the way the first four had. The Grizzlies got off to a hot start, making seemingly everything they threw up while jumping out to an early lead. The Warriors steadied the ship and methodically climbed their way back into the game.

The Warriors trailed by just a point, 29-28 after a Thompson 3-pointer with 1:21 left in the first quarter. The Grizzlies closed the quarter on a 9-0 run, then scored the first basket of the second quarter. Goal back-to-back 3s by Thompson and Damion Lee had the Warriors still within eight points. With Memphis starters on the bench, this is the time when the Warriors have begun to wear down the Grizzlies. Impose their will. You just knew that somehow, once again, the Warriors would have the lead at the half, or be within striking distance. And all of the energy and momentum of the Grizzlies would inevitably fade. And they would have to beat the Warriors, who had weathered their best punch.

But what was happening wasn’t the Warriors’ flexing mettle. It was the Grizzlies taking a deep breath before loading up the haymaker. Memphis closed the half on a 35-17 run to take a 77-50 lead at halftime. After that, the Warriors showed little fight. They didn’t come out of the locker room with extra urgency. They didn’t have the swagger of a team that is never out of it. They didn’t have enough of anything to keep it respectable.

They just completely folded. It’s not the first time a game has gotten away from the Warriors. But it’s the first time this rendition of the Warriors has been pummeled like this in a playoff game and had the opposing crowd dance on their ruins.

If that doesn’t get the best out of them, we have our answer about this team.

(Photo by Stephen Curry: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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