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The Warriors are beatable, even once they start caring again

Golden State ended its season with a whimper. They will roar back. But the margin of error is much smaller than last season.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In case there was any question that the Golden State Warriors cared how they looked in their season finale Tuesday night, they lost by 40 points to the Utah Jazz. Yes, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all played. (Stephen Curry is a week away from having his health evaluated.) The Warriors simply got run out of the building, down the street, and across state lines by the Jazz.

The silver lining is Golden State will not have to deal with Utah in the first round of the coming NBA playoffs. The Warriors would probably be glad to never see the Jazz again.

But chances are the Warriors have a tough opponent in the first round, solely because there are no easy outs in the West these days. Some matchups work out to be less frightening than others, and all of that will be settled late Wednesday when the rest of the league wraps its regular season.

Should the Warriors survive the first round — and they will be overwhelmingly favored to do so — another tough test (perhaps the Jazz!) will wait in the second round. Should Golden State advance from there, there’s a strong likelihood that the toughest test of all, the 65-win Houston Rockets, will be waiting. Should the Warriors survive even that, the team that comes out of the East — LeBron James’ Cavaliers, the Raptors, or maybe the magical and spicy Philadelphia 76ers — should give a good battle.

Last year, the playoffs felt like a long coronation for the Warriors. In fact, they were. Golden State was overwhelmingly favored to come out on top before the playoffs began, and the team went 16-1 in the postseason en route to the championship.

This year feels nothing like that. Curry’s injury is a major factor, of course, but he’s expected back in the second round. Even if he had played in the last few days, the Warriors wouldn’t look unbeatable. That feeling dissipated before Curry went down. Golden State has been flat for months, unable to consistently produce the juice that fueled them in the previous three regular seasons. Nothing has been able to shake the malaise out of the Warriors.

The playoffs should.

There is a question of whether the Warriors can flip the proverbial switch burbling about. The answer is obvious: yes. Golden State is too good, too smart, and too well-coached to sleepwalk through the playoffs. These guys have all been around long enough to know you don’t mess around this time of year. March and April games without real bearing on the standings are one thing. Game 1s and Game 3s and close-out opportunities — those are different. You don’t mess with those.

There is a switch controlling effort and attention and focus, and it will be flipped the next time you see the Warriors in action.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The real question isn’t whether Golden State will do that. It’s whether that will be enough.

Houston is ridiculously good. A healthy Rockets team could give a healthy Warriors team a series. Houston wouldn’t be favored, and in fact the odds might tilt heavily toward Golden State. But no team last season was as good as the Rockets are this season. Right there, that narrows the Warriors’ margin of error. The competition is better.

Those important supplemental pieces that Golden State so often relies on in the playoffs, like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and David West? They are getting older and less effective. We’re three years removed from Iguodala winning NBA Finals MVP. Does anyone think he’s capable of doing that again at this point? Paying role players after championships is always perilous; the Warriors couldn’t avoid the trap.

(For the record, the Cavaliers are trapped right there with them. Hello, J.R. Smith.)

Then there’s Curry. Zito Madu wrote a smart piece tying the Warriors’ very identity with Curry’s presence. He’s right. The Warriors can still be phenomenal — in fact, can still be champions — without Curry. Durant, Thompson, and Green are that good.

But what makes the Warriors THE WARRIORS, what gives them an essence of revolutionary power and an aura of inevitability is Curry. (The inevitability of Curry’s Warriors is part of what made James’ 2016 victory so special. That and, well, everything else that happened.)

We expect Curry will be back. We think we have a sense of when. But in what state? Under what minutes restrictions? How will Durant adjust if he had been carrying the Warriors to that point? Will Curry be able to defend as well as he may need to against a murderer’s row of point guards? Will the injury have knock-on exhaustion (physical and emotional) effects for him and everyone, like it did in 2016? Will it lead to less aggressiveness? Will Curry not even be CURRY when he returns?

No team would keep their status as the title favorite after losing an MVP-caliber player. Most teams would be dead in the water. How telling that for the Warriors, it only nudges them closer to beatable.

That is where we are, though.

The Warriors are beatable, even though they will performs much better in the playoffs than they have over the last month. “Who will win the 2018 NBA Championship?” is an open question, albeit one with a painfully narrow field of reasonable answers.

Of course Golden State will flip the proverbial switch and play smart, hard basketball in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean it’s enough to overcome their new weaknesses or the newly tough competition.

Nothing is certain here anymore.