Lodi News-Sentinel

Warriors face several big questions in their effort to avoid play-in

- Madeline Kenney

LOS ANGELES — The Warriors are on a mission to play beyond April 7. More specifical­ly, though, the goal should be to avoid the play-in tournament at all costs.

The Warriors (29-29) are stuck in play-in purgatory with only 24 games left of the regular season. FiveThirty­Eight gives the Warriors a 72% chance of making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning it all. While they have the 13th-best odds of making the postseason, they are still a top-seven favorite to claim the title.

Nothing about this season suggests a prolonged win streak is coming, though. The Warriors are projected by FiveThirty­Eight to finish 43-39, tied for the Western Conference’s sixth and final playoff spot.

The Warriors hold the belief that if they are healthy come playoff time, they have a shot in any seven-game series. But they’ve been far too inconsiste­nt this season to take their chances in a win-or-go-home scenario that they could face in the play-in tournament.

The Warriors are currently in ninth place and would need to leap three teams to make the playoffs outright. They’re a game behind the Dallas Mavericks, who are in sixth, and 2 1/2 games out of fourth place, which belongs to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Securing a top-six seed in the West is doable, but the Warriors will need to play a lot better in this final seven-week stretch than they did in the first four months of the season.

Keys for a postseason push, as outlined by Bay Area News Group reporter Shayna Rubin, include Andrew Wiggins returning to last year’s playoff form; Stephen Curry getting and staying healthy; and the continuous growth of Jonathan Kuminga.

The Warriors will play six games — all against Western Conference foes — in nine days out of the break, starting Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers, who upgraded their roster before the trade deadline. This stretch, which the Warriors will begin and possibly finish without Curry, could be a defining moment of their season.

Here are three looming questions the Warriors must answer:

Can Golden State improve its defense?

The Warriors have lost too many close games this season because they were unable to get enough stops down the stretch. That’s why fixing their janky defense continues to be the biggest concern for coach Steve Kerr and his staff.

Golden State’s past title runs have always been powered by its lock-down defense, but this year, the Warriors have posted their worst defensive rating in Draymond Green’s tenure.

Point-of-attack defense is the Warriors’ biggest problem. Opponents have had a heyday with Golden State’s foul trouble and slow rotations, which have led to open driving lanes or unconteste­d 3s.

The Warriors went out and got a strong defender in Gary Payton II at the trade deadline. It cost them No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, who was shipped to Detroit. But Payton won’t be making an impact anytime soon as he’s sidelined for at least a month with a core injury.

The Warriors, in need of a more immediate boost, reportedly expressed interest in Patrick Beverley, who was recently bought out by the Orlando Magic. But Beverely, a three-time All-Defensive team selection, decided to sign with his hometown team, the

Chicago Bulls.

That leaves the Warriors with what they have. Of course, Wiggins rediscover­ing his flow would improve the team’s defense. But the problem stems beyond just one player. It will take the whole team to buckle down and stay engaged on that side of the ball. Basketball, after all, is a possession game, and the Warriors need to honor that.

Will Jordan Poole turn it up a notch?

What the Warriors need from Jordan Poole most now is consistenc­y and focus on both ends of the court.

Poole is averaging 20.9 points, 4.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds, joining Kevon Looney as the only Warriors to play in every game so far this season. Poole’s offensive production and playmaking have been solid, but he needs to curb his turnover problem.

Turnovers have been a team-wide problem — they average 16.4 per game — but Poole has been the biggest culprit, committing 58 more than anyone else on the team.

Poole has struggled with the increased attention he’s getting from opposing defenses after last year’s breakout and in Curry’s absence. The added pressure has led him to be frantic with the ball at times, rushing to make plays. Naturally, Poole takes better care of the ball when he’s focused and playing within his game.

Poole turned a corner last year after the All-Star break. He left a slump in February and closed out the rest of the regular season as the

Curry-less team’s leading scorer. Will he have another end-of-season surge like that one?

What will they do with the 15th spot?

The Warriors have an open roster spot that they’re expected to fill by converting one of their two-way players, Ty Jerome or Anthony Lamb, to a guaranteed deal.

The Warriors have gotten plenty of use out of both and Jerome and Lamb have each made their own convincing arguments for the final slot.

With Curry out, Jerome has fit in quite nicely as a true backup point guard. Playing behind Poole, who moved into the primary playmaker position, Jerome averaged 7.7 points, 4.4 assists and two rebounds while committing only a total of four turnovers over the past seven games.

Meanwhile, Lamb has been an often-used insurance policy as the team’s frontcourt has been depleted by injuries over various stretches of the season. The 6-foot-6 forward has averaged 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 43 games this season.

Don’t expect the Warriors to make a decision on that 15th spot until they have to. Jerome and Lamb, under their current deals, can play up to 50 NBA games. Lamb is seven games away from reaching that threshold while Jerome, who’s played 36 games this season, has a little more leeway.

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