The Warriors were about 30 minutes removed from chiseling out a 119-116 win over the Utah Jazz late Monday night and coach Steve Kerr, his postgame media obligations completed, was ready to vacate the podium. He had an appointment to meet.
“I’m going to go have a beer right now,” he said, grinning.
Asked when he would begin thinking about the next game, Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns, who own the second-best record in the NBA, Kerr skipped half a beat.
“Maybe on my second beer,” he said, laughing.
The postgame brew was less about celebration than exhaling. The Warriors built an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost all of it and more to the team with the best record in the NBA before redeeming themselves by outscoring Utah 5-0 inside the final 15 seconds.
So take a moment to let the sweat dry. The Suns can wait.
But not for long.
Sweeping the top two teams in the Western Conference easily would be Golden State’s most impressive statement of the season. It would confirm peaking. Though it didn’t seem conceivable a few weeks ago, it suddenly does now.
“We understand that Phoenix is at the hotel down the street, resting up,” Stephen Curry said. “So, it will be a good mental test for us to overcome the back-to-back situation and go out and back this up and validate what we did tonight.”
The Warriors are finding themselves at the right time, winning 12 of their last 17. There can’t be a better launching pad to the Suns than beating the Jazz, whose 50-19 record has them only one-and-a-half games ahead of Phoenix. Getting these two teams on back-to-back nights puts a different spin on the term “power couple.”
If the Warriors want maintain sole possession of the No. 8 spot and also get the full attention of the seven teams above them in the Western Conference standings, a sweep would do the trick.
And Curry will be out for blood. He’s facing longtime frenemy Chris Paul, the terrific point guard whose arrival in Phoenix has lifted the franchise from a decade in the NBA outback. Seeing the Suns go from 19-63 two seasons ago to 34-39 last season to 48-20 this season justifies the smattering of MVP chatter coming his way.
“Phoenix has had a phenomenal year,” Kerr said. “I’m really happy for them, just knowing a lot of people who are in that organization, having worked there. It’s been a long haul, but they’ve really built something special. And they’ve done it from the ground up, through the draft. And then, of course, making the trade for Chris really put them over the top.
“They’ve got a great team. They’ve beaten us pretty badly twice, so hopefully we can show a little better tomorrow.”
No opponent has destroyed the Warriors like the Suns, who won by 21 on Jan. 28 and by 22 on March 4. Both games, however, were in Phoenix. A third meeting, in San Francisco, in the final week of the regular season, should give the Warriors perhaps their most penetrating look at themselves.
They have 33 losses, 18 of which have been by double digits. They’ve beaten excellent teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers and the Jazz twice in three tries.
The Warriors have glimpsed their ceiling. Only to have it collapse a game or two later. Every time. At no point this season has Golden State won consecutive games against a contender. This is the last chance, and it comes with an ulterior motive.
“If we take care of our business and get in the bracket, we’ll probably be playing one of them in the first round,” Curry noted, referring to a victory in the play-in game that, if they remain the No. 8, would earn them the No. 7 seed and a series against the No. 2 seed
“It’s just a good experience to come off the OKC games, where we handled our business,” Curry said. “But these are two different tests.“This will be a good one tomorrow. Win or lose, we’ll be ready.”
If “ready” translates to triumph, it will be the highlight of the regular season for the Warriors. Which ought to be enough to allow Kerr to reach for a beer with his mind at peace. At least temporarily.