DALLAS – Considering the circumstances that had just transpired -- a road win against a streaking team, courtesy of a game-winning 3-pointer from his star player in his second game back from injury -- it was perhaps a bit surprising that Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr stood outside the locker room, steaming mad.
He was in a hallway in the bowels of the American Airlines Center, surrounded by cameras. The reason for his ire wasn't the final outcome -- the Warriors have won 15 of their last 17 games, the hottest team in the NBA and, according to Vegas, nearly a two-to-one favorite to win the NBA title over the 29 other teams in the league -- but instead the way they got to that outcome. In the final 3:05 of the game the Warriors frittered away an 11-point lead through poor 3-point defense and ugly execution on offense.
Yes, it was recorded as a win in the standings.
But in Kerr's eyes, the first game of the new year -- where the Warriors start off with the NBA's most difficult January schedule, which includes eight road games and two home games in 18 days -- was less a win and more a near-loss.
"I liked Steph's three at the end," Kerr said. "The previous five, six, seven, eight plays maybe were an utter disaster. Completely mindless basketball. They made some big shots, but we were handing them the ball on a silver platter ... We escaped. But it shouldn't have been that hard."
This is the testament to the greatness of what the Warriors have done the past several years: That even when they accomplish something most teams would consider impressive -- a perfectly set screen by Draymond Green that gave the greatest shooter of all-time, Stephen Curry, enough space to nail a game-winning three to a gutsy Mavericks team on their home floor -- it can seem as if they failed. Their record 73-win regular season in 2015-16 will not be remembered for that greatness -- for it was, indeed, the greatest regular-season basketball team of all time -- but for the fact that Kyrie Irving hit a three in Game 7, and the Warriors fell short of the title. Their greatness this season, despite some nagging injuries -- to Curry, to Kevin Durant, to Green -- can be painted as the Warriors not quite living up to the sky-high preseason expectations put on them. The Warriors may be the hottest team in the NBA, but there's been plenty of chirping that their five home losses so far this season are the highest amount for a Steve Kerr-coached team over the course of a season.
It's the curse of greatness. Instead of merely competing against the rest of the NBA, the Warriors must, night in and night out, compete against themselves. This is a team that, like that 73-win team that lost a Finals they were leading 3-1, like the team that won the title last season, could go down as one of the greatest teams ever assembled. It's against that bar that the Warriors will be judged. And when their beautiful basketball misses the point by just a hair, it can become sloppy basketball – still good enough to beat most teams in the league on a given night, but not what we expect from a dynasty.
We have not seen the best of these 2017-18 Warriors -- not even close. Oh, we've seen glimpses. The defense that was the league's best when Curry was out 11 games with a sprained ankle. The offense that seems to be able to sizzle at will. One can assume the Warriors will be rounding into their best form come the playoffs, and if they do, they will be tough to beat.
But January is not May, and it can be tough for such a talented team to stay focused when they can win games like Wednesday night's, a game where they were outplayed and outhustled by a Mavericks team that just seemed hungrier, especially in that final stretch.
"A couple turnovers where we were just lazy on the inbounds, not securing the ball on those possessions," Curry said. "They made some tough shots, but we gave them confidence by a couple breakdowns we had. Guys were stepping into open threes, getting to the basket unabated. A combination of a lot of things we need to shore up."
During the frantic last few minutes on Wednesday, as the Mavericks mounted their comeback, Kerr could be seen on the sidelines, smiling and shaking his head.
"I was smiling at the idea that we could be completely brain dead -- all I could do was laugh," he said. "It was like grade-school stuff the last few minutes, it really was. Some of the lack of focus was astounding.
"We walk this fine line between chaos and disorder," Kerr continued. "We're at our best when we can be loose and free, but we've gotta have discipline to go along with that. When we do that, when we find that balance, we're really, really hard to beat."
Remember this: The Warriors have not found that balance. Not yet. And without that balance, they are still the best team in the league. And if they do find that balance -- if they do find that alchemy of freedom and discipline -- they could become as close to unstoppable as any team we've ever seen.