A long-awaited Western Conference showdown has turned into a generally meaningless exhibition for one team and a battle for survival for the other as the Phoenix Suns visit the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night in San Francisco.
The Suns (61-14) are embarking upon a three-game trip with an eight-game winning streak and a healthy Chris Paul after already clinching the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage for as long as they advance through the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Warriors (48-28), once considered the Suns’ primary championship obstacle, enter the final six games of the regular season with just the third-best record in the West and a three-game losing streak. They are more likely to move down the standings than up before regular season’s end.
The Warriors got veteran Andre Iguodala back for their 123-95 loss at Memphis on Monday, but they likely will remain without star Stephen Curry for the rest of the regular season as he deals with an injured left foot.
Iguodala noted after the Memphis game it would be silly to rush Curry back just to potentially avoid moving farther down the Western pecking order.
“One thing we have to do is (be) smart about how we start to implement guys,” he said. “Steph’s out and you can’t replace that; he’s one of the top players ever. Don’t want to rush him back or put too much pressure on him. That’s how you get another injury.
“That’s kind of what happened to me all year: trying to rush back. Just trying to be smart about it, trying to hold down the fort and, interesting enough, we’re going to have to use the playoffs to get better, too. It’s just the situation.”
The Warriors were beaten 110-88 at home by the Boston Celtics on March 16 — the night when Curry left in the second quarter. They’ve won just once since, that coming at Miami on the second night of a just completed 1-4 trip.
Finishing in the top four in the West means home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Finishing in the top three, where the Warriors currently reside, assures a team it won’t have to deal with the Suns in the first or second rounds.
Golden State and Phoenix have met three times this season, with the Warriors winning the past two after the Suns took down an 18-2 Golden State team on Nov. 30.
One of the Warriors’ signature wins of the season came on Christmas Day in Phoenix when Curry had 33 points and Golden State held Devin Booker to 13 in a 116-107 win.
Since that date, which ended with Golden State a half-game up in the Pacific Division, the Suns have gone 35-8, while the Warriors have gone 21-22.
While the Warriors struggled first with Draymond Green out of action, and now without Curry, the Suns powered ahead for 15 games without Paul, who was out with a broken thumb. They went 11-4 in those games, and have a pair of 10-point wins over the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers since his return.
While the Suns could coast home and wait to see how their path to a second straight trip to the NBA Finals unfolds, veteran Jae Crowder insisted after Sunday’s 114-104 home win over the 76ers that retaining consistency is important moving forward.
“The motivation comes from last year,” he claimed. “Making it all the way to the Finals and not achieving the main goal — that’s the ultimate motivation. That’s all you need. You want to get back there. You want a different story.
“You can’t skip any steps.”