DENVER — As various members of the Golden State Warriors began to filter out of the visiting locker room at Ball Arena on Sunday night, Klay Thompson sat silently on a folding chair with his head bowed. He fiddled with a wristband. He was still wearing his game shorts.
Thompson has coped with adversity, losing two seasons to injury. But the N.B.A. has a way of humbling even the most determined players. And in the glum aftermath of the Warriors’ 79th game of the season, Thompson was left to dwell on errant shots and missed opportunities. He was not alone.
The Warriors are a tough team to figure out, and their 112-110 loss to the Nuggets on Sunday was another jumbled effort in a season full of them. They were thrilling and connected, then sloppy and disjointed. They led by as many as 15 points in the second quarter, then allowed all that good feeling to evaporate.
“We stopped playing,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “We just lost our focus on both ends, gave up a ton of offensive rebounds, missed box outs. Offensively, we had several mindless possessions in a row, throwing the ball away, a bunch of shot turnovers — just bad shots.”
Teams have wildly different agendas at this late stage of the season. The Nuggets, who are on the cusp of clinching the top seed in the Western Conference, have the luxury of prioritizing health. Nikola Jokic, the league’s back-to-back most valuable player, missed his third straight game with calf tightness.
“There really is an injury there, and it’s just us being smart about it,” Michael Malone, Denver’s coach, said before Sunday’s game. “The type of injury he has, the worst-case scenario is he plays and it creates a much bigger issue where he’s out for an extended period of time. And I think we all realize that we’re only going to go so far when Nikola is such a big part of what we do.”
The Warriors, on the other hand, are desperate to avoid the play-in bracket as the defending champions. With the top six seeds in each conference assured playoff berths, the Warriors (41-38) are now tied for fifth with the Clippers in the West after Sunday’s loss. Kerr likes the addition of the play-in — “It keeps things really interesting all the way down the stretch,” he said — but that does not mean he wants to be a part of it.
The Warriors have three games remaining. After playing host to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, they will go on the road to face the Sacramento Kings on Friday and the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday.
“We need to win out,” Golden State’s Stephen Curry said, adding: “It’s just understanding there’s a sense of urgency with these last three games, and not only the wins but the vibe you create going into a playoff series, because that does matter — finishing strong, finishing with a sense of purpose. You want to feel good about yourself when you turn the clock to the playoffs.”
The real challenge is that the Warriors play two of their final three games on the road, where they have been awful this season. The disparity between their record at home (32-8) and their record on the road (9-30) is a mystery without an obvious explanation.
“We’ve got to have faith in ourselves that we can figure it out,” Curry said.
No solutions surfaced against the Nuggets, though it did look good for the Warriors, at least for a while. They assembled one of their familiar master classes in ball movement in the first quarter.
There was Draymond Green tipping a pass to Donte DiVincenzo for an-up-and-under layup. There was Thompson drawing a cluster of defenders on a drive before dumping a pass to Anthony Lamb for an open dunk. The ball zipped from teammate to teammate. Green had five assists in the first quarter, and the Warriors assisted on 11 of their 13 field goals, committing only one turnover.
But sustaining that sort of effort has been problematic for the Warriors this season, particularly on the road. They missed all eight of their 3-point shots in the second quarter and committed five turnovers.
“It’s kind of been a vibe of how it’s been on the road for us all year,” Curry said. “There’s a four- or five-minute stretch and the wheels just fall off. And you not only give a team momentum, but you give them belief that they’re supposed to win that game. And that’s a dangerous position to be in with the amount of talent that’s in this league, no matter who you’re playing.”
Curry and Thompson combined to shoot 17 of 56 from the field, and Golden State committed 15 turnovers. Add it up, and it was the game that the Warriors had “no business” winning, Curry said.
The basketball gods concurred. After Thompson’s 3-point shot with 4.5 seconds left caromed off the back rim, he rebounded his own miss. But his desperation heave at the buzzer was swatted away by Jamal Murray, who had a terrific all-around game for the Nuggets with 26 points and 8 assists.
“The season has been like this all year,” Kerr said. “It’s been stops and starts. Just when you think we’ve got some momentum, we give it back.”
As the visiting locker room continued to empty out, Thompson finally rose from his chair and packed for the trip home. The team bus was idling outside.
“We just have to keep pushing,” Kerr said.