LOS ANGELES • The Golden State Warriors will head into uncharted territory today (tomorrow morning, Singapore time) as they open their National Basketball Association (NBA) postseason campaign against the San Antonio Spurs missing star Stephen Curry and struggling to find their best form.
For the first time since head coach Steve Kerr took over in 2014-2015, the Warriors (58-24) will not enter the play-offs as owners of the league's best record, starting as second seeds in the Western Conference behind the Houston Rockets (65-17).
After last year's emphatic march through the postseason, when Kerr's men went 16-1 to clinch a second NBA crown in three seasons, beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the Warriors looked poised to dominate for years. Yet their aura of invincibility has dimmed in the closing weeks of the regular season.
A knee injury to Curry has left the Warriors without one of their most potent attacking weapons, contributing to a poor run of results that has included 10 defeats in 17 games. That sequence included a 119-79 pounding by the Utah Jazz on Tuesday to end the regular season on a downbeat note.
The Warriors are 41-10 with Curry in their lineup this season and 17-14 without him.
With Curry's injury status uncertain, it will be left to Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to demonstrate that the Warriors - no longer a top-five defensive team - remain a play-off threat.
Kerr is adamant that the regular season will count for little as the play-offs come into view.
WARRIORS ON THE WARPATH
It's what you do in the play-offs. That's the test. That's the challenge. We're trying to get back to the Finals for the fourth year in a row. And only a few teams have been able to do that.
STEVE KERR , Golden State Warriors coach, unfazed by his team's indifferent form towards the end of the regular season.
The ultimate goal is holding that trophy up. So until we do that there's no celebrations… we haven't done anything yet.
JAMES HARDEN , Most Valuable Player favourite, on why the Houston Rockets are determined to cap their best season in franchise history with the NBA crown.
"It's what you do in the play-offs. That's the test. That's the challenge," he said. "We're trying to get back to the Finals for the fourth year in a row. And only a few teams have been able to do that (since the 1976 NBA-American Basketball Association merger)."
The Warriors are looking to match a feat accomplished by the Boston Celtics (1984-87), the Miami Heat (2011-14) and the Los Angeles Lakers (1982-85).
So too are Cleveland, who also look vulnerable as they prepare to host the Indiana Pacers tomorrow.
They arrive in the play-offs after a roller-coaster season which was transformed after a frenzied series of deals before the trading deadline, which saw them acquire George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr, and Jordan Clarkson.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said how the new-look roster would fare under the intensity of the play-offs was an unknown.
"The last three years... we knew when the play-offs started, things we wanted to do, things we worked on all season, we knew we were capable of doing," he said. "But with the new guys we gotta see what they're able to do."
He can at least depend on James. The forward has for the first time in 15 NBA seasons played every single regular-season game, averaging 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game.
"It's the best I've felt all season and I've got the numbers to back it up and I've got the wins to back it up as well," the 33-year-old said.
"I've just tried to be available to my teammates every single night and do everything that I could to win ball games."
While James has been a constant in the last seven Finals, Eastern Conference top seeds Toronto Raptors have never progressed that far.
Like Toronto, Houston have never been No. 1 seeds. Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni and Most Valuable Player favourite James Harden have never won a ring, while Chris Paul has yet to go past the second round. But Houston will not be content with their best season in franchise history.
"The ultimate goal is holding that trophy up," Harden said. "So until we do that there's no celebrations… we haven't done anything yet."