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Warriors look to switch back to dominance after poor end to regular season

SALT LAKE CITY -- It's hard to say how the dare began. When you work with players as often as Golden State Warriors assistant coach Chris DeMarco does -- which is to say every day, sometimes twice a day -- a lot gets said along the way. In this case, Warriors guard Klay Thompson and forward Kevin Durant challenged DeMarco to prove he could still dunk. You see, the sixth-year assistant played at Dominican University and used to have ups. There were highlight videos with evidence, but Thompson and Durant needed more. So a bet was concocted. Before the end of the regular season, DeMarco would get three attempts to show he could dunk.

Challenges like these are what make the NBA world go 'round during the regular season. But the Warriors, in particular, live for stuff like this. Since Steve Kerr took over as head coach in 2014, Golden State has developed a reputation for having one of the most fun cultures in the league. Anything anyone did that was remotely embarrassing or funny would find its way into a film session. Practices ended with half-court shot competitions, which two-time MVP Stephen Curry oftentimes turned into his own version of kickball. Sometimes Kerr would punt on basketball altogether and have a touch football game instead.

"As a former player, he kind of gets the energy," forward David West said. "He hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a player going through it."

But this is Year 4 of the Kerr era. Year 4 of this core group of Thompson, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry trying to get back to and win the NBA Finals. Year 4 of the same culture, the same jokes, the same personalities. And like most relationships, it takes work to keep things fresh after the honeymoon period ends. And it really takes work when Curry, the team's leader whom Kerr often compares to San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan, has missed 31 games because of a maddening assortment of ankle and knee injuries.

Kerr expected that malaise, having played on several dynastic teams -- the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs -- during his playing career. But this is uncharted territory, even for him.

"I was never on a team that went to the Finals four years in a row," Kerr said. "You have to have LeBron [James] on your team to do that. Or Bill Russell. ... It's tough. A hard feat, and our guys know that."

And without Curry to center the Warriors on the court for large chunks of the season, Kerr has tried things this season he never resorted to during the first three years. He has criticized his team through the media -- a la one of his mentors, Phil Jackson. He has turned over his clipboard to the players, letting them run huddles and coach themselves during a particularly noncompetitive game against the Phoenix Suns. He has told them to stay away from basketball on off days.

If there was a button he could push that might help light the collective fire, he pushed it. Little worked outside of letting the players coach. If anything, Kerr's tough-love assertion that the team needed to care more after a lethargic loss in Indiana seemed to offend several players. He subsequently walked the comments back.

As the Warriors limped toward the finish of the regular season, having lost 10 of the 17 games since Curry injured his ankle and knee, it became clear there was little Kerr could do from the sideline to rekindle the joy and competitive fire that had once been so essential to the Warriors' success.

If that was going to happen with the playoffs starting Saturday against the Spurs, it had to come from within.

"You have two choices," Kerr said after an embarrassing 40-point loss to the Utah Jazz in the regular-season finale Tuesday night. "Fight through everything and give all you got, or go quietly."

The loss to the Jazz was somewhat expected. The Warriors had nothing but pride to play for while Utah was pushing for playoff seeding. But losing by 40, the worst loss of the Kerr era, felt like an inflection point. If that kind of loss didn't assault the team's pride, this season's Warriors might just go the way of the past few dynastic teams whose spirit and flesh simply didn't respond in the fourth year of their runs. Think the 2014 Miami Heat, and the 2011 and 2003 Los Angeles Lakers.

That the 40-point loss to the Jazz came after one of the best moments of the season was even more troubling. You see, DeMarco didn't make his dunk in his first three attempts at shootaround that morning. But he came close on the second try. "It was like a seventh-grade dunk where you lay it in but pull down the rim so it seems like you dunked," fellow assistant Jarron Collins joked. Thompson and Durant gave him an extra chance to slam it home.

This time DeMarco delivered a thunderous one-handed jam that set off a wild, jubilant celebration. Kerr raised both his arms as if he'd just won a title. Durant pumped his fist. Center Zaza Pachulia chest-bumped him. Nick Young threw a ball into the stands. And DeMarco, well, he took off running up the stairs of the arena.

Video of the dunk and ensuing celebration quickly went viral. Even DeMarco's alma mater tweeted congratulations.

"That was awesome," Kerr said before the game. "We needed that."

And then the Warriors went out and got smoked by 40.

See why it's hard to read this team? Are they complacent or cursed? Are they waiting for the playoffs to start to flip the proverbial switch? Or has the electricity been cut altogether?

With Curry out for at least the first round because of a sprained MCL, many Warriors have pointed to Green as the player who needs to step into a leadership role. Green has always been the Warriors' emotional leader, the fiery combative personality to Curry's calm, nonconfrontational style. It has evolved to the point where they balance each other out, and the Warriors clearly need both. But without Curry, Green's edge doesn't digest as well.

"Mentally, I think he gets himself to a point where he's got to create that adversary," West said of Green. "I don't think anybody gave him that bait he was looking for. That they would give him [last year].

"He tried it with the refs [Green racked up 15 of the Warriors' 68 technical fouls this season], but it's just a different deal than with players. ... And he needs that."

Finding a worthy adversary shouldn't be an issue in the playoffs, however.

"He may have an opportunity," West said with a smile. "The stakes are higher, things will be a little more testy."

Kerr told his players and staffers to take the entire day off after the loss in Utah. Take the day, play some golf, see your families, get your minds right.

Assistant coach Bruce Fraser, who has become something of a spiritual weatherman for the team over the years, said he noticed a big difference when the Warriors came back for practice Thursday.

"We had a much better mentality and vibe. It felt completely different than it's been," Fraser said. "You could feel the excitement and energy. You could feel our bond. You could feel all that today.

"Our family's been together for a long time. That's a good thing. But we've just had injuries, and a lot has happened. It's just been like a roller-coaster of a season. And a lot of these games, they haven't mattered. I'm not a motivational expert, but I feel like motivation has been taken out of our sails at times based on incidents. ... But our culture hasn't changed or been affected."

Kerr pointed specifically to the injuries to Curry -- four ankle injuries and the MCL sprain that cost him the last 10 games of the regular season -- as reasons why the mood and flow have been so inconsistent.

"It's huge," Kerr said. "We talk about joy all the time here. That's been the hallmark of our group. Steph embodies our culture and joy. With him out we've lost some of our soul and identity."

Fraser, who is Kerr's best friend and frequent confidant, also noted the scary injury to second-year forward Patrick McCaw on March 31 in Sacramento.

"When you lose Patrick McCaw, the way we lost him, it really affects you," Fraser said. "We were starting to roll, we had good mojo, and then the whole place was silent. It was really scary because he was on the ground not moving for 15 minutes. Our whole balloon was deflated. That crushed us. That's one of our guys and he was down."

McCaw is out indefinitely but made an appearance at practice Thursday.

Curry has been ruled out of at least the first round of the playoffs, but he has been traveling with the team and going through shooting drills at practice this week.

Small signs, yes. But significant ones as the Warriors reach the part of the season that will determine their place in NBA history.

"I think there should always be a question in your mind if the switch is going to flip," Green said. "As basketball players, you know it just doesn't work like that. But if anyone is capable of that, it's us."

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