Whoops, shouts, music and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” were so loud inside the Lakers locker room that they could be heard out in the hallways. Outside Golden State’s locker room, there was silence, as those inside assessed what had gone so wrong this season.
To the victor goes the noise. To the defeated goes an unusually early and sullen vacation.
The reigning champion Golden State’s freewheeling, 3-point-centric style of play changed the N.B.A. and made Stephen Curry a household name. But on Friday night, the team couldn’t muster up one last overwhelming flurry of deep shots, bowing out to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the Western Conference semifinals.
It marked the first time a West team had defeated Golden State in the playoffs during its dynastic run, which began in 2015 with the first of four championships led by Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But this season was among the most difficult of the last decade, marred by long absences for key players, a confounding inability to win on the road, struggling young players, and the fallout from Green punching a teammate, Jordan Poole, before the season even started.
“This is not a championship team,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said after Game 6, which the Lakers won, 122-101. “If we were, we’d be moving on. So you can look at the year in total and see all the ups and downs, and there was all kinds of stuff that went on and adversity that hit. But our group stayed together and competed till the end and made a pretty good run.”
But “pretty good” has long been below the standards of Golden State, given the stature of Curry, who is widely considered the best shooter in N.B.A. history. And now his team may have to contend with coming back down to earth. It’s the basketball equivalent of confronting mortality.
“You’re disappointed and kind of shell shocked that it’s over,” Curry said. “You’ve poured so much into every season, but going off last year you’re trying to defend and give ourselves the chance to keep advancing. It’s a tough way for the season to end.”
The series against the Lakers marked one of the most highly anticipated playoff matchups in years, pitting Curry against the Lakers star LeBron James for the first time since the 2018 N.B.A. finals, when James was on the Cleveland Cavaliers. But this series ultimately didn’t match the hype, with blowouts in four of the five games after a thrilling Lakers win in Game 1. Curry and Thompson struggled on Friday, combining to shoot an abysmal 14 for 47 from the field. Thompson, who made just three baskets in each of the last three games, said this was “probably the worst shooting series I’ve had in a long time.”
Golden State now faces an uncertain summer; Curry called it “unfamiliar territory.” With one of the most expensive rosters in the league, and a new collective bargaining agreement aimed at curbing heavy spenders, Golden State is likely to try to bring down costs. It could be a stark transition for the team, given that it went from a rudderless middle-of-the-road franchise to one of the most financially valuable ones with Curry at the helm over the past decade.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to kind of take stock of where we’re at, keep the confidence that we can come back and be back at this stage next year,” Curry said.
It might help if they get off to a better start. This season, Green punched the fourth-year guard Poole in the face during training camp. TMZ published a video of the punch, exposing the internal discord of a franchise known for continuity and harmony.
“Every season is made up of events. Some are great, some are not,” Green said after Friday’s game. “I think for this team, more of the events that aren’t so great were so public, and, you know, that’s not something that you normally do. And so the world knows, you know, the tough times that this team has had.”
Now Green’s career is at a turning point. A four-time All-Star, he has a player option for next year and is expected to test free agency. Green had one of his better seasons this year, but he turns 34 next March, and Golden State may balk at offering him a maximum contract. Green has shown a penchant for impulsive behavior, like punching Poole or racking up technical fouls, for which he ranked second in the league during the regular season. The resolution of his contract is the key domino in a summer of retooling.
“I want to be a Warrior for the rest of my life,” Green said Friday. “I want to ride out with the same dudes I rode in with.”
This season was a slog for Golden State. “It felt like we were swimming upstream from the beginning,” Kerr said.
Golden State started the season 3-7. It finished at 44-38 for the West’s sixth seed and had one of the worst road records in the league, at 11-30. Andrew Wiggins, a key contributor to last season’s title run, missed more than half the regular season because of an injury and an undisclosed personal issue. Thompson, a five-time All-Star, struggled to find his shot in the first third of the season and he has noticeably slowed on defense after two major injuries in recent years.
If Thompson, 33, has doubts about his future in Golden State, or any skepticism that this team can win again, he didn’t show it on Friday night. His contract expires after next season.
“I can tell you, we gave it everything we had,” he said. “But I believe that we have greatness in our future still.”
Golden State will also have to decide what to do with the young players it has tried to develop while chasing a championship — a path criticized for placing too much of a load on the 35-year-old Curry. Poole, 23, struggled mightily in the playoffs, a problem given that Golden State signed him to a four-year contract extension in October worth up to $140 million. Other young players, like Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, both 20, were in and out of the lineup all season.
In addition, the contract of Bob Myers, the team’s general manager for the last decade, ends this year. Carrying the dynasty into its next stage may fall to a different architect.
If there was one bright spot for Golden State this season, it was its most magnetic figure: Curry. He played some of the best basketball of his career — which meant some of the best basketball that anyone has ever played. In the first round of the playoffs, Golden State faced the third-seeded Kings in Sacramento for a decisive Game 7. Curry scored 50 points — the most ever in a Game 7 — and hit seven 3-pointers. It was a reminder of the magic that had made his teams so great.
But Curry said Friday that reaching the conference semifinals was not “a moral victory.”
“There’s a lot of pride in what we accomplished,” he said, “but there’s also an understanding that this is not good enough.”