They say you should never underestimate the heart of a champion, and the Golden State Warriors may have proven that last season when they defied expectations to win their fourth title in eight years. Eventually, though, every champion becomes a former champion. No dynasty stands forever. Father Time remains undefeated. His victims rarely accept defeat gracefully.
The Golden State Warriors haven't lately, at least as far as their rivalry with the Memphis Grizzlies goes. On Saturday, they faced off for the second time in nine days. Memphis was missing star point guard Ja Morant along with a number of other role players in both contests. It didn't matter. The Grizzlies took both by 35 combined points. The first game in the set was defined by the ongoing feud between Warriors forward Draymond Green and Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks.
The second was defined by a far quieter moment. With 17.1 seconds remaining in the Memphis win, Warriors star Klay Thompson flashed four fingers at the Grizzlies.
Klay counts to 4 👀— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 19, 2023
Klay and Dillon Brooks at the end of Warriors-Grizzlies game 😮 pic.twitter.com/pcgn1CFM73
It wasn't the first time Thompson made the gesture. He did it more subtly in a confrontation with Devin Booker earlier in the season. The message, in both cases, was clear. The Warriors would accept no disrespect from up-and-comers as a four-time champion. It was a sentiment that Green himself has echoed after multiple games against Memphis this season. In December and again in March, he made it clear that he doesn't consider the Grizzlies a rival because they haven't beaten them in the playoffs yet.
Neither the Grizzlies nor the Suns have accomplished as much as the Warriors have. They probably never will. And that means practically nothing as the three teams pursue the 2023 championship that lies ahead, not the 2022, 2018, 2017 and 2015 trophies that have already been awarded. The Warriors are fixated on a past that probably isn't going to brighten their dim present.
Thompson was only one finger short of the number of road wins he's played in for Golden State this season. As a team, the Warriors are 7-29 outside of San Francisco. His 14 points Saturday were two shy of Golden State's No. 16 ranking in net rating. At 36-36, the Warriors are a .500 team through 72 games. In their four championship seasons, combined, they were a combined 146 games above .500 at the 72-game mark.
That should make it fairly clear that those championship Warriors teams were, at least to this point, a cut above this one. And perhaps we shouldn't be underestimating that heart of a champion as they attempt to prove that the old Warriors are still in there. If nothing else, it'd be hard to argue that this team doesn't have a significant amount of room to improve. The core trio of Thompson, Green and Stephen Curry has missed 47 combined games. Andrew Wiggins isn't with the team now and it isn't clear when he'll be back. Gary Payton II is injured with an unclear timeline of his own. Despite all of the injuries and turmoil, the five-man starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Green, Wiggins and Looney has still outscored opponents by 145 total points. Only Denver's starters have a better scoring margin. Catch Golden State on the right now and they might just look like the Warriors.
But more often than not, particularly outside of the Bay Area, this is simply a team that cannot defend guards or hold leads with bench lineups. It struggles to score late in games or rebound in any portion of them. These are things that have to change if Thompson ever wants to raise that fifth finger. The Warriors might still have the heart of a champion, but it won't do them any good if Father Time has claimed the rest of their body.