By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
OAKLAND, Calif. — There’s no place like home for the Golden State Warriors to finish off what they started.
Despite the recent road struggles, the Warriors are in prime position to make the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years. Golden State (34-27) has the sixth-best record in the Western Conference entering Wednesday’s matchup against the Sacramento Kings and plays 15 of its final 21 games at Oracle Arena, where an ever-loyal fan base has always made things tough on the visitors.
With Andrew Bogut battling back and ankle problems and the defense diminishing of late, the Warriors are still somewhat of an unknown heading into the home stretch. As coach Mark Jackson said: “Just because Dorothy clicks her heels and winds up at home doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be all right.”
“It feels good that we put ourselves in position to get to this point,” Jackson said after Tuesday’s practice. “And now it’s about sealing the deal, finishing up the season the right way. Our guys have earned that right, and it’s great to be in this situation, but it’s not just going to happen on its own.”
Playoff promises have so often been unfilled by the Bay Area’s only NBA team that the word itself is usually mocked around these parts by the time March rolls around.
Not this year.
Not with this team.
Earlier this season, Jackson had a board installed at Golden State’s headquarters that shows the standings before players walk out to the practice court. One day over the holidays, the Warriors official in charge of updating the list was off, and players pitched a fit when the board shorted them a win.
For a franchise that has missed the playoffs all but once since 1994, it’s hard not to pay attention to the latest standings: The Warriors are 5½ games behind Denver (40-22) for the fifth spot, one game ahead of Houston (33-28) and 1½ games ahead of Utah (32-28). The Los Angeles Lakers (30-31) are the first team out — but only four games behind the Warriors — and perhaps the biggest challenge to unseat someone.
“I think you look at it more as the season goes on, just because it’s coming down to that time where you’re trying to see who you may match up with in the playoffs,” forward Harrison Barnes said. “You can see how our cushion was so big and how it got so little because we let games go. I think it’s just motivation for us.”
Golden State’s 22-10 start this season was its best in 20 years. At one point, it seemed this team could even challenge for homecourt advantage in the first round.
Now it’s more about survival.
The Warriors had lost four straight and 10 of 13 games until Monday night’s 125-118 home win against the Toronto Raptors, and defense — once the defining characteristic this season — has been the overriding problem during the stretch. Golden State has allowed an average of 109.7 points in each of the past 14 games.
“I just thought collectively we got away from having fun, smiling, laughing, high-fiving one another,” guard Jarrett Jack said. “I feel like we’ve done enough talking. We’ve had enough team meetings and what we need to do to correct things. Let’s lead by our action.”
The franchise is embarking on something it rarely has in the last two decades: games in March and April that matter.
The Warriors haven’t made the playoffs since the “We Believe” team in 2006-07, when they upset the defending Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round as an eight seed. Ending that drought might be as simple as taking care of home court.
Eight of the final 15 home games come against teams at below a .500 record. Of the teams in contention for the final three playoff spots, Golden State has more home games remaining (15) than Utah (11), Houston (12), the Lakers (10) and Portland (11).
The Warriors are 19-7 at home and 15-20 on the road.
Even the road schedule seems to be a far less perilous path to navigate. Three of the last six road games are against teams with losing records — New Orleans, Phoenix and Portland. The others are at Houston, San Antonio and the Lakers.
Jackson said his two biggest concerns over the final six weeks are keeping players fresh and motivated, and the second one shouldn’t be a problem. He noted that most of the roster has never logged so many minutes — and certainly not meaningful minutes — until this season, and players will have to find their “second wind” as the intensity increases.
“I think I’m on my third wind, actually,” said Barnes, who has started 60 games since being drafted seventh overall out of North Carolina last summer.
After missing the last six games because of back spasms and 42 games earlier this season recovering from left ankle surgery, Bogut played a season-high 30 minutes in the win against Toronto. He finished with four points, eight rebounds, one block and one assist. Most importantly, he showed some lift on a pair of dunks.
The 7-foot Australian center was limited to individual drills during practice Tuesday, and his status will likely be game-to-game the rest of the way. He didn’t travel with the team during its 1-4 road trip, and he’s hoping an extended home stay provides some comfort for him and the team.
“We have to defend home court,” Bogut said. “The next couple games aren’t going to be easy. We’ve got some tough teams coming in, and we need to be focused from the start.”