Programming note: Immediately after the final horn of the Warriors-Cavs showdown on Christmas Day, change the channel to CSN Bay Area for a special Warriors edition of SportsNet Central.
For more than 46 minutes Friday night, the Warriors mixed swagger and stumble in a way that would have the Harlem Globetrotters rolling their eyes.
The team with the best record in the NBA was being tricked and handled by the Detroit Pistons, who in losing their previous four games so frustrated their coach that he blistered them in public not once but twice.
The teams swapped leads 18 times, including eight times in the fourth quarter, and not until the final 91 seconds did the Warriors get down to business and eke out a 119-113 win at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“There was some good stuff at the end,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters at the arena. “I didn’t see a lot of growth during the meat of the game; I saw a little regression.”
Regression at times became on some occasions outright implosion. The Warriors committed six turnovers in the first quarter and six more in the second to give the Pistons 17 easy points. Detroit in the first half scored 34 points in the paint, many of them open looks off live-ball turnovers.
Often overpassing and occasionally hunting highlights, the Warriors committed a season-worst 23 turnovers, off which the Pistons scored 33 points. Put another way, they took splendid advantage of the charity.
“We knew they were going to play with a lot of energy; everybody’s up to play us,” said Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 32 points. “The building was packed before the game started. I like the resilience they showed throughout the whole game.”
Resilience comes easier while receiving aid from the opponent. The Warriors were being scorched by the likes of forward Tobias Harris (26 points, including four 3-pointers, off the bench) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (25, also with four triples).
“We weren’t sharp, obviously,” Kerr said. “But to be able to win with 23 turnovers, leading to 33 points, is pretty remarkable, on the road especially.
“But I give Detroit credit. They’re an excellent defensive team. They’re a top-five defensive club. They forced a lot of those turnovers, and we were lucky to be able to overcome them.”
The Warriors overcame the Pistons by holding them to one field goal over the final 2:54 while also applying the offensive skills behind their league-best 27-4 record.
And Klay Thompson, who missed eight of his first 12 shots, drained the last two – both inside the final minute – to repel the Pistons.
“We ran a couple plays for him,” Kerr said. “Steph (Curry) made the right reads and found him twice for open shots. Klay is so confident in those situations. Even on a night when he doesn’t really have it rolling, we’re still going to go to him if he’s open.”
The Warriors closed it out with a 9-3 run, touched off by a Draymond Green dunk, over the final 91 seconds.
“We did it as a group in the fourth quarter and that’s how it’s supposed to happen,” Durant said.
It was, to be sure, a relief. Some of the lethargy may be attributed to the game being the second of a back-to-back set with a nearly two-hour flight in between. Some of it may be related to the next game, the Christmas Day collision in Cleveland.
If anyone could be excused, it would be Green. He joined the team for the flight from Oakland to New York on Wednesday, flew back to the Bay Area on Thursday for the birth of his son and then left late Thursday night for a Friday morning arrival in Detroit.
“It strained my legs a little bit,” Green said of the hectic itinerary. “I couldn’t get a shot to fall. But life goes on; play through it. It’s the NBA where you get tough travel all the time, tough circumstances. You just play through it and try to win the game.”
That he did. He scored five points on 1-of-8 shooting, but contributed 12 assists, a team-best 10 rebounds and two steals.
Green’s stats were more gritty than pretty, like the game itself.