The triumphant performance by the Warriors in Memphis on Friday was, considering conditions and circumstances, no less impressive than their win over the imposing Utah Jazz six days ago in San Francisco.
Remember that game? The Jazz strolled into town with the best record in the NBA and got shocked. The Warriors caught a glimpse of their ceiling.
Barely 30 hours later, they were on the floor, face down, drooling victims of a smackdown by the Los Angeles Lakers. Stephen Curry, the longest-serving and most accomplished of the Warriors, described the 128-97 loss as “embarrassing.”
That’s the very recent history the Warriors take into FedEx Forum on Saturday, when they face the Grizzlies for the second time in two days. And they know it, nobody is more aware than Draymond Green, who was among those exercising considerable caution amid that encouraging victory over the Jazz.
Green told his teammates in the locker room that this 116-103 win over the Grizzles is not permission to consider the Saturday rematch “free swing.” Translated, this victory should not diminish their determination to win both games.
“Sometimes you have games that are free swings,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You’ve won five or six in a row, you’re in a great playoff position and you go into a game completely shorthanded and you say, ‘Alright, it’s a free swing. We’ve got nothing to lose.’
“I love that Draymond said that. We’ve got plenty to lose.”
Their success on Friday allowed the Warriors, ninth in the Western Conference standings, to take a two-game lead over the 10th-place Grizzlies. A loss would have put the teams in the dreaded virtual tie, with Memphis having a chance to move ahead on Saturday.
“Given the season that we’ve had, every game gives us extra juice, knowing that we haven’t finished some games the way we wanted to,” Damion Lee said. “But definitely, these two games, knowing that Memphis is a great team . . . obviously, everyone is sort of jockeying for position if you’re outside the top four.
What made this win particularly satisfying to the Warriors, and a maybe bit surprising, is that it came without the services of Stephen Curry, James Wiseman and Eric Paschall. Curry is nursing a bruised tailbone, and both Wiseman and Paschall are out due to health and safety protocols.
The void in the 50.3 points per game lost by the absence of the three players was filled by Andrew Wiggins, whose 40 points represented his highest total since joining the Warriors 13 months and two weeks ago.
Jordan Poole burned Memphis for a career-high 25 and Lee dropped in a season-high 21.
In a game with significant stakes, with a weakened roster, the Warriors responded magnificently.
Only to have another such game on Saturday, against an opponent that sure to be motivated after getting run off its floor by a Warriors team without three of its top five scorers.
“(Saturday) is going to be a completely different beast,” Lee said, “and we have to understand that.”
In the wake of the win over Utah, the Warriors took the court the next day in Los Angeles and looked like a team unrelated to that which roasted Utah the previous day. The defense, so effective against the Jazz, did not make the trip, as LA pretty much put the Warriors to sleep by shooting 68.6 percent in the first half.
Try that on Saturday, and the Grizzlies are capable of exploiting it to the same degree.
“There haven’t been a lot of sweeps in these situations,” Kerr said, “and we know that Memphis is coming after us. We have to be ready.”
If hearing the Warriors, players and coaches, say all the right things after a successful game sounds familiar, it’s because it is. They did much the same after beating Utah yet failed to appear in LA.
Now 42 games into a season with few tangible signs of progress, another win on Saturday, with Curry sitting, is the only way for the Warriors to claim even a slight turn in that direction.