The Warriors needed a reassuring game not for themselves -- as their faith never really wavers -- but for the anxious segments of their fan base and perhaps a few skeptics around the NBA.
They got such a game Friday night in Milwaukee.
A 105-95 victory over a Bucks team that ravaged the Warriors four weeks ago in Oakland served notice that the defending champs still have the capacity to survive their own imperfections and wallop a high-quality team on its own floor.
Beneath the pretty 3-point shooting (19-of-46, 41.3 percent) and the exemplary ball movement (32 assists on 40 field goals) was a defense that squeezed and scratched and scuffled the Bucks into the longest night of their impressive season.
“We have an eye on them. This is a team we could play later on,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Milwaukee. “This is the last time we’re going to play them (in the regular season). We wanted to come out and give our best defensive effort. I thought it was. I thought it was our best defensive game of the year. We got after it right from the opening tip.”
The Warriors (18-9) set a nasty tone early, holding the Bucks (16-8) to 29.6-percent shooting in the opening quarter, 39.1 percent for the game, including 17.9 percent (7-of-39) from beyond the arc. The league’s highest-scoring team was held below 100 points for the first time this season.
The Warriors also prodded Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo into frustration, forcing four turnovers and limiting him to 13 shots and 22 points.
“That was the most I’ve ever gotten doubled this year,” Antetokounmpo said. “But moving forward, it’s still going to come. This team is going to double-team me and try to take the ball away from my hands. I just have to trust my teammates and hopefully my teammates can knock down shots.”
They couldn’t. Sharpshooter Khris Middleton was 0-of-4 in the first quarter and finished 4-of-14 overall, including 1-of-7 from deep. Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon combined to shoot 10-of-25, and only 2-of-12 from deep. Milwaukee’s bench was 8-of-28 from the field.
“We owed these guys,” said Jonas Jerebko, who scored 12 points to reach double figures for the third consecutive game. “They came to our home court and gave us a little lesson. We had to come out here and play with some energy.”
That energy -- which formed after a 134-111 loss to the Bucks on Nov. 8 at Oracle Arena -- looked a lot like fury.
“We were embarrassed,” Klay Thompson said. “We got smacked at home. It’s never fun. I thought we came out and played great tonight on both sides. Other than our high turnovers, we played amazing basketball.”
The Warriors committed 18 turnovers, leading to 26 Milwaukee points, which kept the game competitive. The champs offset that, however, by flooding the Fiserv Floor with 3-pointers. Stephen Curry, Jerebko and Thompson each drained four treys, while Andre Iguodala and Alfonzo McKinnie each buried three.
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The 46 attempts were a season-high in 3-point attempts.
“That’s what was there,” Kerr said. “Jonas took nine of them and ‘Zo must have taken six or seven. When they beat us at Oracle a few weeks ago, they packed the paint and basically dared Andre, Jonas and whoever else to make a shot. Those guys were ready to go and they knocked them down. It was big.”
The Warriors prevailed despite relatively cool shooting by Curry (20 points on 7-of-17, 4-of-9 from deep) and a downright frigid night from Kevin Durant, who didn’t make a field goal in the first half and finished with a season-low 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-6 from deep.
The Warriors needed others to fill the void, so Iguodala (15 points, eight rebounds -- both season-highs), Kevon Looney (eight points, seven rebounds, four assists) and McKinnie came through.
“Andre has a sense for when we need to perform well,” Kerr said. “This was a game that meant a lot to us.”
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It was a regular season game, yes, but it was spiked by the pride factor. The Warriors were going to do whatever was needed to avoid being swept by the Bucks. So they smashed one of the league’s new contenders.
That ought to be enough to ease minds in the fan base while also catching the eye of those that wondered if maybe the Warriors were more vulnerable than they were a month ago.