SAN FRANCISCO – Not until the fifth minute of the fourth quarter Sunday did the Warriors see and react to the light Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb have been following all season.
The light with the neon message: Play as if your NBA career is at stake.
Jerome and Lamb play with tenacity because NBA two-way contracts offer no certainty. When their teammates summoned similar energy over the final eight minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a minor miracle unfolded.
The Warriors erased a 10-point deficit in 189 seconds.
After a 25-10 blitz over the final 7:57 delivered a 109-104 victory, Donte DiVincenzo offered a one-word explanation.
“Heart,” he said.
There are other descriptors. Grit. Determination. Resolve. Fortitude. They all amount to the same thing: Play as if winning really, really, really matters.
They played imperfect basketball, but their defensive conviction was evident. Limiting Minnesota to 4-of-15 shooting over the final eight minutes flipped the game.
“That’s what it was; it wasn’t offense,” said DiVincenzo, whose fourth quarter included 10 points and a steal. “We’re going to take our threes and we’re going to push in transition, but we really locked in defensively in the fourth quarter. They were getting some easy, non-contested threes. But once we pressured to make them go downhill and we didn’t foul, they couldn’t make those layups around the rim with two or three guys were trying to block it. And then we were off and running.
“It wasn’t offense. It was definitely defense.”
The kind of defensive intensity Draymond Green was pleading for 12 days ago, after a lackluster loss sent the Warriors into the NBA All-Star break. The kind of defense coach Steve Kerr has been pushing for since, well, November.
The kind of defense that, if applied on a consistent basis, is the only way this roster – currently without Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins and Green – might be the only way for the Warriors to escape the clutter clogging the middle of the Western Conference standings.
Such defense makes offense so much easier, something the Golden State veterans can preach 24/7.
“We’ve been trying to do that all year, but we’ve been struggling – especially on the road,” said Kevon Looney, who contributed 12 points and 17 rebounds. “But at home when the crowd gets behind us, we play with a little bit of extra juice. We’ve got to take what we did today and try to carry it over and do it for 48 minutes instead of just for a quarter.
“We have the potential and talent to be a great defensive team, but we just have to put it together throughout the whole game.”
Lamb played nine minutes in the fourth quarter, making his only shots, grabbing four rebounds and getting a block. This is why he often, like Jerome, gets meaningful minutes ahead of younger players drafted by the franchise.
For a defending NBA champion trying to regain the right to call itself a contender, reliability matters. Trust matters. Effort matters.
“Lamb and Ty have been huge,” Kerr said. “They’ve helped us win a lot of games this year. Lamb does a whole lot of stuff that people don’t recognize. He is one of our best defenders in terms of rotating and understanding our coverages and hitting bodies. Boxing out. He’s a good passer, a good 3-point shooter.”
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With two-way contracts limiting them to 50 games on the active roster, Lamb is four away from his limit and Jerome is eight from his. Both are eligible to be converted to a standard contract, but there is only one available roster spot. The coming days will be crucial to their futures.
Both Jerome and Lamb are defective defenders, but their effort and intent are never in question. It’s to the max, something that would be profoundly beneficial if duplicated throughout the roster.
Defense is, after all, mostly effort. Spunk. Which is what Kerr gets from Jerome and Lamb. If that example is followed by all, the next 21 games won’t look so much like so many of the previous 61.