OAKLAND – It was only one game, at home, against their closest competition in the Western Conference. And before claiming victory, the Warriors had to overcome a few moments when they put the worst of themselves on full display.
So don’t allow yourself to be persuaded into believing all is well with the defending champions.
What the Warriors did Friday night at Oracle Arena, burying the Nuggets under an avalanche of defense and Klay Thompson’s white-hot shooting, was provide a glimpse of how great they can be when properly motivated and inspired.
“It was a good step in the right direction,” Stephen Curry said after a 122-105 victory gave the Warriors a two-game lead over second-place Denver in the Western Conference.
“There is still a lot of things that we can correct,” Draymond Green said.
The corrective action is mostly directed toward the offense, which was sloppy enough to give Denver 29 points off 17 turnovers. That allowed the Nuggets, who trailed throughout the second half, to dream.
That Denver wiped out an early 19-point deficit, briefly going ahead in the second quarter, and in the third quarter chopped an 18-point deficit to eight, was enough to carry a measure of suspense into the fourth quarter.
Aside from that, the Warriors were a team with a cause. They had their most impressive first eight minutes, going up 27-8, since Jan. 28, when they built a 21-point lead late in the first quarter the Pacers in Indianapolis.
The Warriors on that night were eager to punctuate a 12-day road and return home.
On this night, they were determined to rinse the stink of a humiliating 128-95 loss to the Celtics on Tuesday.
“We were all embarrassed the other night,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Couple good days of practice and our guys were just locked in and focused from the start. You could feel the energy and the intensity and (we) got off to a great start.
“We didn’t sustain it. But we, for the most part, played a good game. We had some lulls, but that is to be expected. We’re not going to flip it all around in one night, but this was a great start to getting back on track and playing like ourselves.”
Thompson, after missing the last two games with knee soreness, scored 27 points in the first half and finished with a game-high 39. Kevin Durant tossed in 26 points. They combined to shot 23-of-37 from the field and 11-of-13 from beyond the arc.
But it was the defense that set the tone. The Warriors limited Denver to 22.2-percent shooting in the first quarter and closed the half with a 14-0 run during which the Nuggets were 0-of-5 from the field with two turnovers.
“We understand that an open floor with whoever has the ball pushing in transition that we’re tough to stop,” Curry said. “And overall, we executed better in the half court for a better stretch of the game. But when we get stops we’re pretty lethal.”
When the Warriors are at their best, it’s because they’re defending ravenously as a unit. They’re swarming and chopping and blocking and swiping. They had 10 steals, 10 blocks and countless disruptions to Denver’s offense, rarely letting any of the Nuggets get comfortable.
To be determined is whether the Warriors can maintain this level of defensive engagement for sizable portions of the final 17 regular-season games. They made it clear that they’d like to seize the No. 1 overall seed for the postseason – certainly in the West – and realize it starts with defense.
“Our focus level right now is more important than our energy level,” Green said. “Obviously, the energy was great. But we’re not going to play with that energy every night. I’m not going to sit here and lie and act like we are.
“But we can play with that focus every night.”
If indeed they do, the Warriors will find a way to at least approach the 60-win mark. That almost certainly would assure the best record in the West.
For one night, the Warriors were the team many expect them to be most nights. They were inspired. They had a wound to heal.
They’ll need different motivation next time and beyond.