One night removed from their second win in 17 days, the Warriors can exhale Wednesday before going back to practice Thursday, all while sensing a weekend ripe for generating momentum. After scraping bottom last Sunday, things are looking up.
If they want the final weeks of the season to continue in that direction, they’ll need to recall some of grit and ferocity that kept them afloat earlier this season.
Remember how constant harassment on that end of the floor led to some wins in January and February that their offense otherwise might have lost?
After rummaging through coach Steve Kerr’s simplified offense, Steph Curry’s extended minutes and offensive pyrotechnics, the rainbow that was James Wiseman’s 25-minute double-double and the late-game shooting of Kelly Oubre Jr., one finds defense as the substance beneath the Warriors’ 122-121 win over the Bucks on Tuesday night.
“It won us the game,” said Curry, deemphasizing his 41 points on 14-of-21 shooting, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc.
Defense, forcing three turnovers and limiting the Bucks to 1-of-4 shooting, allowed the Warriors to take a 13-3 lead in the first three minutes. That was before stretches of poor defensive execution and outright sloppiness allowed Milwaukee enough open looks to score 38 points on 68.4-percent shooting and open up a 12-point lead in the third quarter.
Defense came to the rescue late in the fourth. After Milwaukee made nine of its first 14 shots to take a 116-106 lead with four minutes remaining, the Warriors turned stingy and held the Bucks to 1-of-9 shooting, with one turnover, over the final four minutes.
That nourished a 16-5 closing run that led to a victory that, for now, is among the most satisfying this season.
“I'm not into rankings, but we needed a win badly,” Kerr said. “And to come back from 12 down in the second half against a great team, yeah, this qualifies as a hell of a win. Very proud of the guys and they really battled and we got a lot of great individual performances, but I'm thrilled with the win we needed it.”
“Really loved the energy and just the competitiveness that got us the win.”
That energy and competitiveness was most evident on the defensive end. When the Warriors were energized, as they were in the first three minutes and the final four minutes, they defended with the tenacity required to have any chance to getting back to .500 and beyond.
Understand, the Warriors were torched in the other 41 minutes, during which Milwaukee shot 57.5 percent.
But when it mattered, the feet were moving, the arms were up and the hands were active. The Warriors, mostly Oubre, forced splendid two-way Bucks guard Jrue Holiday into eight turnovers. Andrew Wiggins was dominated by Khris Middleton (28 points) most of the night but hounded the two-time All-Star into a scoreless fourth quarter on 0-of-5 shooting.
In a close game, with Giannis Antetokounmpo out with knee soreness, the Bucks are not going to beat many teams if Middleton can’t find a bucket while playing all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter.
“That's what we have to do,” Kerr said. “Eleven turnovers and we held them to 22 free throws. We gave ourselves a chance to win, and if we can continue to do that every night, then I think we're going to win at least our share of games down the stretch.”
The Warriors in February posted a 108.0 defensive rating, fourth in the NBA. Their 96.1 rating in the fourth quarter was No. 2 second in the league.
They lost their way in March, plummeting to 113.8, ranking 23rd -- with a 116.0 fourth-quarter rating that was 24th.
In four games this month, they’ve been awful: 118.6, 26th overall, 126.8 in the fourth, 25th.
The Warriors can feel good, at least they should, after finding enough defense to get their first win this month. But they have to know what must happen over the final 21 games to have even a slim chance to climb out of the play-in tournament.
“Same story,” Curry said. “We’ve got to do it again and again and again and again. We’ve been in this situation before, so it’s on us to sustain it.”
Forgive Curry if he’s heard too much talk, but there has been an abundance of it over these last 39 days, during which the Warriors went 5-12. If they can’t activate action now and find the best of themselves, they’ll be looking at vacations in May.