There’s no better occasion for a mediocre team to feel good about itself than a home game against the conference's worst team without its best players. Two such games, against the same team, is a gift from the remedy gods.
That’s what the Warriors had Monday and will have again on Wednesday. These are perfect opportunities to experiment, and coach Steve Kerr might as well be wearing a lab coat.
Sensing an easy mark in the woeful and wounded Timberwolves, Kerr debuted a new starting lineup, the first unforced change of the season, with rookie center James Wiseman moving out and sixth-year veteran Kevon Looney moving in. The coach also altered his rotations, turning to shooter Mychal Mulder in the first quarter instead of the second, if at all.
The results were tolerable but decidedly unexceptional, a 130-108 win that required some late flame-throwing by Stephen Curry – 15 points in roughly three fourth-quarter minutes – to finish a game in which the starters should have been able to watch the entire fourth quarter.
“We got off to a really good start, so that was what I was hoping for,” Kerr said. “Defense was really good those first six minutes . . . we got up 15 or 17 points. It's just much easier to play from ahead when you set a tone right away.
“I wasn't particularly pleased with the rest of the game. I thought we won on talent.”
There is zero debate about that. In addition to Curry pouring in 36 points, Andrew Wiggins punished his former team with 23 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three steals. The Timberwolves, without stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, are about as vulnerable as any team in the NBA.
Golden State’s lineup change was successful insofar as it accomplished Kerr’s stated goal of establishing an immediate defensive tone. The Warriors built a 12-point lead in the first four minutes and stretched it to 17 later in the first quarter. They never trailed.
But big leads dissipated several times. Minnesota cut it six in the second quarter, with the Warriors coming back to push to 19. When the Timberwolves trimmed the margin to eight early in the fourth, the Warriors needed a little more than two minutes to bump it back to 19.
With the Warriors giving most of that lead back, and the score 103-95 with 6:45 remaining, Curry returned, along with Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Looney.
Three minutes later, the Warriors were up by 18.
When the Warriors get back in the lab Tuesday afternoon, they’ll already know what they need to address.
“We were really good in the first half,” Curry said. “And then, in the third quarter, specifically what I think [Kerr] was referring to, we had a window there where we were making dumb, stupid turnovers, giving up offensive rebounds, having breakdowns in defense. And then, my patented lazy pass at half court. Little stuff like that.”
The Warriors helped the Timberwolves in two very tangible ways. They gave them 25 points off 15 turnovers and, yes, many were dumb. And they often seemed to forget what many consider the first rule of defense: Know the opponent’s personnel.
It was startling how often Malik Beasley, the most feared offensive player on Minnesota’s roster, was left wide open. He scored 30 points on 10-of-18 shooting and was by far the individual player most responsible for not letting his team get buried.
“Andrew and Steph both put up big numbers,” Kerr said. “And Draymond [Green] made some great plays. We had some good individual outings. But I didn't feel like we played a great game and didn't feel like we moved the ball very well."
Green was in total agreement with that last point, which is very valid.
“We had, what, 21 assists?” he said. “Scoring 130 points, and having 21 assists, that's not great. We’ve got to continue to improve across the board. Everybody.”
Well, yes, they do.
The Warriors are going to beat these Timberwolves 98 times out of 100. They’ll see them again Wednesday night, and maybe Russell will be healthy enough to play. If active, he’s dangerous enough to make the Warriors pay for their mistakes.
If D-Lo is inactive, the Warriors can’t speak of progress unless they show better than they did Monday night. That’s the point of working in the lab.