OAKLAND – In the first of three games that will have direct bearing on the Western Conference standings, the Warriors played small and still stood tall.
With matchups forcing centers Andrew Bogut and Jermaine O'Neal to the bench in the second half, the Warriors accelerated at both ends to take a 113-107 victory over the talented and relentless Suns on Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
During a third quarter in which Bogut played four minutes and O'Neal never left the bench, the Warriors outscored Phoenix 38-17 to pretty much take over the game. A late Suns rally narrowed the score, but the Warriors had built too much cushion to give back.
"When we came out in the third quarter, we defended at a high level, took care of the basketball and got good shots," Stephen Curry said. "And that's when we're at our best. We sustained it for 12 minutes and got that 14-point lead going into the fourth."
The Warriors (40-24) utterly dominated the third quarter – the only quarter in which they outrebounded (12-5), outshot (72.7 percent to 31.3 percent) and out-passed (11 assists to two) the Suns.
"We got it done," coach Mark Jackson said. "We rebounded, executed offensively and took care of the basketball – the things that have always put us in position to win ballgames."
Though that is true, the personnel was different than the usual. Power forward David Lee spent most of the quarter at center, playing all but 11 seconds.
Klay Thompson played every second, scoring 13 of his 18 points, hitting all five of his shots in the quarter, including three 3-pointers.
Lee and Thompson were supported primarily by Curry (nine minutes), Draymond Green (eight), Andre Iguodala (seven) and Steve Blake (five). The Warriors forced seven turnovers in the frame, most leading to open transition buckets.
"They were knocking down three after three after three and getting offensive rebounds," Suns guard Gerald Green said.
Going small was a tactical maneuver by Jackson and his staff. Having lost twice to the Suns earlier this season, it was apparent that Phoenix does most of its offensive damage on drives by guard Goran Dragic and outside shots from Dragic and everybody else.
The move was required after a first half in which the Suns sizzled, shooting 56.1 percent as the Warriors played occasional defense.
"That's just the way the game goes," said Bogut, whose feelings did not seem hurt. "When they put Channing (Frye) at (center) that's a tough cover for me and Jermaine. Draymond and David did a great job out there for us defensively, so you definitely see why it happens.
"There's going to be some games where that's going to happen, and there's going to be games where the opposite happens. But the most important thing is that at the end of the game you get the win."
In this game, the small lineup was the key to the Warriors winning for the ninth time in 11 games and putting three games between themselves and the Suns (36-26).
Consider it one more thing the Warriors have learned about themselves as they push toward the postseason.
THE GOOD: Thompson hit clutch shots at big moments, and when that happens everything seems to fall in line for the offense.
The defense that materialized in the second half was the key to this victory. Jackson went small to stay with the Phoenix shooters and it worked splendidly.
Lee, perhaps aware the Warriors were clobbered on the boards in the first half, grabbed six rebounds in the third quarter. The Suns, as a team, plucked five.
THE BAD: Those late missed free throws in the final 20 seconds, two in a row by Iguodala and then two more in a row by Blake, provided some anxious moments.
The poor first-half defense was reminiscent of those early season games in which the Warriors napped until halftime. They recovered, again, but they ought to remember this is how they lost some games they should have won.
THE TAKE: Though the Warriors realize they have a good defense, it's becoming more evident that they actually trust it to change games. That's what happened on Sunday. Yet it was different in this instance, because both centers, Bogut and O'Neal played a combined four minutes in the second half.
It's one thing to have a solid defense, quite another to know you can lean on it at crucial moments.