Programming note: Suns-Warriors coverage tips off Sunday at 5:30 p.m. with Warriors Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (territory restrictions apply)
OAKLAND – The development is visible now, palpable too. The energetic moments last longer and are more effective, the lulls shorter and less disastrous.
The Warriors are beginning to look like the team they've always wanted to be, dangerous and multidimensional, the kind of team against which no opponent can get comfortable.
Their 111-97 win over the Hawks on Friday night was fairly pedestrian, a simple case of the superior team coming off a long road trip, taking a few minutes to recalibrate to its home arena, and then throttling an inferior opponent.
What was apparent, and has been in the vast majority of action since the All-Star break, is the kind of increased hunger that can take the Warriors to the next level. They are not elite, not yet, but they're showing signs of understanding what it will take to get there.
"We battled, we competed, we were aggressive, attacked the painted area and we were very unselfish,'' coach Mark Jackson observed.
"It was a really good team win for us,'' said forward David Lee, who finished with a team-high 18 points (on 9-of-12 shooting). "It shows more maturity by our basketball team that we can come back the first game (after) a road trip, which is always tough.''
Once the Warriors realized the Hawks were going to scrap, it sounded an alarm. After falling behind 40-39 in the second quarter, the Warriors raced out to leads as big as 20 points (97-77) in outscoring Atlanta 72-57 the rest of the way.
The result was the Warriors (39-24) going 15 games over .500 for the first time since April 2008.
"All in all, I think we're doing a great job of understanding who we are,'' said backup center Jermaine O'Neal. "We are a defensive-minded team. We've got guys that can score the basketball, but I don’t want anybody to be fooled. We are a defensive-minded team, and if we're going to win it all, that's what's going to help us win it all.''
O'Neal once again made an impact, totaling 17 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes. He signed a one-year contract worth $2 million, thinking this might be his last season. Maybe it will be, for he is playing every minute as if it might be his last.
Or maybe, given his production, he's having second thoughts and would consider returning for one more season, at age 36, with a juicier contract.
"It’s easy to forget that some are saying this is his last year,'' Jackson said. "The guy has plenty left in his tank.''
He does, and his teammates have noticed. O'Neal has been a locker-room leader all season, and his words only gain magnitude when he plays as well as he has.
The Warriors are 8-2 since the break, with only one forgettable performance. They're playing with energy, with purpose and with an element of joy.
That's what good teams do, and they are that. The great teams add consistency, and the Warriors are making strides toward that.
Andre Iguodala was particularly assertive, pushing the tempo and driving through the paint with fury. He looked good, and healthy. He made things happen.
Draymond Green did what he often does, attacking on both ends, playing as if every second truly matters. His stat line – 8 points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals in 25 minutes – is indicative of his infectious energy.
Lee was efficient, once again, craftily working the paint to get buckets.
The worst thing that happened in this game was the sight of Klay Thompson clutching his back and limping into the locker room after taking a fall in the first quarter.
Thompson returned to the bench for the second half and could have played, according to Jackson, but was held out for precautionary reasons.
"If we couldn't win this game without him,'' Jackson said, "we didn't deserve to win it.''
The team meeting upon reuniting after All-Star Weekend continues to resonate. The Warriors stressed raising their intensity, maintaining their focus (especially on defense) and not losing any more games to appreciably weaker teams. They are, so far, accomplishing their mission.
If they can win each remaining game against non-playoff opponents and split those against playoff teams, they'll finishing the regular season well north of 50 wins. That would be the next level, one in which they'll soon become defined not by what they do in the regular season but what they do in playoffs.