OAKLAND – The Warriors were rolling and the crowd was roaring and the defending champions were in the midst of soundly thrashing yet another contender when, suddenly, blood was trickling down their faces.
And when the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the most dynamic teams in basketball, went from being down 18 midway through the third quarter to tie the Warriors with 3:36 left, anxiety started filling the aisles at a sold-out Oracle Arena.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr responded by utilizing a timeout to put his charges squarely in the moment.
“About time we got a close game to play in,” he said, facing those on the bench. “This is fun. Let’s execute down the stretch.”
The Warriors followed instructions, closing out the game with a 12-4 run that gave them a 116-108 victory that pushed their win streak to nine games.
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“We closed it out the right way,” Draymond Green said.
“Losing the lead . . . I don’t really think we blew it; they made plays, which is expected from a good team like that,” he added. “But the way we closed it out down the stretch was key and it’s been a huge part of our success closing out tight games like that.”
The Warriors (46-4) went back to the things that allowed them to dig out of a quick 9-0 hole in the opening minutes. They spun a web of wicked defense around the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, holding Oklahoma City (38-14) without a field goal over the final 3:36.
With Green gobbling up rebounds despite the obligatory height disadvantage and Klay Thompson draining a big 3-pointer to provide a six-point lead (110-104) with 1:40 to play, the Warriors allowed their fans to exhale.
The Warriors “executed,” using those final minutes to make five of their last seven shots, satisfying a crowd peppered with celebrities in town for Super Bowl 50.
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“It’s been a while since we had to get stops and have to be solid down the stretch offensively,” Kerr said.
“This was very playoff-like, for sure,” Curry said. “Whether we build a big lead or not, just the atmosphere, just the intensity and adrenaline down the stretch, that’s what you expect. It was good to get that feeling, to execute and not let their run get the best of us.”
The win put the Warriors’ home win streak at 41, three behind the record 44 set by the Chicago Bulls between March 1995 and April 1996. The defending champs are 23-0 at home this season.
Moreover, the Warriors are 4-0 against Cleveland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City – the teams generally considered the biggest threats to dethrone them.
This game was different than the other three, though, because the Thunder responded to a second-quarter barrage that gave the Warriors a 20-point lead. Behind Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder narrowed the margin to eight after three quarters and tied it in the fourth.
“We got a little stagnant in the second (half) but we battled and competed and did whatever it took to get the win,” Curry said. “That’s all that counts at the end.
“But we can play better.”
That’s the message Kerr constantly delivers to his team, usually with Andre Iguodala and Green echoing in the background.
The Warriors owned the second quarter, shooting 71.4 percent while holding OKC to 42.9 percent. They led 73-59 at the half, their ninth half with 70 or more points in a league in which no other team has more than one such half.
The Warriors were able to hold on because they made OKC’s stars work for everything they got in the second half. Durant and Westbrook combined to shot 7-of-24 after halftime. Those numbers allowed the Warriors to survive the 5-of-6 second-half shooting by center Enes Kanter.
Consider this test passed.
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“It helps us a lot, especially against a team like that,” said Marreese Speights, who scored 15 points in 17 minutes off the bench. “Draymond got big rebounds, Steph made big plays and Andre was playing D tonight.”
All of which led Kerr to conclude that this game, in its own way, signaled progress.
“This one was good,” he said. “It was good for us. We needed to feel that pressure and I thought our guys handled it really well.”
They heard the coach, heard him loud and clear. They had fun. They executed. They won. And, still, they know they can play better.
Can a team have a better feeling in the regular season?