Warriors are rising, but they're not yet ready for West's elite

Warriors are rising, but they're not yet ready for West's elite originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO – The Los Angeles Lakers had lost, and so had the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans. That gave the Warriors a chance to pass Los Angeles for the No. 9 seed and creep closer to Dallas and New Orleans in the Western Conference standings.

The Warriors seemed to sense the opportunity presented with a national TV game against the Denver Nuggets coming into their house at Chase Center on Sunday. They responded to the big test by building a 56-40 lead over the defending NBA champs midway through the second quarter.

Only to have some of the bad habits from so many games earlier this season resurface and sabotage their afternoon.

The result was a 119-103 loss that crushed the spirits of the sellout crowd (18,064) at Chase Center and impolitely delivered a message to Golden State: You might be a quality team making a nice late-season surge, but you're not yet up to the task of taking down the conference elite.

The Warriors have won eight of their last 10 games, with the losses coming against the Nuggets on Sunday and the Los Angeles Clippers 11 days ago. Both teams are among the top four teams in the West – the squads lining up to face Golden State in the first round should it make the playoffs.

While the Warriors acknowledge that rising to a top-four seed is practically implausible, the inability to close the gap on those teams indicates their ceiling.

"We have been doing that," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said when asked about closing the performance gap. "It's two-way basketball, good defense and solid offense. The last few weeks, we've been doing both. Tonight just wasn't our night. Shots weren't going. We didn't get into much of a rhythm.

"But I'm confident that we can get back on track because we've been playing pretty well."

They have been playing well – against teams at, below their level or compromised by injury. The Nuggets had all their key players healthy, and it showed.

Denver won the second, third and fourth quarters, outscoring Golden State by 32 (79-47) over the final 29-plus minutes to punctuate a 4-0 sweep of the season series. The Warriors have lost the last seven games between the teams.

This was the 10th time during the 2023-24 NBA season -- according to Golden State's statistics crew -- that the Warriors lost a game after fumbling a double-digit lead in a matter of minutes. And the second time it's happened against the Nuggets, who on Jan. 4 at Chase Center, wiped out an 18-point deficit in less than seven minutes to send the Warriors to defeat.

The Warriors led this one 56-50, with 5:22 remaining in the half, and Denver closed with a 21-5 run to pull into a halftime tie.

"That was definitely the key stretch of the game," Kerr said. "And then the first five minutes of the third, I didn't like our energy. I didn't feel like we responded well enough. Denver kind of controlled the game from there."

The Warriors, a top-five offense, managed only 42 points in the second half, including a season-low 16 while fading in the fourth quarter.

"They made us pay for like five, six possessions in a row, got to the free throw line I think twice, slowed the game down a little bit," said Stephen Curry, who scored 20 points but shot only 6-of-19 from the field, including 1-of-10 from deep. "Credit them. It's been maybe three games like this – obviously not in the fourth quarter like last game here – where we had a significant lead. They're a great team that didn't panic and slowly walked us down."

The Nuggets didn't panic because, well, they turned up the defense at key times, they're the defending champs and they have the most skilled player in the league. Nikola Jokic, their 7-foot center, hung a whopping triple-double – 32 points, 16 rebounds, 16 assists – on the Warriors.

"For us to close that second quarter 14-0, tied it up at half, and then start the third on a 14-4 run, that's a 28-4 run, in their building, after being down 16," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "That's what I'm most proud about."

Denver has a belief that comes from winning games with high consistency – the kind of belief the Warriors once had, for the same reason.

But being walked down is a feeling the Warriors are experiencing with remarkable frequency within the conference, particularly among the elite. They have lost leads of 15 and 22 points against the Los Angeles Clippers, an 18-point lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a 12-point lead against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Warriors are 2-12 against the top four in the West – Minnesota, OKC, Denver and the Clippers. They're still in 10th place in the West, but their 16-21 conference record is considerably worse than all nine teams in front of them.

"It was on us, and we bit ourselves in the foot a few times," said rookie center Trayce Jackson-Davis. "When we get a lead, we've got to maintain it. Last time (the Nuggets) were in here, we were up by 15 or 16 in the fourth. We need to maintain, and keep building on the lead, and keep getting stops."

The Warriors head east on Tuesday to begin a four-game road trip. They will do so without upward movement on a day when they were in position for it and still wondering how high they can go.

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