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MILWAUKEE — The Warriors were “embarrassed.”
That’s not my word. It was Steve Kerr’s. It referred to a November beatdown of the Golden State Warriors by the Milwaukee Bucks. And it was the reason Friday’s rematch in Wisconsin drew countless sets of eyes from around the NBA.
The league’s narrative brokers, and several of the thousands who dipped out of biting cold and into Fiserv Forum, billed it as a “test.” So did Bucks center Brook Lopez after a shootaround earlier in the day. So did Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer two hours before tip.
But by the time those thousands slunk back out into freezing temperatures, it had instead become a reminder. A reminder of the Warriors’ preeminence. A reminder that the champs still run the NBA.
The final score was 105-95. The Warriors, admittedly, were not even at their best. They were shorthanded. They turned the ball over 18 times. But that 95 was the number that mattered. It was Golden State’s answer to a dreadful defensive performance 28 days earlier. To the challenge the league’s best offense posed.
They met it with, in Kerr’s words, their “best defensive game of the year” – just as they so often have over the past five years, and just as they know they can when necessary.
The Warriors clamped down on the NBA’s best offense
Kerr likes to call it a shell. It’s the defensive fortress the Warriors, at their best, build around the rim. And a month earlier, it had “sprung all kinds of leaks.” The Bucks had spread it thin, then punctured it with 134 points, 1.28 per possession, 84 in the paint, on 43-of-66 shooting inside the arc. They stormed out of Oracle Arena with a 23-point victory.
Kerr called that points-in-the-paint number “shocking.” He had “never seen anything like it.” It was, he said, “the worst defensive night we’ve had.”
The intimation was that the rematch had to bring improvement. The Bucks, Kerr noted, “exposed” the Warriors in November like only they can. “Milwaukee probably puts as much stress on your defense, in terms of the spacing and penetration, probably more so than anybody,” he said in a Fiserv tunnel as tipoff approached.
In that sense, it was a test for the Dubs, too. Of whether they could still flip their defensive switch when necessary. And the answer was emphatic. Definitive. Conclusive.
The Bucks had not been held under 103 points all season. Golden State became the first team to keep them in double digits. The champs corralled Giannis Antetokounmpo. Didn’t stop him, but slowed him. Turned him over. Wrenched him out of sync by mixing and matching defensive looks. They rotated rapidly. Built their shell. Got deflections. Took charges.
Antetokounmpo wowed the crowd once with a slashing, leaning tip-slam through contact. But the difficulty of the three-point play, in a way, told the story of the night. Klay Thompson immediately answered with a three – one of the visitors’ 19 – at the other end. When the Bucks later took their first lead of the second half, Curry detonated it with a triple off the dribble nine seconds later.
Milwaukee never led again. Its 19 fourth-quarter points were its fewest in a final period this season. The scary part is that it often felt as if they were powerless against Golden State’s oppressive D. Against arguably the league‘s best defensive performance of the first two months.
And the scarier part? That oppressive D is missing the league’s most versatile interior stopper.
The Warriors did all this shorthanded
Had Friday been a repeat of November, a ready-made excuse was waiting. Not that Golden State wanted to make it. But it hopped around the perimeter at one basket as Fiserv filled and readied itself for the national TV show. A four-time All-Star stepped into an 18-footer on the right baseline, then from the right wing. A three-time All-Star, bobbing up and down to the arena’s pregame playlist, was right on his heels.
Neither DeMarcus Cousins nor Draymond Green played Friday night. The Warriors didn’t need them. Didn’t need one of the NBA’s best offensive centers. Didn’t need a former Defensive Player of the Year.
But Green, who was ready to go Friday despite Kerr’s and the training staff’s eventual precaution, will return Monday at Oracle. He has, per Kerr, “made huge strides over the last four or five days.”
Cousins – who Kevin Durant said has been “just a little bit louder than usual,” a “good sign” – will eventually follow. Some bystanders were blown away by Friday’s performance. They were even more so when Cousins came strolling down the hall postgame, out to the loading dock, a separate reminder that the Warriors, remarkably, could soon climb to a new peak.
Why the Warriors responded
At their old peak, though the Splash Brothers and offense drew bucketloads of attention, the Warriors were a dominant defensive unit. They led the league on a per-possession basis in 2014-15. They finished sixth the following year, and second the season after that.
Last winter, as they cruised through injuries to an underwhelming 58-24 regular-season record, their defensive rating slipped to 11th. This season, with poor health still nagging them, it had dipped to 19th.
But in Milwaukee, they saw opportunity. Opportunity to re-assert themselves. Kerr saw no need for an X’s and O’s overhaul. “Very few schematic adjustments,” he said postgame. Instead energy levels adjusted. Focus ramped up. Intensity spiked.
Why, a reporter asked Kerr. Why now, specifically?
“Because they beat us by about 50 [last month],” he responded, without hesitation, exaggerating but not misleading.
“Our guys are competitive,” he continued. “We only play Eastern [Conference] teams twice. We know which ones have a chance to be in the finals. We always want to play well against those particular teams, just in case we’re fortunate enough to get there and see them [again].”
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