In the midst of a start to the season during which they've shown so much already, the Golden State Warriors briefly gave us a new look on Sunday: one of sluggishness and imprecision.
Golden State has faced tests in the early going — the first meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, the surprising overtime affair with the Brooklyn Nets, the tense closing seconds against the Toronto Raptors, a 23-point deficit against the Clippers on Thursday — and has passed them all. For a second, though, this seemed different.
Playing their third game in four nights on the road in the altitude of the Mile High City, the Warriors lit out to a hot start against the Denver Nuggets, but seemed to run out of gas midway through the second quarter. They looked fatigued, scattered, somewhat ragged. Passes loped lazily rather than popping to their targets; players' movements looked languorous and indirect rather than sharp to their marks; the typically taut, five-men-on-a-string defense seemed slackened.
Instead of packing up and heading home after ending the first quarter down 11, Mike Malone's Nuggets kept attacking, pushing the ball to the front of the rim and refusing to let Golden State breathe, capping an 8-0 run with a Will Barton layup to take a 51-50 lead with 2:19 remaining in the first half. Interim head coach Luke Walton called a timeout, and reportedly challenged his charges:
... and then he rolled out the single most devastating lineup in the NBA today, which promptly created an open right corner 3-pointer for Klay Thompson, sparking an 8-0 run in 62 seconds of game time that put the Warriors back on top for good.
That sequence offered a reminder of the state of play these days. Ordinary teams — like a Nuggets squad that entered Sunday 6-7 with a middle-of-the-pack offense led by rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a bottom-10 defense still learning under new head coach Malone, and four frontcourt contributors (Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic) shelved due to injury — need to be perfect to have a chance of beating these Warriors. Stephen Curry and company, though, are good enough to get gassed, fumble around a bit ... and still annihilate you.
The Warriors had more than enough in reserve to breeze to a 118-105 win at Pepsi Center that improved them to 15-0, tying the 1948-49 Washington Capitols and the 1993-94 Houston Rockets for the best start to a season in NBA history. The Warriors will have the chance to move past those teams into sole possession of the record on Tuesday, when they head home to take on the struggling Los Angeles Lakers at what promises to be an exceptionally raucous Oracle Arena, where Golden State has won 26 straight.
"It's special," Curry told ESPN's J.A. Adande after the game. "To get to 15-0 and tie a record that's been standing for a long time is a huge accomplishment."
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Curry finished with 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting (3-for-8 from 3-point land) to go with seven assists, four rebounds and three steals in the win. Ten of his points came in a decisive third quarter that saw the Warriors extend their lead to 13 points in part by cranking up their defense, holding Denver to 8-for-27 shooting from the floor coming out of intermission.
It was Curry's first game with less than 20 points this season, a stat that comes with the caveat that he played just 27 1/2 minutes and didn't get off the bench in the fourth. It continues to look like the only team that can stop this version of Steph Curry is the Warriors.
Thompson led five Warriors in double figures with 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting in 31 1/2 minutes. He shot 4-for-7 from 3-point land, pacing a Golden State attack that blistered the nets to the tune of 15-for-29 from long distance, as the Warriors' league-best deep shooting (nobody's hitting more 3s per game or connecting at a higher clip than the Dubs) and Denver's season-long struggle to defend the arc (coming into Sunday, no team had allowed more made triples than the Nuggets, and only the New Orleans Pelicans had allowed a higher opponent 3-point percentage) combined for an offensive avalanche from beyond the arc.
Thompson's team-high performance continued his bounce-back after a slow start to the season. In his first five games, as Curry was igniting the atmosphere, Thompson averaged 13.8 points and shot just 5-for-17 (29.4 percent) from deep. Over his last 10, Thompson has rediscovered his rhythm as the Warriors' secondary shotmaker, averaging 18.1 points per game and drilling 43.1 percent of the 7.2 bombs he's launching per contest.
Thompson also matched Curry's seven assists, making them two of seven Warriors to log multiple helpers on Sunday. Golden State finished with 35 dimes on 47 made field goals, a tremendous number that still fell five assists shy of the Warriors' season-high total the last time these two teams played.
Denver opened up looking to force the ball out of Curry's hands, attempting to trap him on the very first possession of the game. The reigning MVP responded by calmly dumping the ball down to screening center Andrew Bogut, who headed right to the basket for a layup. The Warriors lived in the paint in the opening frame, with dribble penetration resulting in dump-offs passes for layups, lobs for dunks and kickouts to shooters left open on the arc by collapsing help defenders. The result: a 20-8 advantage in points in the paint, 60 percent shooting for the quarter, 13 assists on 15 makes, and a 34-23 lead after 12 minutes.
When Walton went to his bench to start the second quarter, the Nuggets made an early run, cutting into the lead with a 7-2 spurt as they started to find cleaner looks and more openings against Golden State's second tier. Denver capitalized with early and opportunistic offense, led by Barton, who scored 11 of his 19 points (to go with six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block) in the quarter, and big man Darrell Arthur, who chipped in 12 of his team-high 21 points in the second, which saw the Nuggets shoot 14-for-22 from the floor.
And then Walton called timeout, and broke out his big guns, and Golden State got back on track, rejoining the race for history even on a night where they seemed to be running on fumes.
"We want to take it to the next level Tuesday back at home," Curry said after the game. "But to come here and get this win, what it all meant, was a huge accomplishment for us."
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