The Warriors left town Sunday grateful they had rediscovered the impact and importance of defense.
Maybe they’re back to being the team favored to win the NBA Finals. Maybe.
There can be no certainty before Monday night, when the Warriors enter the ear-splitting cave called Chesapeake Energy Arena to face the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With the exception of the opening minutes of their rout of the Bucks on Saturday night, the Warriors over the last three games played nine impressive quarters during which their defense was by turns effective to devastating.
“That’s kind of what we’ve been talking about this entire time,” Draymond Green said. “We have to get into a groove defensively and everything else will take care of itself after that.”
Those wins, however, were against the 76ers, the Magic and the Bucks. Philadelphia and Orlando are light years away from contending in the Eastern Conference, and Milwaukee is fighting like hell in hopes of simply getting in.
The Sixers gave the Warriors fits for three quarters, taking a 12-point lead into the fourth before Green whacked his teammates awake with his defense and led them to the comeback victory.
Orlando is abominable, surrendering 21 turnovers -- for 36 points -- that were as much about its sloppiness than it was the Warriors defense.
The Bucks were on the second night of a back-to-back, following an emotionally charged victory over the Lakers the previous night in Los Angeles.
These victories were somewhat preordained and may be fool’s gold. Indeed, whether the Warriors have completed the mental and physical adjustments required to beat quality teams without Kevin Durant remains uncertain.
The Warriors often talk about how “defense travels.” Neither the defense nor the offense went with them on their last road trip, the most treacherous of the season. If they bring it this time, they’ll be fine against Russell Westbrook and Co., as well as against the Mavericks on Tuesday night in Dallas.
“I’m actually going to show them a map, show them how close it is from Oklahoma City to Dallas, so we shouldn’t be intimidated by the geography,” Kerr said, referring to the roughly 205-mile distance.
Fatigue, as well as the time needed to absorb the jolt of losing Durant, surely played a factor in the poor performances earlier this month. The fatigue surely faded with a week at home, playing every other day. And much of the bold self-assurance lost with Durant’s absence can be regained if Curry starts cooking, as he was Saturday.
Having Durant with them on the road also should provide an emotional lift.
That’s the intrigue of these next two days, for they are consequential enough, particularly the game against the Thunder, to tell us where the Warriors stand as they enter the final 22 days of the regular season.
At the point of the season when most every team is scrambling, OKC’s five-game win streak is the longest currently active. Westbrook is on a mission and he’ll want to make a statement against the team he considers his primary nemesis.
The Warriors, based on their work last week, believe they’ll be ready.
“It’s a direct reflection of our defense,” Curry said.
“We’re getting into the open court a lot more,” he added. “The morale is better when you’re not taking the ball out of the basket every possession. For the most part, we’ve done a good job of staying away from fouling too much so we can keep the pace of the game up. We’re being a lot smarter with the ball and taking care of it when we do have half-court opportunities to find an open guy, keep the ball moving, create flow. And we obviously have to knock down open shots when we get them.”
Sounds good. Worked well, too. But this Warriors recovery won’t feel complete unless the defense make trip to Oklahoma and Texas.