SAN FRANCISCO — From media day all the way through training camp, the narrative around the Golden State Warriors was really … nice.
Chris Paul was getting along marvelously with his new teammates. Nice.
Klay Thompson had gotten back to playing pickup basketball over the summer and was in great physical shape. Nice. .
The offseason additions — veterans and rookies alike — seemed to fit perfectly. Nice.
Steph Curry was … well, Steph Curry is basically incapable of not being nice.
But, after a 6-2 start oozing with kumbaya vibes, Golden State hit a massive roadblock during a sudden three-game losing streak. Nobody besides Curry could score, and the defense, so good to begin the season, slipped to middle-of-the-pack. The efficiency of the best five-man unit in the entire NBA last season — Curry, Thompson, Green, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney — had fallen off a cliff.
There’s a line in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” that puts a twist on the commonly accepted definition of insanity — doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result: “Of course it don’t feel right. What has felt right for you doesn’t work. You need to try some wrong, dog.”
Well,into the Warriors’ 104-101 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday may have been exactly the type of “wrong” that Golden State desperately craved.
Was Klay Thompson wrong to shove his hand into Jaden McDaniels’ chest and grab onto his jersey? Possibly. Was Draymond Green also wrong to run toward the scuffle and put Rudy Gobert in an MMA-worthy chokehold? Certainly.
But, no matter how they got there, the Warriors came alive with all three core members of the dynasty off the floor, either due to ejection (Thompson and Green) or(Curry).
“When Draymond and Klay got into it, I thought that’s what kind of sparked the energy from our fans,” Warriors rookie Brandin Podziemski said after the game. “Draymond, he does anything he can to impact winning, and maybe that’s what was called for tonight.”
Head coach Steve Kerr said, when he thought he would only be without Curry, who’s nursing a knee injury, that he would use the game to experiment with different lineup combinations. It’s safe to say he had no clue he’d be doing this much experimenting.
After the ejections, however, the chip on the team’s collective shoulder grew tenfold, and necessity defined roles that were previously muddled.
Paul, who had graciously acquiesced to the second unit, got back to being the alpha playmaker that long ago punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. He missed a key jumper with just under a minute left, but he went 6-for-14 from the floor, including 2-for-3 from 3-point range, a step in the right direction after shooting just 37% from the field and 16% from long distance on the season.
“It’s tough, it’s a balance,” Paul said when asked how he determines when to score and when to create opportunities for others. “I always say, try to make the right play without being too aggressive, but I’m gonna get back to it. I’m gonna get back to it.”
Podziemski, a brash rookie whom Kerr affectionately called “cocky” before the game, played freely and confidently, knowing that the coaching staff didn’t have the luxury of benching him if he made a silly mistake. The 20-year-old lit up Chase Center, eliciting the loudest cheers of the young season after picking up a crucial steal followed by a ridiculous turnaround 3-pointer to close out the third quarter.
The performance was enough for Kerr to assert afterward that Podziemski would become a permanent part of the rotation moving forward — an epiphany that may not have occurred if Green and Thompson hadn’t been ejected earlier.
“He’s gonna play every night. He’s earned that,” Kerr said of Podziemski after the game. “He’s always in the right spot. He’s fearless. He connects the game. He plays the way we want to play. The ball moves when he’s out there. He’s attacking at the right times, he’s cutting at the right times. Defensively, he’s really good. He’s a damn good player, so he’s gonna play.”
Wiggins, who had curiously struggled for the entire season thus far, well … he struggled again. But at least he was forced to try to score, hoisting a season-high 15 shots in 28 foul-plagued minutes. Kerr also commended the energy that Wiggins brought the team early, fighting for loose balls and going for offensive rebounds.
And then there was center Dario Saric, who has been excellent off the bench to start the season, but may have earned himself a larger role with Tuesday’s 21-point, four-rebound, four-assist performance. With Curry out, Saric got the start on Tuesday ahead of Looney, which was likely due more to matchups than any sort of hierarchical shift. However, Kerr said after the game that while the normal starters will get every opportunity to perform, Saric would be an excellent candidate to jump into the first unit because he “changes the chessboard” with his unique skill set.
Paul was the first to point out that there are no moral victories in the NBA, but that Tuesday night was a big step for the team. Podziemski is in the rotation, Paul and Wiggins may be on the path to rediscovering their shooting strokes, and Saric has proven that he’s capable of bigger minutes if necessary.
While it may lead to further punishment for Green, the 6-6 Warriors may look back on this moment as a turning point, a reminder of what it takes to get back to the championship mountaintop.
“In order to win in the NBA, obviously, you have to have talent, but you have to have energy. You have to bring something to the table life-wise, joy-wise, energy-wise, competitiveness-wise. That’s what I watched tonight,” Kerr added. “Our fans have watched this team win four championships. They weren’t won by a bunch of powders and wallflowers. They were won by gamers, competitors, guys who brought energy and joy and passion to everything. That’s what it takes. So, that’s what I’m looking for.”