Warriors ‘win the right way’ ahead of Stephen Curry’s return, but still have major hurdle to clear

SAN FRANCISCO — Klay Thompson did styling. Jordan Poole was smiling. Jonathan Cuminga made a poster.

Pure joy emanated from the Chase Center as the Golden State Warriors closed out their 5-0 homestand with another win, this time 108-99 against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. Most impressively, they won every game without the help of Andrew Wiggins, who is out indefinitely with a family issue, and Stephen Curry, who is expected to return from lower leg injuries on Sunday.

It’s just the second five-game winning streak of the season for the Warriors, who have looked for momentum like a missing remote control for the entirety of their tangled 2022 title defense. They are now four games over .500 for the first time this season. season, in a single game against the fourth-place Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference.

Golden State’s other five-game streak, interestingly enough, also came without Curry in the lineup. In fact, their 14-12 record in games without Curry (7-4 during this most recent stretch) is one of the main reasons an underwhelming season hasn’t turned disastrous.

Thompson’s resurgence was necessary to keep the Warriors without their offensive engine and emotional leader. After opening up early in the season about the pain he felt from harsh criticism of his relatively slow start, Thompson has been lights out since Christmas — over 26 points per game on 44 percent 3-point shooting. Overall, he’s a fraction of a point shy of his career-high scoring average and is shooting 41 percent from deep. He’s also got his hustle back, as he showed with that gutsy, positive pull from almost midcourt late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s win over the Pelicans.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also talked to Thompson about the evolution of his game, as all big men should do as they get older. Charged with the sharpshooter with more playmaking and crashing the boards, and during the current five-game winning streak, Thompson has responded by averaging 3.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds, including a career-high 11 boards in Thursday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

While he and Jordan Poole kept the offense going without Curry, the real story was the defense, which allowed just over 100 points per 100 possessions in the perfect home game, compared to 114 in the previous 60 games. Thompson credits improved trust and communication to this point. Defensive anchor Kevon Looney cited building better habits and limiting fouls. Jonathan Kuminga championed increased physicality and overall chemistry.

Call it what you will, but the defense appears to be at a league level for the first consecutive season since Golden State won the title last June.

“We’ve been a lot more locked in with the game plan, with the keys, with the big picture of what we’re trying to do every play,” Kerr said of the uptick in defensive efficiency. “I think it makes sense that it’s happening now because it’s the stretch run and a lot of our younger guys have gone through it now.”

By “younger guys,” Kerr is referring to Kuminga — who seems to be taking a leap, literally, the last few games — along with Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Moses Moody, Patrick Baldwin Jr. and two-way players Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb. DiVincenzo has been especially critical during stretches without Curry, and has developed into Kerr’s Swiss Army Knife, able to shoot, facilitate, rebound and defend with equal skill and enthusiasm.

The Warriors also have an asset in their back pocket — the best starting lineup in the NBA. Curry, Thompson, Looney, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green have a combined plus-22 net rating this season, by far the best of any five-man unit that has played at least 300 minutes.

“This group won a championship last year, so that gives us a lot of confidence,” Kerr said of his starters. “We’ve seen individual growth and we know we have certain lineups that we can really rely on. I think the whole thing is that we believe that if we’re healthy and clicking, we can beat anybody.”

The Warriors are looking like the Warriors again, a strange development considering they were missing vital pieces in Curry and Wiggins. But there’s still one huge hurdle to overcome: They have to win on the road.

Both of Golden State’s five-game winning streaks this season have come at home, where they have a sparkling 27-7 record. Once they leave the friendly confines of San Francisco, however, things get bad — like 7-23 bad. The Warriors have allowed 119 points per 100 possessions on the road, third-worst in the NBA, behind only the lowly San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.

They had fantastic home stretches that were immediately soured by disastrous road trips. But Looney sees reason to believe things will be different when the Warriors head to Los Angeles to begin a three-game road trip against the Lakers on Sunday.

“I thought earlier this season when we were winning at home, it was just because we made shots or things like that,” Looney said after Friday’s win over the Pelicans. “But these last few games, we’ve been playing our style of basketball and winning the right way. And I think we can continue that on the road.”

Most league watchers were waiting to see if and when the Warriors would make their inevitable run. The talent is clearly there, with a roster largely the same as the one that hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy last year, and it looks like they’re starting to put things together with Curry, Gary Payton II and eventually Wiggins expected to return in the fight.

But if the Warriors are to be considered true title contenders again, they need to prove they can win away from home. A strong performance to close the season — especially on the road — will only boost the confidence of a four-time league leader who will terrorize every opponent they see in the playoffs.

“It’s exciting. There’s no time to relax, though,” Thompson said after Friday’s win. “Just because Steph is coming back, we can’t sit back and expect him to save us. You’ve got to keep playing with the same mindset and the same effort. But I mean, we’re all so excited to get our guys back. .”

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