When you start off an NBA season with 32 wins in 34 games – a feat that no team in the history of the league had ever accomplished before last night – it seems as if every matchup ultimately becomes a celebration of the incredulous. There’s always another brain-numbing statistic or sublime performance that leaves you grasping at logic even as all semblance of the stuff eludes you. With the Golden State Warriors, it’s usually something to do with Steph Curry, the league’s reigning MVP and all-around icon. But Curry has been hobbled as of late by a calf injury, so it’s up to Draymond Green, not just with points but any conceivable facet of the game he can possibly affect, to keep this team on an implausibly high plane of basketball existence.
Now, Green has reeled off three straight triple-doubles. He’s only the 15th player in the history of the NBA to pull that one off. Curry, who wasn’t even expected by his head coach to play, pumped in a relatively quiet 30 points, but it was a long three late in the fourth that gave Green his 10th assist and pulled the Oracle Arena patrons up to their feet. Golden State cruised to a 111-101 win over Charlotte, and the Warriors, so far from the perfect team they resembled through the first 24 blemish-free results of this season, found that they can still conceive of ways to win when it matters most.
But what mattered most last night was not Curry’s continued play or Green’s wondrous impact. It was that small forward Harrison Barnes returned from a 16-game layoff. He’s looked healthy in pregame drills for a couple of weeks now, but the Warriors played it extra-cautious with Barnes. With their depth and talent, they could take the time to make sure Barnes was fully healed.
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In a sense, the Warriors actually haven’t been whole all season. Head coach Steve Kerr, though a regular and forceful presence on most days, has been missing from the sidelines all season as he recovers from offseason back surgery. But then Barnes went down. Then Klay Thompson got banged up. Curry’s injury a few games back caused him to miss a game in Dallas and the Warriors looked lost at times without his court presence. It’s been an adjustment for all involved – Golden State actually had to rebuild its entire medical staff this past offseason – but now Barnes is back, Curry looks like his old self and even Kerr is expected to resume his spot on the bench any day now.
And watching a Warriors team that doesn’t seem like a sure bet to win every time out by 30 points has made for a more complete and enjoyable basketball-watching experience. You know that it’s going to matter that Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights are hitting those midrange jumpers they so love, that Andrew Bogut is making smart passes out of the lane, that Curry and Thompson are taking advantage of the right defensive mismatches. There is a deeper level of observational investment. The Warriors still fall into these lapses where they go cold or look confused on offense and maybe that’s where Kerr coming back to this team will really pay dividends, in avoiding those stretches of in-game mindlessness. But Golden State has largely remained a team that wins by means of collective strength, whereby victory comes about from five pieces working in tandem to solve a common problem. If a game is nothing more than a collection of basketball plays as mathematical proofs, the Warriors solve these conundrums with profound ease.
Of course, the other team that fits that description is San Antonio, which comes to Oakland on January 25. Because these teams haven’t met yet this season, every Warriors win feels like it’s just building to this inevitable showdown, that each game is a tantalizing precursor to the main event in a few weeks. And if the basketball gods are truly kind, they’ll give us seven games of Golden State and San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. That’s still four months away, but would anyone be shocked if that’s what transpired?
The truth is out there, and we may only know it once these teams finally meet in a matchup that should bring the entire NBA-watching populace to a halt. Until then, the Warriors will keep regaining their health, finessing their play and learning new and interesting ways to crush their opponents’ souls. It might be 11 threes from Curry or yet another Green triple-double. Hell, it could be Barnes going off for 30 and 15 and thinking about that sweet new contract that awaits him next summer. The beauty of this team lies in the not-knowing what form that will ultimately take – but also the certainty that, oh yes, it always comes.