SACRAMENTO — On Saturday morning, when asked to diagnose what happened on Thursday against the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said his team let its guard down, and couldn’t find its way to being consistent.
The Rockets, according to their general manager Daryl Morre, have been purpose-built to beat Golden State, mimicking the Warriors’ 3-point-heavy attack and taking it to the extreme. On Thursday, they clawed back from a 20-point deficit to defeat the two-time defending NBA champions. Imitation, Kerr said, was the sincerest form of flattery, and his team had become victims of its own success, losing to teams purpose-built to beat them at their own game.
“Every game that we struggle, it’s not one thing,” Kerr said after shootaround at the Golden 1 Center on Saturday. “It’s always something a little different.”
On Saturday, after a dominant, 43-point opening quarter against the Sacramento Kings and a dynamic offensive performance, the Warriors were again plagued by fits and starts on defense against a young, talented team built in their image. Pushed to the brink in a fourth quarter that saw nine lead changes, Warriors guard Stephen Curry scored 20 of his game-high 42 points in the final stanza to power a 127-123 win.
“The intensity, the back and forth, they obviously built a lot of momentum in the fourth,” Curry said. “Me and Klay were out there on the court, obviously tonight we made an adjustment. I want to play as many minutes as I can. That’s how it’s supposed to be, but at the end of the day, it’s a long year.”
It was the first time this season that Curry — who normally plays sparingly in the fourth quarter — played every minute of the final period. Kerr and his staff about taking him out, as has become routine the past several seasons, but, Kerr said, “We just felt like we needed to do something a little different, the way the game was going.”
Curry hit 6-of-12 shots during a quarter-long duel with Sacramento’s Justin Jackson, who hit 3-of-4 from beyond the arc in the fourth and finished 10-of-14 from the field and 5-of-7 from three for 28 points, with 13 of them coming in the final period. Jackson, when asked if the Kings had earned the respect of the three-time champions, said, “I hope so.”
When Thompson was asked if he’s concerned about facing Sacramento in the playoffs, he said, simply, “Absolutely not.”
Until that final quarter, Golden State (26-14) had trouble contending with Sacramento’s young mix of guards, including Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, who finished with a team-high 32, going 8-for-13 from 3-point land as the two teams combined for an NBA-record 41 3-point makes in the third of three battles between the Northern California teams to be decided by five points or less.
“We’re not too far from them,” Hield said. “It’s going to come; might not be this year, maybe next year, it’s going to come.”
Hield — who has been called the next Stephen Curry by former Warriors minority owner and current Kings majority share holder Vivek Ranadive — couldn’t overshadow what was a sparkling — and necessary — night from Curry, along with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. The four combined to shoot 38-of-68.
“We’re just a couple possessions away from being elite, and from what we want to do,” Hield said. “Finish those possessions and get stops on defense when we’re supposed to get stops and just grind it out.”
Behind an early burst from Thompson — who has been mired in a season-long shooting slump — Golden State went on a 13-0 run in the first quarter. Thompson scored the game’s first five points, but it wasn’t until Fox twisted his ankle by falling on Green’s foot while attempting a floating jumper with 9:25 to go in the first quarter that Golden State’s offense started to hum. After Kevon Looney blocked that attempt, the Warriors had a 5-on-3 match-up, which gave Curry a wide-open three.
The Warriors got up by as many as 16 — their largest margin against Sacramento (19-20) after two nip-and-tuck affairs earlier in the season — but the Kings went on a 15-0 run of their own in the middle of the second quarter. Jackson hit back-to-back jumpers, followed by a lay-up and a three from Yogi McLemore. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Curry and Thompson widened the gap again, but not for long, as the Kings took a 63-61 lead with 3:32 to go in the first half.
Golden State crept back into the locker room with a 70-69 lead at halftime, but as well as they played on offense, Sacramento just didn’t make many mistakes. The biggest difference between the Warriors and the Kings was that Golden State wasted opportunities, while the Kings did not. The Warriors committed six turnovers (not egregious), but only got one turnover from Sacramento before the break. The Kings would finish with 29 points off of 14 Warriors.
“A lot of those were threes,” Kerr said.
“The live ball turnovers, open-court turnovers, lead to lay-ups and threes, and they knocked those shots down tonight,” Durant said. “Fourteen turnovers is usually what we want to have, with how fast we play, but we’ve just got to have better intentions … That difference in turnovers and possessions means a lot. If we’ve got six turnovers, that may not seem like a lot, but compared to them, they get more shots at the rim. If we let go of the ball a little bit, we have to be more aggressive on the other side on defense.”
As Kerr has said repeatedly, the Warriors’ offense follows from their defense, and there wasn’t much in the second quarter as the Kings made five straight shots, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Golden State had four players in double-digits in the first half. Combined, Durant (13 points), Thompson (17 on 7-of-10 shooting), Curry (16) and Quinn Cook (10) shot 22-of-33 from the field, but the Warriors couldn’t separate, nor could they get consistent defensive stops after that 13-0 run, particularly against a recovered Fox and Hield.
Hield went 6-of-11 from the field in the first half, and tossed up a momentum-swinging alley-oop for Willie Cauley-Stein to tie the game at 65-65 in the moments before halftime.
After Golden State made a 9-0 run to start the second half, Heild hit a three from the top of the arc, and Cauley-Stein gook a bounce pass from Fox for a dunk to get to within five. A Green three was followed by a Hield lay-up, and then a Hield three from the right wing in Durant’s face, as Golden State called time, up 86-84.
The rest of the game played out much the same as the previous two contests between the two Northern California teams have — fast, close and a bit out of Golden State’s comfort zone. When the Warriors —10th in the league in pace — tried to speed up to match the Kings’ pace — second in the league — they made unforced errors, including a bad curry pass that was intercepted by Fox and passed up to Cauley-Stein for a two-handed jam to tie things up at 86-86.
Sacramento took a 94-88 lead with just under four minutes to go in the third, with Jackson making the 16th of 24 Sacramento 3-point tries. Hield then hit a corner three to put the Kings up 99-91.
A three by Curry tied things up at 105-105 with 7:52 left in regulation, and a steal by Curry led to a Durant three to put Golden State up 111-106, but Jackson took a cross-court bounce pass and hoisted up a three of his own, keeping Golden State close. A long two by Fox narrowed the lead to one. A pair of misses on a single possession by Curry and Durant gave way to a 28-foot 3-pointer from the top of the arc by Jackson, giving the Kings the lead once again, only for Curry to answer back with a 27-footer of his own.
Curry, who’s played sparingly in the fourth quarter this season, as Kerr likes to play his All-Stars between 32-36 minutes, played nearly the whole second half as the Warriors looked to keep pace. He went 8-for-17 after halftime, including a gooseneck three from 28 feet out on the right wing to briefly give Golden State the lead with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter off of Durant’s ninth and final assist.
Naturally, Fox responded with a drive and a make to grab the lead right back. A break by Green and an alley oop for an Andre Iguodala dunk gave the Warriors a four-point lead with 56.8 to go, and Curry hit a pair of free throws with 9.4 seconds left to seal the game.