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Warriors ratchet up focus on defense with stars out

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The Golden State Warriors lead the NBA in blocked shots and have stepped up their defense as they deal with injuries. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors have gotten pretty good at playing without a former MVP.

Last season, when Kevin Durant sprained his MCL and was forced to miss 19 games, the Dubs found their defensive identity — which maintained when Durant returned and the team went 16-1 in the postseason.

During that stretch without Durant, the Warriors allowed about four points fewer per game and learned how to win games without simply outscoring their opponents.

Golden State was falling into the same pattern through the first 25 games of the season. The Dubs were content scoring 118.5 points per game while allowing 107.2 — the most since Steve Kerr took over as head coach. Then Stephen Curry suffered a severe ankle sprain on Dec. 4 against the New Orleans Pelicans and it was time to adjust again.

Like the last time they found themselves without a scoring champion, the Warriors focused on their defense to bridge the gap.

It started with a team meeting in Charlotte, where Kerr told his players that they better play defense or else they’ll be “in some trouble.”

“Let’s be the best defensive team in the league from now until Steph gets back and let’s take care of the ball,” Kerr remembered telling the team.

“If we do those two things,” he explained, “we know we’re going to be tough to beat when we’re fully healthy. When we’re not healthy, we have to do those two things.”

They’ve gotten the job done so far, winning all six games without Curry and maintaining a perfect December.

The notion that the Warriors can lose an MVP, hold a team meeting to emphasize defense (not exactly a novel concept) and then become the best defensive team in the NBA must make the other 31 coaches in the league sick to their stomachs.

Just imagine Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson getting his players together and telling them they’re going to emphasize defense. He could say it as much as he wants, they’re not going to be a top defensive team within weeks.

“I’m sure a lot of coaches are saying, ‘Hey, play great defense.’ And their team isn’t,” Kerr said Thursday. “It’s not like we figured this out after years of studying. It’s pretty basic stuff, but our guys are capable of it because we have a lot of talent and really good individual defenders.”

On Wednesday, the Warriors held the Memphis Grizzlies to 84 points, 12 points fewer than their already meager standard. It was the 10th time they held an opponent to fewer than 100 points; they’re 9-1 in those contests.

But the most impressive part of this streak is that they’re doing it while their lineup is in flux. The game against Memphis marked the 12th time Kerr ran out a unique lineup this season.

The Dubs have shown they can do it without Durant, Curry and even reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, who’s missed the last four games.

They’ll likely get Green back tonight for their game against the Los Angeles Lakers. But at this point, it really doesn’t matter. They’ve proven the defense will be fine either way.

WHERE THEY RANK STATISTICALLY

Defensive efficiency – 3rd

Defensive rebounds – 2nd

Steals – 7th

Blocks – 1st

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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