OAKLAND — After missing their three shots of the game, the Golden State Warriors trotted back on defense with 10:48 remaining in the first quarter.
Trailing Pacers forward Bojan Bogdanovic, Golden State center DeMarcus Cousins raised his right arm to send an emphatic swat down on Bogdanovic’s attempted layup, sending ball back 20 feet back into the middle of the floor.
Cousins’ early block proved to foreshadow one of the best defensive performances of the season for Golden State.
In a 112-89 win over Indiana on Thursday night at Oracle Arena, a night begun with a standing ovation and tribute video for the returning Andrew Bogut, the Warriors used their defensive ferocity to overcome early offensive struggles, allowing the fewest points they’ve allowed all season and hinting that their game is beginning to lock in at the right time, just ahead of the playoffs.
“It’s just developing an attitude where we try to impose our will every night,” Warriors point guard Stephen Curry said. “Tonight, if we didn’t play defense the way we did, it could have been a much different game.”
Coming off of a blistering performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves that saw Curry and his fellow backcourt mate Klay Thompson combine for 64 points, the Warriors guards failed to hit the same marks early on Thursday night.
To begin the game, Golden State missed its first four looks at the basket, and turned the ball over twice.
Thompson, in particular, struggled early, going 0-for-7 and at times barely ticking the rim. Despite shooting just 8-of-22 from the floor as a team, including 1-of-10 from deep, the Warriors still managed to escape the first quarter tied at 19. The reason? The Warriors were able to hold the Pacers to just 24 percent shooting.
“We hadn’t clicked yet and we knew we were going to eventually start to get going offensively,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “The whole focus was just to maintain the defense and keep the pressure on them.”
Contrary to the run-and-gun style of basketball the Warriors have popularized and won with for the last four seasons, much of Thursday’s game had a gritty, throwback feel with the low scoring and physical nature of the affair.
At the end of the second quarter, though, the Warriors were able to break open the game with a 12-4 run that gave Golden State a 53-41 lead heading into the locker room.
“It was like a throwback 1980’s basketball game in the first half. No excitement, no rhythm to the game,” Curry said. “Then we went on what seemed to be like a 9-0 run or something like that. We just wanted to get that playoff-type noise going.”
Cousins, who helped establish the defensive intensity in the early goings, helped get some of that offensive momentum on Golden State’s side as well, scoring seven of his 13 first-half points in the quarter. Along with Cousins, who finished with a team-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds and five assists, Thompson also got going, scoring 11 of his eventual 18 points in the period.
“Well, I finally decided to make a shot,” Thompson said. “That felt good.”
In the second half, the Warriors did not relinquish the footing they had established to end the second quarter, breaking open the game by the midway point of the third.
Up 22 points with 5:33 left in the quarter, the Warriors had held Indiana to just five points since the break. While their offense began to click, their defense cinched down tighter, smothering the Pacers.
By the end of the third, the Warriors had recorded seven blocked shots and held Indiana to just 34-percent shooting from the field. With a 24-point lead to show for their work, Golden State had used their defense to get their offense going.
“If you play hard defensively and you’re getting stops, you don’t have to rush anything on offense. It’s going to come.” Kerr said. “I thought we did a really good job of staying patient and paying off of our defense.”
The Warriors sent out the reserves for the entirety of the fourth quarter. Bogut, in his first game action as a Warrior at Oracle since the June 13, 2016, had seven rebounds in nine minutes on the floor, including four on the offensive glass.
With only 11 games remaining in the regular season, Thursday night’s performance comes as a welcome sign for Golden State, which now holds a half-game lead over the Denver Nuggets for sole possession of the top seed in the Western Conference standings.
The defensive showing is something that the Warriors have felt they’ve been missing for the majority this season, and will undoubtedly need in order to defend their championship and raise their fourth Larry O’Brien trophy in five years.
“It’s was really fun to see. I mean we’re engaged and active,” Kerr said. “Honestly, I think over the last six games now we’ve been at our best defensively. It’s going to make a huge difference [in the postseason.]”