OAKLAND — With a defender on his hip, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant barrelled down the lane to slam down and emphatic dunk with two minutes to play in the first half against the Denver Nuggets.
Letting out a scream towards the fans in front of him upon landing, Durant showed just how locked in he was for the game at hand.
In a playoff-like atmosphere at Oracle Arena Tuesday night, the Warriors utilized Durant’s engagement and energy to blow past the visiting Nuggets with a 116-102 victory, seizing a two-game lead and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
“His energy was incredible,” Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said. “Kevin was brilliant … It was just a really good night against a really good team.”
This season, the Warriors have suffered what some might call a case of complacency, often playing down to the level of their opponents. This was glaringly evident against the Phoenix Suns during a 115-111 loss on March 10.
On Tuesday night, Golden State faced no such problem, as the team as a whole looked to be ready for a potential Western Conference Finals preview on national television.
“We definitely [had some extra juice],” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “We want that home court as long as you can get it. It was a huge game for us tonight.”
Durant, who has tapered back some of his offensive game recently, was perhaps most prepared, as he got things going on the defensive end to start the game.
After a bad pass from Thompson landed in the hands of Nuggets guard Gary Harris, Durant raced back to the far end of the court to contest the shot. Slapping the ball off of the backboard, Durant completed the weak-side block by staring down Harris, who unsuccessfully pleaded with the referees for a foul call.
“He was locked in,” Kerr said. “The block was a great play. He made several plays like that, just hustle plays. He was totally engaged.”
Durant also recorded a second block on a Paul Millsap three-point attempt for his second of the period. As a team, the Warriors had four blocks in the first.
After scoring seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in the opening period, Durant began to open up his offensive game in the second quarter, scoring 10 of his eventual 21 in his 8 minutes and 16 seconds. Six of those points came on dunks.
The first dunk of the three came with Nuggets guard Will Barton hanging on Durant’s left side, but Durant finished with authority. After another fast-break dunk a minute later, Durant finished the up the half with baseline slam to give Golden State a 16-point lead heading into the break.
“When he attacked like that, and hammered those dunks down, you could feel the power in the arena,” Kerr said. “You could feel our home crowd and the energy of our players. Those plays kind of broke the game open for us.”
After hitting two shots out of halftime to open the lead to 20, Durant found himself rising up from 28 feet away on the left wing. As Durant went up for his shot, Denver forward Paul Millsap closed out to contest.
Instead of what Durant felt should have been a shooting foul, the officials did not blow their whistle. In response, Durant called out head official Zach Zarba walking back on defense.
Without hesitation, Zarba assessed Durant with a technical foul. When Durant didn’t stop, Zarba gave him a second, ejecting him from the game.
Durant pointed, yelled and swore as he backpedaled into the locker room. The sold-out crowd at Oracle voiced their agreement.
“I thought he deserved the first technical but I didn’t think he deserved the second,” Kerr said. “I was very surprised; I watched the whole thing. I didn’t think he deserved to be ejected but i think Zach Zarba is one of the best officials in the game so I’ve got no complaints with Zach.”
“Man, I don’t know,” Warriors forward Draymond Green added. “I stopped trying to figure out officials a long time ago.”
For Golden State, this is the second player they’ve had ejected in as many games after center DeMarcus Cousins was thrown out following a thrown elbow to the face of Hornets forward Guillermo Hernangomez on Sunday.
Up by 19 with 8:21 remaining in the 3rd, the Warriors responded by putting the ball in the hands of Cousins and Stephen Curry. The pair finished with 28 and 17, respectively.
For Cousins, those 28 points come as his highest total as a Warrior. His previous high coming into the game was 25, which he recorded on March 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Riding the pair’s offense, Golden State was able to push its lead to as many as 30 points after Cousins and Curry each striped three-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
With seven-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game, Kerr was able to insert his reserves, who allowed Golden State to coast the rest of the game for their 53rd win of the season.
While the Warriors were able to leave the floor of Oracle floor putting their worries of securing home court advantage to the side, for now, they’ll have to address the issue of Durant’s ejection.
The pair of technicals now bring Durant to 16, one technical away from a one-game suspension.
“I appreciate you telling me that,” Kerr joked to the media who reminded him of the dilemma. “I’ll make sure to pass that along to Kevin.”