OAKLAND — During the Golden State Warriors’ first road trip of the season, head coach Steve Kerr lamented the fact that the two-time defending champions felt like they were going back to the stone age — before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson perfected the 3-point shot, before they rode positionless, pass-happy basketball to three NBA titles in four years.
In the first three games this season, Golden State averaged under 26 assists, and had gone 24-of-74 from beyond the arc, a slump exacerbated by the fact that Thompson — arguably the best jump shooter of all time — was hitting just 12.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc, amid his overall shooting struggles (35.6 percent from the field).
After a Thompson miss from three in the first quarter on Monday against the Phoenix Suns, with Golden State up 19-18, something clicked. Thompson would hit his next four shots, the Warriors went 14-of-37 from three and Golden State rolled to a free-wheeling 123-103 win with a season-high 35 assists.
“That looked like our team,” Kerr said. “Just the purpose of each possession, just driving and kicking, trying to get guys better shots and playing together, it was a good night.”
Center Damian Jones was arguably as dominant as he’s been all season, six players scored in double figures and No. 28 overall draft pick Jacob Evans III made his NBA debut in garbage time, but that all came against a Suns team that has had eight straight lottery picks, with three straight in the top five.
“Our transition defense was atrocious,” said Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov. “It wasn’t any secret. We were talking about it before the game, that transition defense is the Warriors’ type of strength. They were switching a lot, and kept us on our heels.”
Kerr paid lip service to what Phoenix did to make Golden State uncomfortable after their preseason loss to the Suns, but on Monday, the Warriors were not the team trying to find their 14th man. They were not a team trying to find a solution at center. They were not a team that was limiting the minutes of its four All-Stars. They were a team looking to attack.
Stephen Curry went off for 29 points. Thompson finished with 16. Draymond Green had a game-high eight assists (tied with Curry) and Kevin Durant — despite missing two bunny lay-ups — was 9-for-17 for 22 points, with four boards and three assists.
That 14th man — undrafted Alfonzo McKinnie — looked like he belonged, with a hyper-efficient, five-point, five-rebound line in his five first-half minutes. He put Golden State up 114-90 with an alley-oop dunk with five and a half minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, with a team-high seven rebounds. DeAndre Ayton — the draft’s top prize this past June — was a very quiet 6-for-11 in 30 minutes for Phoenix, and former lottery pick Devin Booker was thoroughly flummoxed by Thompson, turning the ball over nine times.
After Thompson’s timid first-quarter, wide-open three-point miss, he hit each of his next four, and finished 6-of-14. While he didn’t hit a three before exiting with a mild ankle sprain (he told Kerr he could have returned), he looked to get some of his shooting confidence back on shorter jumpers. Thompson also facilitated offense with four assists, as he was one of eight Warriors with multiple helpers.
Over the four years under Kerr, Golden State had averaged 29.0 assists per game, and assisted on 68.3 percent of team field goals in the regular season. Headed into Monday, the Warriors were averaging 25.7 assists per game this season, assisting on 60.6 percent of field goals. Golden State — which had 25 assists on 48 field goals on Sunday against Denver — had that many by halftime on 28 shots. The Warriors finished with 35 on 45 field goals (77.8 percent).
“We definitely made progress,” Curry said. “We understand what the keys to our success are, and when we don’t do them, we make the game extremely tough, give the other team life in terms of more possessions and things like that.”
Three of those assists were on a trio of lob dunks to Jones in the first quarter. Last season’s last man on the bench has impressed so far in his first full-time season at the NBA level, and had arguably his most dominant stretch on Monday night. After a trio of crowd-pleasing lob dunks, Jones came flying in for a tip-back bucket off a Curry three miss, over the back of Ayton. He drew the foul, and hit the and-one.
Next trip down the court, Jones grabbed a Durant rebound, then battled Ayton for a board on one of Thompson’s early misses, allowing Ayton to tip the ball out. Durant would score on a basic in-bound screen.
“I guess it was a solid start,” said Jones.
Last year’s two-way contract has turned into this year’s mainstay, as Jones has averaged 8.0 points, 2.0 blocks and 3.0 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game. Jones has been learning all he can from DeMarcus Cousins, who will begin joining team activities soon as he progresses in his recovery from Achilles surgery.
“[He’s] mostly just giving me little tidbits, things to think about in the game, some scouting reports, too,” Jones said. “Also, ways to move myself on the court, a reminder to run the floor, stay attacking the boards.”
On Monday, in a game where Golden State looked like the team Jones largely watched from the G League last season, he was 5-of-5 for 13 points in 20 minutes, with four rebounds and an assist.
“He’s a fun guy to play with,” Kerr said. “It’s great to have him in the starting group, because that’s when we have the most shooting out on the floor, and he gives us that vertical-space threat that makes it tougher to guard. I think the guys really enjoy playing with him.”