SAN FRANCISCO — Steph Curry’s famed pregame shooting routine took a little longer than usual on Friday night. Midway through a series of corner 3-pointers, his former teammate and current Phoenix Suns assistant coach Jarrett Jack stopped by to exchange pleasantries. A few minutes later, Curry approached the sideline to converse with his former head coach, Mark Jackson, who was part of the ESPN broadcast team. Before he made his way down the court for his concluding tunnel shot, Curry stopped to take a selfie with a young fan.
All this to say, this was not a normal, early December, regular-season game.
Chase Center was nearly at capacity well before the opening whistle of the Golden State Warriors’ 118-96 win over the Phoenix Suns, which put an end to Phoenix’s 18-game winning streak and exacted revenge for a Golden State loss in their first matchup just three nights prior. With the win, the Warriors improved to a league-best 19-3, moving a half-game ahead of the Suns as both teams continue to break away from the rest of the Western Conference.
The term “playoff atmosphere” is bandied about willy-nilly all too often in the sports world, so it’s prudent to approach the phrase with caution. But having attended dozens of Warriors playoff games over the last few years at Oracle Arena, I feel confident saying that if this wasn’t quite a postseason environment, it was as close as it gets in the regular season.
“You don’t want them to come into your building and keep that streak going,” Curry said after the game. “It is nice to protect your home court, and something’s got to give. We’ve had a really good home record and a nice streak going ourselves here in this building. We’d rather keep ours going than let theirs live.”
Friday’s win over the Suns was Golden State’s 11th straight home victory by 13 or more points, which ties the NBA record set by a previous iteration of the Warriors during the 2014-15 season.
Playoff atmosphere doesn’t just come from a raucous crowd — which was prevalent on Friday night — or the execution of the two teams — which was precise. It comes from the buzz of the arena, the extra cameras on the baselines during pregame, the number of reporters walking the sidelines. And once the game starts, there have to be signature, flashbulb moments, like the one Juan Toscano-Anderson delivered over Suns center JaVale McGee toward the end of the first quarter.
“That’s the best dunk I think I’ve ever had in-game. On a 7-footer, in the NBA. The two best teams in the league. Playing for the Warriors,” Toscano-Anderson said after the game. “It’s like the perfect sundae for me. Whip cream and cherry, sprinkles, all that. It’s a hell of a picture, man. I’m gonna hang that in my mom’s house. It’s a dope picture, man.”
Despite the absence of All-Star guards Devin Booker and Klay Thompson, there was also plenty of star power. Curry went 6 for 11 from 3-point range en route to 23 points, while Chris Paul dazzled with his unique ball-handling and passing acumen, even in a relatively subpar effort. Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ breakout star of their trip to the NBA Finals a few months ago, put up 23 points, six rebounds and two blocks in the loss.
But, just like the playoffs, the game hinged on role players. The old adage is that they play better at home, and that was certainly the case for the Warriors on Friday. In addition to his unforgettable dunk, Toscano-Anderson finished with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. The Bay Area’s most recent fan favorite, Gary Payton II, poured in 19 points on 3-for-5 3-point shooting on top of his suffocating defense. Stretch-five Nemanja Bjelica stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, six rebounds, two blocks and two 3-pointers in 15 minutes.
And then there’s the “A” word that accompanies any playoff series — adjustments. The Warriors made a few schematic changes after Tuesday’s loss, namely putting Andrew Wiggins on Paul for the majority of the game — a move made possible by Booker’s absence. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said that Wiggins set the tone early with his defense, which allowed the Warriors to build an early lead along with the momentum.
“He’s the head of the snake. He’s the one that gets everyone involved and can control the tempo of the game,” Wiggins said of guarding Paul. “Just making it hard for him, and that’s hard to do. That’s CP. I just did my best.”
There was another benefit to Wiggins taking on the responsibility of guarding Paul. It freed up Draymond Green to wreak havoc as a free safety, which resulted in one of his best games in an already stellar defensive season. Green finished with a season-high six steals to go along with three blocks and nine rebounds, while guarding everyone from point guards to centers. As we’ve so often seen, Green’s offense is fueled by his defense, as he put up nine points, including a 3-pointer and a mid-range jumper, in addition to his game-high nine assists.
Green wasn’t happy with his performance in Tuesday’s loss in the first matchup between the Warriors and the Suns, when he committed as many turnovers (five) as assists. Kerr had a feeling that his leader might come out with a sense of urgency in the rematch on Friday, and he turned in a vintage performance.
“It’s impressive, man. [Green] is what Steph is offensively. It’s just not sexy,” Toscano-Anderson said after the game. “The average viewer doesn’t understand angles and being up to touch on the ball screen, sliding over, being the most important guy — we call it the MIG — defensively, trapping the ball. They don’t see that because it doesn’t show up in the statistics. … It’s a tutorial for me.”
You need only look back a season or two to confirm that Green only brings this level of defensive activity and focus when he thinks it’s warranted. He’s done it for pretty much the entire season, which tells you how far he thinks this team can go, and he’s now done it against the Suns, which tells you how much he respects them as a potential, if not likely, playoff foe.
While Friday’s game didn’t take place in the postseason, there was certainly a little something extra from both sides — let’s call it a warm-up for what’s to come. If nothing else, these last two games between the Warriors and Suns have proven, without a doubt, that they’re the best teams in the league at this point, and that a playoff series between the two would be absolutely captivating.
“We’re trying to catch them. Not vice versa,” Kerr said of the Suns after the game. “We know that they’re the best team in the West until somebody else knocks them off. It’s fun to go against them.”