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Warriors clinch one-seed, make history with 120-111 victory over Suns

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After giving away a 23-point first-quarter lead, a lean Warriors’ squad managed to outlast the Suns.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Phoenix Suns 120-111 in Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back. The Warriors came into the matchup with a 12-game win streak and the Suns, who sport the second-worst record in the league of 22-57, had lost their previous 12 games. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala received a night of rest as the Warriors came off a back-to-back against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kevin Durant did not dress due to his right knee strain, marking the 18th straight game he has missed since sustaining his injury against the Washington Wizards. Durant’s DNP is hopefully the last of the season, as the Warriors are targeting the New Orleans Pelicans game this Saturday for his return to the hardwood.

Disaster averted and history created

After a fantastic first quarter, which the Warriors closed 41-18, word spread that the San Antonio Spurs had lost against the Los Angeles Lakers, opening the door for the Dubs to clinch the one-seed with a victory. Perhaps the players caught wind of this announcement at that time as well, because what followed was a disastrous second quarter in which Phoenix came back to within six at halftime, 58-52. The game would never be as easy as the first quarter, and credit a young, athletic and hungry Phoenix squad for pushing a depleted and tired Warriors team to the limit.

The Warriors would ultimately secure the first-seed and never allow Phoenix to lead, or even tie, in the second half. Curry’s heroics, combined with Klay Thompson finally finding his shot in the closing minutes of the game, lifted the Warriors to victory. With the 65th win of the season comes a bit of history as well, as no other team in the history of the NBA has won 65 games or more in three straight years. Additionally, no team has ever reached 205 wins, 93 road wins, or 28-plus road wins per season in a three-year span, either.

While the concept of shattering records and making history may forever be poisoned for Warriors fans by the unfortunate end to the 2015-16 season, it is still important to appreciate these milestones in their context. That being said, one objective remains for the team this season — and the inspired play to close the year, along with the imminent return of Kevin Durant — inspires confidence in their ability to achieve that goal.

1st quarter

The Warriors opened the first quarter with a barrage of scoring, driven by the two-time MVP. Stephen Curry would make five of his eight attempts from deep and finish the night with 42 points and 11 assists, marking just the second 40-point, 10-assist game of his career. The reigning MVP would grab 5 boards, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and turn the ball over just 3 times. This game would have been a certain loss if not for Curry, and he would finish with a team-high plus 25. The question that remains for Durant’s reintegration, however, is how it will affect Curry’s recent aggressiveness and increased ball-handling, if at all.

There were plenty of highlights to draw from the first quarter, including one sequence where Stephen Curry toyed with Suns rookie Dragan Bender with a flurry of dribble moves before hitting the jumper in his face. The most memorable sequence came at the end of the first quarter, when Curry nearly lost the ball, recovered it and quickly flung it to Shaun Livingston camping outside the arc. Livingston knew the game clock was running down and threw up a desperate lob to JaVale McGee to beat the buzzer. But the poorly aimed lob turned into a banked-in three, and gave the Warriors a 23-point lead. This was Livingston’s first three of the season and put the cherry on top of a fantastic quarter for the Warriors. Q1 score: 41-18.

2nd quarter

The game took a turn for the worst in the second quarter, as the Klay Thompson-led bench unit struggled to generate offense and contain an energetic Suns team. Thompson would make just two shots in the first half and miss all six of his attempts from deep. This anomalous performance could have been fueled by not having his legs after a 41-point outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves, compounded by chasing around Devin Booker, a terrific scorer in his own right. Despite the poor shooting, Thompson’s defense on Booker, and the Warriors’ defense as a whole, deserves credit, as they held the electric scorer to just 29 percent shooting from the field.

With the Warriors getting outscored 17-34 in the second quarter, there weren’t too many highlights to pull from. One nifty sideline, out-of-bounds play got Thompson his only made shot of the quarter.

Warriors SLOB

The Suns’ defense expects Thompson to use the immediate McAdoo screen, and Booker’s positioning indicates that. Thompson frees himself with a little push and crashes down the lane, and is rewarded with a well-thrown lob from Curry. Jared Dudley tries to keep up with Thompson, contesting him into a tough fade-away jumper, which got the lucky bounce off the front of the rim and rolls in.

Some particularly rugged sequences in the second quarter were two blown McAdoo layups off great Curry dimes. Each miss led to the Suns scoring at the other end. McAdoo has played fantastic recently and, despite the missed bunnies, he was impactful in this game, defending the rim and switching out onto Booker in ways few other centers can. But if he wants to elevate his game and become a consistent piece on the team, he must improve his finishing ability and toughness. A completely non-scientific and anecdotal observation: it seems he ends up on the ground far more than any of the other Warriors’ centers. Q2 score: 58-52.

3rd quarter

Though there wasn’t a trademark third quarter explosion, the Warriors were able to right the ship and more than double the halftime deficit. The second half was fun to watch because of the grueling, attrition-like nature of the game. Every possession became extremely important and it seemed as though the team that could string together several defensive stops in a row would win the game.

Patrick McCaw would come alive in the early minutes of the third and play with the most confidence I have seen from him so far in this rookie season. Sensing that the Warriors desperately needed another player to step up, the rookie from UNLV picked TJ Warren’s pocket, ran the ball back for a a layup, then made a three on his next trip down, set up McAdoo for a dunk on the trip after, and finally capped off the two-minute sequence with a beautiful reverse layup. This extended the Warriors’ lead to 13 and forced a Phoenix timeout.

Stephen Curry already got his shout out in the recap, but his play throughout the game was so great, it requires more praise. The Splash Brothers’ chemistry was on full display during this quarter, as Curry found a leaking Thompson several times to close out the quarter. On a night where Thompson was struggling to found his shot, seeing the ball go through the net was important. Curry would dish out six of his 11 assists in this quarter, and this game continued the special level of play the unanimous MVP has elevated to in Durant’s absence. Q3 score: 91-78.

4th quarter

The fourth quarter would be another battle for the Warriors as the Suns would close the gap to just three points with four minutes left. Thankfully, Klay Thompson finally found his shot and would not miss in the closing minutes of the game. His late-game three, to put the Warriors up seven, was met with much applause in Phoenix, as it seemed the fans there had been waiting all night for Thompson to heat up.

JaVale McGee had his share of mistakes this game, including a late-game turnover that led to a Suns’ score. Had he held on, a Warriors’ shot would have certainly sealed the game. On the whole, however, McGee was the best center option for the Warriors and finished with plus 23, second only to Stephen Curry. Aside from the silly turnover, McGee was active on both ends, including a monster block on Derrick Jones, Jr. that sent both former dunk contest participants to the floor.

One thing to note about McGee is his tendency to leap so aggressively for the blocks and dunks that he often puts himself in dangerous positions for landing. One such sequence left McGee awkwardly falling to the floor, limbs splayed out in what could have been a disaster if he had landed slightly differently. Perhaps this is just over sensitivity to injury after everything the Warriors have gone through in the last year. But McGee’s sometimes reckless jumps should be addressed, if only for his own sake.

Closing out this game took every ounce of energy from a Warriors team already coming off a back-to-back. Compounded by the absence of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, and overcoming the mental barrier of a blown lead, this game was a challenge for the team, but they stepped up. Adversity can be a good thing, and the Warriors showed determination and toughness against a very physical Suns team. Final score: 120-111.