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The Golden Breakdown: The things we missed as much as Klay Thompson did with his right hand

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The Warriors brought back their patented brand of two-way basketball, aided by the return of Klay Thompson and the Warriors’ desire for playing defense.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Klay Thompson — at the time going through the worst shooting slump of his career — finally broke out of that slump against the Portland Trail Blazers with 32 points and a 4-of-5 clip from three? Out of that performance came the birth of another meme from the most meme-able Warrior on the team, another one of those “Just Klay Things” that have endeared him to Dub Nation forever — and also forced several of our minds to go deep into the gutter because, well, we’re all like that and we should all be ashamed.

I’m confidently sure that after Friday night’s game, many Warriors fans — like Thompson did with his right hand on that December night against Portland — yelled out at our screens that we missed this version of the Warriors, one that stamped their class on opponents on a consistent basis and made everyone else in the league look like they played overseas in Europe or China.

After the Warriors were absolutely embarrassed on their home court by the Boston Celtics, doubts started to emerge about their approach toward the remaining regular season games. Just like last season — where the Warriors went 7-10 during their last 17 games of the stretch run — it looked like they were content with sleepwalking their way toward another playoff berth, regardless of whether they had the number one seed in the Western Conference or not.

Regardless of the fact that the Warriors could probably do without home-court advantage in the playoffs — a proven fact as evidenced by last season’s championship run — it still won’t assuage the fears of Warriors fans, with several of them questioning the team’s ability to flip the switch during the playoffs. Fans wanted to see evidence that the Warriors were still the dominant world beaters that they are — that no matter who was put in front of them, they could live up to their full potential, unleash the talent of a lineup replete with All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers, and play like a well-oiled and cohesive unit.

What better team to defeat as proof that they still have what it takes than the Denver Nuggets, the team knocking on the Warriors’ doors in the standings and gunning for the first seed and homecourt advantage in the West. Having failed to get up for the Celtics, the Warriors were given another chance to step up against another top-tier team, and boy, did they really get up for this one.

The version of the Warriors that fans wanted to see showed up against the Nuggets and gave them another beating, made possible by several things that Warriors fans missed seeing from the team.

Let’s dive in and look at them one by one.


What we missed #1: Klay Thompson

In the grand scheme of things, Thompson only missed two straight games due to a minor knee injury that put the Warriors into caution mode. But two games missed by arguably the Warriors’ best two-way player is two games too many. Sure, the Warriors still won one of those games, which was against the Philadelphia 76ers — but it was a closely-fought contest, and Thompson’s presence was still sorely missed on both ends of the floor. Against the Celtics, the Warriors were missing their designated Kyrie Irving stopper, and it showed — Irving had an excellent game against the Warriors, and was pretty much left unchecked all night long.

Making his return against the Nuggets, Thompson did not disappoint, showing the fans why he is a perennial All-Star and such a valued member of the Golden State dynasty. Finishing the night with 39 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field (59 percent), Thompson feasted all night long on the Nuggets defense, particularly in terms of shooting the three, where he went 9-of-11 (81.8 percent).

As usual, Thompson was up to his old three-point shooting ways. Every shot he made from deep served as additional gasoline added to his fire, which progressively burned brighter and brighter until the Nuggets were wholly consumed by it.

Thompson also brought the defense the Warriors sorely missed from him. He was a pesky defender on the floor, which allowed him to garner 2 eye-catching steals.

And allowed him to block Nikola Jokic in this sequence, where the Warriors’ excellent defensive rotations and recovery stifled the Nuggets at every turn.

What we missed #2: The Warriors actually playing defense

In the seven games since the end of the All-Star break, the Warriors posted an abysmal defensive rating of 111.8, good for 19th in the league in that particular time span. Overall, they were 16th in the league coming into the game against the Nuggets — barely better than the Dallas Mavericks, a non-playoff team; and worse than the Los Angeles Lakers, who themselves are virtually eliminated from playoff contention.

It wasn’t a matter of a lack of defensively-capable personnel — that much is obvious. It was more due to a lack of noticeable effort on the players’ part. Botched switches, lack of communication, and jogging back toward the defensive end were clear signs that the Warriors simply weren’t focused and locked in on defense. It was a frustrating sight to see for fans, who are used to seeing high-level effort and intensity from their team on an almost nightly basis.

Steve Kerr usually isn’t one to call out his players through the media, but he clearly wasn’t happy with his team’s laissez-faire approach to defense.

“It starts with a passion, and an anger, and an intensity, and it wasn’t there tonight,” Kerr said after the Warriors’ loss to the Celtics this past Tuesday.

Kerr intended for that statement to light a fire underneath his players’ behinds, and it most certainly worked against the Nuggets. The Warriors were more active on the defensive end, forcing the Nuggets to shoot 33-of-87 from the field (37.9 percent) and 12-of-33 from three (36.4 percent). Against the team ranked 4th in offensive rating (112.8), the Warriors managed to pull off a defensive rating of 101.0.

In addition to the aforementioned steals from Thompson, these two sequences in the first quarter— both resulting in forced turnovers — helped set the tone defensively for the rest of the night.

But what caught my eye were two defensive sequences from the Warriors in the second half, where they forced two stops against the Nuggets simply through excellent ball denial, stagnating the Nuggets’ offense and forcing them out of their comfort zone.

Notice that in both of these defensive sequences, the Warriors didn’t need to heavily switch, which makes sense with DeMarcus Cousins on the floor — teams will try to single out Cousins in the pick-and-roll to force switches, and as much as possible, the Warriors simply do not want to accommodate such offensive gameplans from their opponents.

What we missed #3: Cousins holding his own on defense

Let’s be completely honest — DeMarcus Cousins was always going to be a huge question mark on defense, even before he was slated to make his debut for the Warriors. His extensive body of work simply doesn’t scream out “elite defender,” nor does it even indicate that he’s going to be at least consistent on that end.

The Warriors’ Cousins experiment started out rosy and optimistic, with the big man progressively improving his production as his feel for the game slowly returned to him. As Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic pointed out, Cousins was doing fine in the 11 games before the All-Star break, where the Warriors went 10-1 with him in the lineup.

After the All-Star break, however, was when things started to get dicey for Cousins and his time on the floor with the Warriors. Teams began to target him more in the pick-and-roll — and as expected, he struggled to keep up with smaller and faster guards and wings, who would burn him on switches or make him pay for dropping back by knocking down jumpers in his face.

Just like that, the honeymoon period between Cousins and the team was coming to an end — and what sprung up in its place were feelings of doubt and concern. Was Cousins capable of playing defense? Will Kerr have to make him come off the bench in the playoffs? Is he just going to be a liability for the Warriors on both ends of the floor?

Those are valid questions, and they are still far from having concrete and definitive answers. But what Cousins showed against the Nuggets certainly helped his case. He finished the night with 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists — but the more glaring stats from him were the 6 blocks and 3 steals he was able to get.

Cousins was aided in huge part by his teammates fighting around screens and doing their best to stick to their assignments to prevent switches as much as possible. But the big man deserves a ton of credit for having active hands and managing to swipe away at the ball cleanly without fouling — he certainly looked like a 6-foot-11-inch version of Andre Iguodala out there against the Nuggets.

Whatever motivated Cousins to get up for this game defensively — all those cries for him to be sent to the bench, those doubts concerning his ability to be an actual contributor for a team gunning for a championship — it certainly worked.

What also worked were those criticisms of the Warriors’ recent lack of desire to get up for games — criticisms that came from outside the organization as well as within. It managed to provide them with the intensity and anger they needed to overcome a top team such as the Nuggets — and it also gave them the edge that they’ve been lacking for a while now.

The season isn’t going to get any easier for the defending champs. The target on their backs is at its biggest, and opponents are becoming less intimidated of them as their weaknesses are bared for the world to see.

It’ll be up to them to put that fear back in their opponents in time for the playoffs.

Sixty-five down, 17 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.