Facing the best team in the NBA on Wednesday night, the Warriors played a close, iffy game against the Phoenix Suns. If they hadn’t turned the ball over 21 times, they might have pulled it out. If they hadn’t missed seven point-blank layups, it could have been different. If just one more of Klay Thompson’s jumpers had fallen, if Draymond Green didn’t leave his feet and turn it over for no reason, if Chris Paul’s fractured thumb had healed a week later, the Warriors could have beaten the Suns, but alas, they fell short, 107-103. But as the old saying goes, if “ifs” and “might-have-beens” were Currys and Wisemans, we’d all have a hell of a post-season.
Look, there’s no “if” in “championship,” though there is one in “fifth seed.” which the Warriors are now just one game clear of (they’re up two on Denver, but the Nuggets have the tiebreaker). It would be a shame to lose home court, because the Chase Center had playoff excitement last night. And like the Warriors’ last four home playoff games, it ended in a loss.
Overall it was a moral victory for the Dubs, who saw Jordan Poole tie his career-high with 38 points, Draymond and Andre Iguodala play ferocious defense, and Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica continue their steady work off the bench, even against the Suns’ young star center, DeAndre Ayton. They somewhat made up for their sloppiness with the ball by forcing seven steals, and unlike most of their recent road trip, they actually made some three-pointers, though announcer Bob Fitzgerald jinxed them early by saying they needed to make 14 threes to win (They finished with 13, with Poole missing a bizarre half-court attempt that could have tied it in the final seconds). But as Draymond said after the game, “We don’t do moral victories.”
It was close all the way. In the final minute, Poole hit a pair of free throws to get within one, then sunk another pair after Devin Booker fouled him on a rebound to take the lead with 39.8 seconds to go. After a timeout, Thompson got dinged for holding Devin Booker off-ball, and the Suns’ All-Star guard made both freebies himself. On the next possession, Draymond Green got caught in the air, expecting Porter to slip a screen and cut to the basket. Porter may have been late, but that doesn’t explain why Draymond left his feet for no reason. Maybe it was just the usual Chris Paul late-game trickery that suckered him. Speaking of Chris Paul trickery, he got Porter on a switch and drove to the basket, with Green and Iguodala frozen on Ayton and sharpshooter Mikal Bridges, respectively, and sunk a floater to give Phoenix a three-point lead with 13 to play. Green and Paul traded free throws, and then, anticipating a foul to put him on the line, Poole launched a wild 45-footer from half court, with four seconds left on the clock. Even the make-one-miss-one free throw gambit that almost never works still had better odds than…whatever Poole was doing there.
This may have looked familiar to CP3, because he blew Game 5 of the Clippers-Thunder series in 2014 with the same kind of three-shot-foul-seeking move.
Paul was great late, scoring and assisting on 12 of the Suns’ last 17 points (including free throws). He finished with 15 points and 8 assists, and drew two different junk shooting fouls by flailing his arms. All five Phoenix starters scored in double figures. Bridges had 22 points on 14 shots, while Booker also scored 22 despite shooting 5-21, by going 10-12 from the free throw line. Ayton had a 16/16 double-double, though the Warriors had some success in stripping the ball from him down low, and they did hold him to 7-17 shooting. And Jae Crowder had 10 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, one double-technical, and roughly 37 screaming confrontations with Draymond.
For the Warriors, it was another Poole party, with the third-year guard grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out 7 assists to go with his 38 special, which was the main thing allowing the Warriors to hold on loosely for 48 minutes. Draymond Green also had 7 assists, to go with his 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals - and also 4 turnovers, including the back-breaking travel in the last minute. Andrew Wiggins put up 19 points on a 6-16 performance which counts as wildly efficient by his post-All-Star Break standards, but he also had three turnovers, including a second-quarter play where he simply dribbled the ball out of bounds.
Turnovers were a huge problem, which is big news if you haven’t watched a single Warriors game this season. They had six turnovers before six minutes had elapsed in the game, 14 in the first half, and 21 overall. The game began with an awful turnover, when Klay Thompson corralled the opening tip and immediately committed a backcourt violation. 19 seconds later, he fouled Booker. In the first five minutes he was 0-3 with two turnovers and two fouls, and the Warriors once again fell behind by double digits in the first quarter. His last two games on the road trip were great, though, and Coach Steve Kerr said, “He tends to press when things aren’t going his way…I’m going to keep encouraging him,” but specifically urged Klay to give up the ball more, and trust he’ll get it back - probably an easier proposition with Draymond and Andre back.
It started to look like another blowout halfway through the first, including a ridiculous touch shot from Bridges to beat the shot clock and make it 18-7.
But then two things happened. First, Jordan Poole exploded, scoring ten points in a minute and a half, part of his 15 in the quarter. As we’ve seen for the past month, he did it with a variety of drives, fakes, and long-range shots, showing off, as they say, his whole bag. He finished the month of March averaging 25.4 points on 49.5% shooting, and a scorching 44.4% from distance.
The other game-changing moment was Andre Iguodala coming in for Wiggins. He immediately found Poole for a triple, who returned the favor two minutes later to give the Warriors their first lead at 30-27. The veteran, the NBA’s second-oldest player, brought some much-needed defensive intensity, including a play where he harassed Bismack Biyombo into two missed shots and a turnover. Overall they closed the quarter 15-4 with their Teammate of the Year, after Draymond blocked a buzzer-beating three.
The second quarter was 12 minutes of “almost” for the Warriors. They took ten shots in the paint, all within nine feet of the basket, and missed seven of them. Iguodala almost had the prettiest pass of the game to Porter, but his open layup rimmed out, one of five point-blank layups they missed in the quarter. They forced two missed shots and almost stopped the Suns early, but Paul suckered Bjelica into a foul after 38 seconds of tough defense. Belli almost had a great game, but in the first four minutes of the second, he fouled Paul twice, missed a layup, and turned it over three times. Later they almost forced a shot clock violation, but Jae Crowder beat the buzzer with a 31-footer. Wiggins led the team with five points, but two free throws almost went in that would have made it seven, and left the game tied at halftime. And Poole almost got injured on a play where Mikal Bridges hooked his elbow, and almost got a foul call - instead he got called for traveling.
After the half, Poole went off again, hitting three triples in the quarter. A rare successful replay challenge from Kerr reversed what would have been Draymond’s fourth foul. Of course, that was followed with Draymond getting a double-technical, along with Crowder. The Warriors responded to the sparring with a 7-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game at 68-61, capped with a wild sequence where Draymond drew a foul rebounding a Wiggins miss, Crowder fumbled a steal, and Poole hit his sixth three after all the chaos.
Of course, since this is the 2021-22 Warriors, it was fouled by two turnovers that led to two Phoenix layups, part of a 9-0 Phoenix run.
In the 4th, Wiggins showed another glimpse of his renewed aggressiveness, scoring five points in a minute to tie things at 86-all, and getting to the free throw line twice. It got the Dubs into the bonus with over seven minutes to play, and they took advantage, going 15-17 from the line in the final quarter. That’s how they stayed in the game shooting 33% from the field against the best team in the league.
Wiggins was opportunistic as well, anticipating another Klay three-point miss and slamming it home late.
But ultimately, the late-game execution wasn’t quite there. Still, the mood of malaise and depression that sunk onto this team as it lost six of seven games seems to have listed, and if Curry really can come back, it might be time to be optimistic about the #FullSquad Warriors.
While the rookies have dropped out of the rotation for the most part, Gary Payton II definitively hasn’t. His defense was on display, most notably when a cheap Chris Paul rip-through move inspired Young Glove to take the ball away from him.
There’s one more tough game remaining on Saturday when the Warriors battle the reeling Utah Jazz, who have dropped all the way to 6th after blowing a huge lead to the Clippers to lose their fifth in a row. Warriors! Jazz! Someone’s gotta win, on NBC Sports Bay Area!