The Golden State Warriors visited the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, hoping to get some revenge after losing the first two meetings between the teams. For a while it looked like they’d get their wish. But as they’ve done so often this year, they fell apart in the fourth quarter and watched a winnable game slip through their fingers.
It wasn’t an egregious collapse like we’ve seen in other games. There was no monster lead blown, or even a fourth-quarter lead squandered. They were playing a very talented Phoenix team that, while missing Kevin Durant, was welcoming Bradley Beal back into the fold. And they fought like hell it the final minutes to almost reverse the outcome.
But it was a loss nonetheless, and another one defined by poor execution, particularly in the final frame ... until the final minutes, at least.
Things started cold. The Warriors were extremely active on the glass and on defense, but their shooters were icy. They fell behind 7-0, and it took them more than seven minutes before they made a shot inside the arc. They turned the ball over time and time again in the first quarter, as they’ve been doing so much. But a blitzing defensive scheme against Devin Booker proved successful, and a late three by Chris Paul tied the game entering the second quarter.
Then we saw the best version of the Warriors, predictably led by a bench unit that did work all night long. They opened the frame with a 10-0 run, with rookie Brandin Podziemski playing the role of a difference-maker. A dynamic lob from Chris Paul to Jonathan Kuminga punctuated an 18-2 run that spanned two quarters, and suddenly the Dubs led 40-27 just a few minutes into the frame.
Phoenix came storming back, as Golden State’s lethargic starters struggled once again (with the exception of Curry). It was a well-rounded effort by the Suns, who erased the deficit and took a lead late in the first half. But just as with the first quarter, the second quarter ended with a gorgeous three by a Warriors point guard, this time Curry, who gave them a three-point lead heading into the break.
Once there, Golden State was met with news that Suns starter Josh Okogie would miss the remainder of the game. And once the Dubs emerged from the locker rooms, we learned it wasn’t the only change: Steve Kerr, clearly not messing around with his word to change lineups, had benched Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney to start the second half, with Kuminga and Podziemski in their place.
It worked, as the Dubs held the line, and Podziemski drew a fourth foul on Booker early on. Then came a game-defining moment: Draymond Green got tangled with Jusuf Nurkić and, upset at a non-call, swung his arms around to face a ref, violently smacking Nurkić’s face in the process. With Golden State up five, Green was ejected, and the Warriors would lose momentum and talent alike.
Phoenix rallied to take a lead, which was met by a flurry from Paul. When the third quarter ended, Phoenix led by a single point.
Kerr continued to ride the wave of youngsters over veterans, starting rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis — who hadn’t played yet, or anytime recently — in the fourth quarter. It was a mostly bench unit, and the Suns ran up a six-point lead, but Paul again answered.
Suddenly, though, Golden State’s offense fell silent. They had turnovers and miscommunications and missed shots, and suddenly Phoenix had gone on a 12-0 run to take a 13-point lead with less than four minutes remaining. The game seemed well out of reach with about two minutes left, and then the Dubs worked some magic that will hopefully carry into the next game.
A three by Curry cut the deficit to seven with 2:03 remaining, but Phoenix answered. A layup by Podziemski brought it back to seven with 1:26, but Phoenix answered. A pair of free throws by Paul made it a seven-point game again with 1:08 left. Within five seconds, Kuminga had stolen the ball and scored, and suddenly it was a two-possession game.
Podziemski broke down the defense for a layup with 40 seconds remaining, and it was a three-point game. Eric Gordon missed a three on the other end, and Podziemski made it a one-point game with another layup, but only 15 seconds remained.
The Suns played keep away and got the ball in Booker’s hands, and a pair of free throws pushed the lead back to three.
The Dubs would have a chance. But fearing a foul given the three-point deficit, Curry quickly hoisted a three on an inbounds. It was a good look, but it didn’t fall. The Suns made their free throws, and only a layup by — you guessed it, Podziemski — made the final score a single-possession game, with Phoenix winning 119-116.
Podziemski and Kuminga were nothing short of fantastic, further cementing their roles going forward. The former had his first career double-double, with 20 points and 11 rebounds (plus five assists), while the latter had an efficient 16 points and six rebounds, with stellar defense on Booker. Dario Šarić (15 points), Paul (15 points and 11 assists), and Moses Moody (12 points) all starred as well, as the Dubs bench outscored the Suns’ bench 80-30 ... and, perhaps more telling, outscored their own starting lineup 80-36.
A warning shot was seemingly sent to the veterans. Thompson played 27 minutes, but not much down the stretch. Wiggins played just 15 minutes, finishing with three points and looking completely uninterested. Looney played 11 minutes, and Green played somewhat poorly before taking himself out of the game.
As a team, the Warriors have some reflecting to do; but their individual players even more so.
They’d better do it in a hurry. They play again on Thursday, against the LA Clippers.