After back-to-back heartbreaking one-point losses, the Golden State Warriors were in dire need of a win on Tuesday night, when they hosted the Philadelphia 76ers on TNT, in their last game before departing for a five-game road trip.
Shortly before the game started, the Dubs were dealt some good news, as the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz both lost, helping the Dubs creep closer to the play-in tournament in the standings. But that news was followed by a tougher break: Joel Embiid, who was questionable after missing the last two games with knee soreness, was going to suit up; and Klay Thompson, hit with an illness, was a late scratch.
It seemed the key for success would be to shut down Embiid, averaging a staggering 36.0 points per game, his third straight season topping the league in that category. But things got off to an ominous start. Draymond Green, moved back into the starting lineup but now as a center — thus guarding Embiid — committed a foul on the opening tip. He committed a second foul less than two minutes later. With two fouls — neither of which was committed defending Embiid — Green headed to the bench for the rest of the quarter.
But Kevon Looney replaced him and was up to the task, picking up where Green left off and keeping Embiid out of the paint, forcing him into fadeaway long jumpers. The Dubs built on that with good defense elsewhere, and jumped out to an early 15-9 lead as they held Philly to 3-for-17 shooting in the opening minutes.
From there it was a funny quarter for the two banged-up teams — the Warriors without Thompson, Chris Paul, Moses Moody, and Gary Payton II, and the Sixers without Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Robert Covington, and Nicolas Batum. The Dubs found rhythm behind strong defense and a spectacular frame from Andrew Wiggins, who shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the field. But they were once again plagued by turnovers, and this time it was compounded by struggles rebounding the ball, which helped Philly rattle off a 12-0 run in the quarter.
When the first 12 minutes ended, the Sixers led 28-23. The Warriors had out-shot their opponent 61.1% to 34.5%, but had seven turnovers to just two for Philly, while the 76ers had grabbed eight offensive rebounds and the Warriors none.
That continued into the third quarter, with Steve Kerr calling an early timeout after the team continued to let missed shots get gobbled up by Philly. But Jonathan Kuminga — quickly turning into a lightning rod whenever the team needs it — had an emphatic dunk out of the timeout and the Warriors thought about taking off.
They stuttered though, and the 76ers jumped out to an eight-point lead around the halfway mark. Then the offense started to find fluidity, led by creativity — and jumpers — from Green. The Dubs rattled off a 12-2 run, and Kuminga punctuated the half with another emphatic dunk, giving Golden State a 52-50 lead at the break. Most impressively, they had held Philly to just three assists in the half.
We all hoped that the third-quarter Warriors would show up, and after a brief tit-for-tat exchange from deep between Embiid and Steph Curry, those third-quarter Warriors emerged. They started to play the game beautifully, with decisive and crisp passes, tons of cuts and ball movement, quick rotations on defense, and lots of hustle. It led to a 17-4 run and a 69-57 lead, as the role players stepped into bigger roles: Brandin Podziemski, taking Thompson’s spot in the lineup, took a charge on the massive Embiid. Lester Quiñones, forced into action with four guards absent, made a huge three.
The Sixers fought back and nearly tied things, but a dreamy end-of-quarter sequence by Kuminga and Trayce Jackson-Davis gave Golden State a nine-point lead entering the final frame.
The back-and-forth affair continued, however. Philly pulled to within 93-90 after just a few minutes, forcing Kerr to call timeout. But the Dubs were once again ready to respond. The defense tightened up and Kuminga took flight as the Dubs threw down an 11-1 run in the middle of the contest, nearly putting away the game.
Philly had one last rally, but Curry, playing with a keen sense of the moment as he pointed to fellow Bay Area sports heroes Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, put the game away.
Unfortunately, it came at a cost. With about four minutes remaining, a scrap for a loose ball resulted in Kuminga landing on Embiid’s knee, as the Sixers MVP screamed in pain before hobbling off the court. Here’s hoping he’s okay.
When the buzzer rang, the Dubs had emerged with a 119-107 victory ... one of their best wins in recent memory, and desperately needed.
Curry dazzled all game long, finishing with a game-high 37 points on a sensational 12-for-17 shooting (including 8-for-13 from deep), to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists, and a game-high +26. Kuminga and Wiggins each topped 20 points with strong efficiency, with the latter having one of his best games of the year: 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
But while the offense was a joy to watch, it was the defense that really won the team the game. It’s unclear how much Embiid’s injury hampered his play — surely a bit — but Green, Looney, and the rest of the Dubs did an elite job defending the dominant scoring force, holding him to 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting, and forcing him into eight turnovers. Most notable was how Golden State kept the seven-foot Embiid out of the paint ... just look at this shot chart!
Sure, the red X’s are great, but the story here is where those shots are coming from. Golden State kept the best scorer in the league far from the hoop, and everything else followed.
The Dubs now hit the road for a five-game trip that starts on Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies ... and includes a rematch with the Sixers next Wednesday.
They’re getting better. Let’s hope that continues.