Lockdown (Warriors 108, Bucks 94)

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The Golden State Warriors have some of the loudest (and best) fans in the world coming to Oracle Arena for their home games, but this season the Dubs have actually been a better road team. Despite adverse injury circumstances, with Stephen Curry still nursing a sprained ankle, the Warriors shrugged off a stiff challenge from the frisky Milwaukee Bucks to prevail in a national TV thriller, heading into the weekend with a 108-94 victory.

Steve Kerr, dissatisfied with the outcome of the Clippers game, started his tinkering from the opening tip, choosing to start Pat McCaw instead of the expected promotion of Shaun Livingston. The logic of this move was most likely to cut Livingston’s minutes, with the remainder of the road trip still to come and Curry’s availability in doubt, as well to put Livingston in his customary off-the-bench position. In any case, the starting lineup, despite not having played very many minutes together all season, was effective on offense, racking up 8 assists on their first 8 made field goals, and pulled together defensively after some early scuffles that led to free dunks and threes for Eric Bledsoe. Behind Kevin Durant, again sublime with a 26 point/6 rebound/6 assist +12 performance, the Warriors put the clamps on the Bucks and were able to build their way to a 14 point halftime lead.

The Dubs’ attention to detail and execution were top notch in the first and second quarters, be it forcing Giannis Antetokounmpo to the outside as much as possible or grabbing free points on out-of-timeout plays. Giannis, in particular, looked out of control in the first half, in large part due to the Warriors’ swarming defense and unwillingness to let him feast down low (he leads the NBA in points in the paint per game). While the Greek Freak got his points and showed a level of athleticism that honestly doesn’t seem human, his forays to the hoop were reminiscent of a runaway train (in the negative sense), and he was outfoxed by Durant and David West on a handful of occasions. He got his buckets, but became a predominantly speculative outside shooter in the process. The Warriors were also anchored by Kevon Looney, who was one of the few bright spots against the Clippers and earned his way to extra playing time in his hometown; Looney did a little bit of everything in his triumphant homecoming, provided scoring (on some clever finishes at the hoop), defense (affecting shots in the paint and working hard to move his feet and stay in front of his man when cross-matched on guards), rebounding (he was a monster on the offensive glass), and passing (a laser-sharp delivery to McCaw after vacuuming up an offensive rebound and some high-level finds after running the pick and roll were the highlights). His final line for the evening: a cool 9 points (on perfect shooting from the field), 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block to finish +16 in his 23 minutes of play.

As excellent as the Warriors were in the first half, the third quarter nearly proved to be their undoing. The Bucks emerged from their locker room energized and focused, and this paid immediate dividends on offense and defense. They started relentlessly attacking the rim, thus setting up a lethal inside-outside attack, and their defense became significantly more tenacious and physical. Meanwhile, the Warriors were sloppy on both ends of the floor, failing to move the ball and execute on offense and falling asleep on defense. Mere minutes into the third quarter, Steve Kerr used a timeout and asked his team (transcribed via some very simple lip reading), “What the [rhymes with fire truck] was that?” Alas, the profanity didn’t seem to have any effect, as the Bucks owned the third quarter to a Warriors-like degree, outscoring the Warriors by 16 and taking a slim 2 point lead into the fourth quarter. Behind some timely three-point shooting from Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon, as well as the threat of their towering forwards and centers (and Giannis) down low, the Bucks looked poised to send the Warriors to Toronto with a two-game losing streak unless the Dubs came up with answers fast. The Warriors looked discombobulated, with Andre Iguodala the personification of their growing frustration. After passing up a wide open triple and blowing a left-handed layup (where he may have gotten fouled) to close the third, Iguodala frustratingly tossed the ball into the crowd and jawed with the refs on his way to the bench. Things looked dire for the Dubs.

Spoiler alert: the Dubs eventually found an answer, and it came on the defensive end of the floor. The Warriors’ team defense was exceptional in the fourth, rotating with precision, closing out on shooters, denying penetration, and otherwise making things very difficult for the Bucks. While the Dubs’ offense did tend to get bogged down in isolation ball, the defense was so good that it really didn’t matter. Iguodala overcame his offensive frustrations by taking them out on the Bucks on defense, finishing the night a team-high +21 despite only scoring 4 points and missing all 4 of his field goal attempts. The Dubs rode Durant down the stretch, and he delivered with some clutch shotmaking, nailing highly difficult midrange jumpers and dropping in a pair of threes to seal the victory. Draymond Green also came up aces, overcoming early shooting struggles to chip in a critical 21 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and a knocked down a dagger 3 to seal the game. The Warriors’ snarling defense eked out a win when the offense was a little stagnant, a reversal from Wednesday’s debacle against the Clippers.

Against an Eastern Conference contender, the Warriors were pushed and ultimately answered the bell, an encouraging outcome. Their guard play continues to be a point of concern, particulary without Stephen Curry available to paper over the cracks; Klay Thompson was a team-high +20 on the night but almost totally anonymous, and his streak of games with a made three-point field goal came to an unceremonious end, while Nick Young was MIA save for an end-of-first-quarter heave and Patrick McCaw was similarly AWOL. The Dubs’ non-Steph-and-Klay guards played a grand total of 49 minutes, and the minutes for the rest of the Warriors’ roster spiked to compensate. Credit Steve Kerr for being pragmatic; when your guys aren’t giving you a whole lot to work with, adjustments must be made, and Kerr’s answer was to throw on a batallion of forwards to counter the Bucks’ length. There is no greater endorsement of Stephen Curry’s playmaking and gravity than the struggles of the Dubs in his absence to get what we consider “normal” production out of the rest of the rest of the guards on the lineup. However, these results aren’t at all atypical. Subtract an MVP from any team, and you’ll immediately see some degradation. On the whole, after the sour taste of the collapse against the Clippers, a gritty defense-first win against the Bucks was just what the doctor ordered. The road trip marches on to Canada tomorrow.

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