Pure jubilation exuded from Chase Center as the Golden State Warriors closed out a 5-0 homestand with another comeback win, this time a 108-99 affair against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. Most impressive was the fact that they won every game without the aid of Andrew Wiggins, who is out indefinitely due to a family matter, and Stephen Curry, who is expected to make his return from lower leg injuries on Sunday.
This is just the second five-game winning streak of the season for the Warriors, who have sought momentum like a missing remote control for the entirety of their baffling 2022 title defense. They're now four games above .500 for the first time this season, within a single game of the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference.
Golden State's other five-game streak, interestingly enough, also came without Curry in the lineup. in fact, their 14-12 record in games without Curry (7-4 during this most recent stretch) is one of the primary reasons an underwhelming season hasn't turned disastrous.
Thompson's resurgence has been essential to the Warriors staying afloat without the engine of their offense and emotional leader. After opening up early in the season about the pain he felt from harsh criticism of his relatively slow start, Thompson has been lights out since Christmas -- over 26 points per game on 44 percent 3-point shooting. Overall, he's fractions of a point off of his career-high scoring average and hitting 41 percent from deep. He's also gotten his swagger back, as he showed with this brash, go-ahead pull-up from almost mid-court late in the fourth quarter of Friday's win over the Pelicans.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has also talked with Thompson about evolving his game, as all greats must do as they age. He's charged the sharpshooter with more playmaking and crashing the boards, and during the current five-game winning streak Thompson has responded with averages of 3.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds, including a career-high 11 boards in Thursday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
While he and Jordan Poole have kept the offense afloat without Curry, the real story has been the defense, which allowed just over 100 points per 100 possessions on the perfect homestand, compared to 114 in the 60 prior games. Thompson credited improved trust and communication on that end. Defensive anchor Kevon Looney mentioned building better habits and limiting fouls. Jonathan Kuminga championed increased physicality and overall chemistry.
Call it what you want, but the defense looks to be at a championship level for the first sustained period since Golden State won the title last June.
"We've been much more locked in with the game plan, with the keys, with the big picture of what we're trying to do each game," Kerr said of the uptick in defensive efficiency. "I think it makes some sense that it's happening now, because it's the stretch run and a lot of our younger guys now have been through this."
By "younger guys," Kerr is referring to Kuminga -- who appears to be making a leap, quite literally, over the past few games -- along with Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Moses Moody, Patrick Baldwin Jr. and two-way players Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb. DiVincenzo has been particularly crucial during the stretches without Curry, and he's developed into Kerr's go-to Swiss Army knife, capable of shooting, facilitating, rebounding and defending with equal proficiency and enthusiasm.
The Warriors also have a trump card sitting in their back pocket -- the best starting lineup in the NBA. Curry, Thompson, Looney, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green have a net rating of plus-22 together this season, by far the best of any five-man unit that's played at least 300 minutes.
"That group won a championship last year, so that gives us a ton of confidence," Kerr said of his starters. "We've seen individual growth and we know we have certain lineups we can really count on. I think the whole thing is, we believe that if we're healthy and we're clicking, we can beat anybody."
The Warriors look like the Warriors again, a curious development given that they've been missing vital pieces in Curry and Wiggins. But there's still one massive hurdle to overcome: They need to win on the road.
Both of Golden State's five-game winning streaks this season have occurred at home, where they have a sparkling 27-7 record. Once they leave the friendly confines of San Francisco, however, things get ugly -- like 7-23 ugly. The Warriors have allowed 119 points per 100 possessions on the road, the third-worst in the NBA, only ahead of the lowly San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.
They've had fantastic home stretches that were immediately soured by devastating road trips. But Looney sees reason to believe things will be different when the Warriors head to Los Angeles to kick off a three-game road trip against the Lakers on Sunday.
"I thought earlier this season when we was winning at home, it was just because we was making shots or things like that," Looney said after Friday's win over the Pelicans. "But these last few games, we've been playing our style of basketball and winning the right way. And I think we can carry that on to the road."
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Most who follow the league have been waiting to see if and when the Warriors were going to make their inevitable run. The talent is clearly there, with a roster largely the same as the one that hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy last year, and it appears they're starting to put things together with Curry, Gary Payton II and eventually Wiggins expected to rejoin the fray.
But if we're going to consider the Warriors true title contenders again, they have to prove that they can win away from home. A strong performance to close out the season -- especially on the road -- will only bolster the confidence of a four-time championship core that will terrify every opponent it sees in the playoffs.
"It's exciting. No time to relax, though," Thompson said after Friday's win. "Just because Steph's coming back, we can't slouch our shoulders and expect him to save us. You gotta keep playing with the same mindset and the same effort. But I mean, we're all so excited to get our guys back."