Warriors are ‘winning the right way’ ahead of Stephen Curry’s return but still have a major hurdle to overcome

SAN FRANCISCO — Klay Thompson did the styling. Jordan Poole smiled. Jonathan Kuminga posterized.

Sheer cheers spread throughout the Chase Center as the Golden State Warriors ended a 5-0 home draw with another comeback win on Friday, this time a 108-99 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Most impressive was the fact that they have won every game without the help of Andrew Wiggins, who is out indefinitely due to a family problem, and Stephen Curry, who is expected to return on Sunday after suffering a lower leg injury.

This is only the second five-game winning streak of the season for the Warriors, who have searched for momentum like a missing remote control throughout their bewildering 2022 title defense. They’re now four games over .500 for the first time this season, within a single game by the fourth-ranked Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference.

Interestingly, Golden State’s other five-game series also came without Curry in the lineup. In fact, their 14-12 record in games without Curry (7-4 in that final stretch) is one of the main reasons an underwhelming season hasn’t turned disastrous.

Thompson’s resurgence was critical for the Warriors to stay afloat without the engine of their offense and emotional leader. After speaking out early in the season about the pain he was feeling from harsh criticism of his relatively slow start, Thompson has been without a light since Christmas — over 26 points a game at 44 percent 3-point shooting. Overall, he’s just a fraction of a point off his career high-score average, hitting 41 percent from deep. He also got his swagger back, as he showed with that cheeky pull-up almost from the middle of the late fourth quarter of Friday’s win against the Pelicans.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has also spoken with Thompson about evolving his game, as all greats have to do as they get older. He’s tasked the sniper with more playmaking and crashing the boards, and during the current five-game winning streak, Thompson has responded by averaging 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 kept the offense afloat without a Curry, the real story was the defense, which allowed just over 100 points per 100 possessions on the perfect homestand, compared to 114 in the previous 60 games. Thompson credited improved trust and communication on this end. Defensive anchor Kevon Looney mentioned building better habits and limiting fouls. Jonathan Kuminga championed more physicality and general chemistry.

Call it what you will, but the defense appears to be championship-level for the first time since Golden State won the title last June.

“We’ve become much more committed to the game plan, to the keys, to the big picture of what we’re trying to do in every game,” Kerr said of the increase in defensive efficiency. “I think it makes sense that it’s happening now because it’s the stretch run and a lot of our younger guys have been through that now.”

By “younger guys” Kerr is referring to Kuminga – who seems to have literally taken a leap in the last few games – along with Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Moses Moody, Patrick Baldwin Jr. and two-wayers Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb . DiVincenzo was particularly important during the non-Curry stretches, and he’s become Kerr’s beloved Swiss Army Knife, capable of shooting, relieving, rebounding and defending with equal competence and enthusiasm.

The Warriors also have a trump card in their back pocket – the best starting lineup in the NBA. Curry, Thompson, Looney, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green have a combined net rating of plus-22 this season, by far the best of any five-man unit to have played at least 300 minutes.

“This group won a championship last year so that gives us a lot of confidence,” Kerr said of his starters. “We’ve seen individual growth and we know we have certain lineups that we can really count on. I think the whole thing is, we believe that if we’re healthy and we click, we can beat anyone.”

The Warriors look like the Warriors again, an odd development as they were missing key parts in Curry and Wiggins. But there is still a huge hurdle to overcome: you have to win away from home.

Both of Golden State’s five-game winning streaks this season have come at home, where they have a lustrous 27-7 record. However, once they leave the friendly confines of San Francisco, 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, ahead of only the lowly San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.

They had fantastic home stretches that were immediately soured by devastating road driving. But Looney sees reason to believe things will be different when the Warriors travel to Los Angeles on Sunday for a three-game road trip against the Lakers.

“I thought earlier this season when we won at home it was just because we were doing shots or something,” Looney said after Friday’s win against the Pelicans. “But the last couple of games we played our style of basketball and won the right way. And I think we can take that to the streets.”

Most who follow the league have been waiting to see if and when the Warriors would make their inevitable run. The talent is clearly there, with a squad essentially the same as that who lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy last year, and it appears they are starting things with Curry, Gary Payton II and finally Wiggins to bring together those who are expected to rejoin the fight.

But if we consider the Warriors to be real title contenders again, they need to prove they can win away from home. A strong end-of-season performance — especially on the road — will only fuel the confidence of a quadruple championship core that will strike fear into every opponent he faces in the playoffs.

“It’s exciting. But no time to relax,” Thompson said after Friday’s win. “Just because Steph is coming back doesn’t mean we can hunch our shoulders and expect him to save us. You have to keep playing with the same attitude and effort. But I mean we’re all so excited to get our boys back. “

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