Warriors in the thick of the tight Western Conference amid five-game win streak

Gritty Warriors in the thick of the West standings amid win streak originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO — Upon their arrival home from a treacherous 1-5 road trip through Milwaukee, Indiana, Philadelphia, Toronto and New York, the Warriors came back to the Bay with a 15-18 record and without their superstar in Steph Curry.

They sat in the 11th spot of the Western Conference standings with a Christmas Day date against the first-place Memphis Grizzlies. The Phoenix Suns, as well as the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers all were tied with the Grizzlies’ total wins at 19. Talks about the NBA Play-In Tournament were already being floated around with the Warriors, before the calendar year even came to a close.

A little less than a week later, everything has changed — the standings, the narrative and the overall feeling of the Warriors.

Being around the Warriors, doomsday has never felt around the corner. There have been frustrations, sure. Players, coaches and the rest of the organization expect better. They demand it, which is why they are the defending champions. With so much experience of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, there was also no reason to stare at a panic button.

Staring at the standings told them why. Even with their rocky season so far, they have never strayed too far from the pack. The Western Conference standings have been jam-packed, now more than ever.

“Yeah, definitely,” Klay Thompson said Monday night when asked if he looks at the standings, and if that has helped the Warriors stay calm through the ups and downs. “We realize we’re only four, five, maybe six games back from first place and we know it’s a long season and it’s about catching that fire at the right time.”

Thompson then found himself in a time machine of confusion. For someone who has stacks of newspapers by his locker and who literally teamed up with the East Bay Times for a pair of “Newspaper” Anta basketball shoes, he couldn’t fathom an old way of life.

How did people — players, coaches, fans and everybody else — keep up with the NBA standings before the Internet?

“We do look at the standings,” Thompson continued. “Pretty easy to go to ESPN or NBA.com. We’re lucky, I don’t know how players did it pre-internet days. But we are very blessed to have that access.

“I really don’t know how they did it. Newspaper?”

The standings are even kinder to the Warriors than Thompson knew. Going into Tuesday’s slate of games, which features only three Western Conference teams — the Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder — the Warriors are now tied for eighth place. Behind Thompson’s 54 points in the Warriors’ roller coaster 143-141 double overtime win Monday night over the Atlanta Hawks, Golden State now has a 20-18 record.

That’s now the same as the Suns.

The Warriors have won five games in a row, all without Curry and Andrew Wiggins, who missed his 14th straight game to a right adductor strain and then an illness. The Suns have lost three straight, as well as six of their last seven. Phoenix will be without its biggest star, Devin Booker, for at least three more weeks.

While the Warriors’ injury report continues to grow, there is some good news. Curry is set to be re-evaluated regarding the progress of his left shoulder on Jan. 7 and hopes to return soon thereafter. Wiggins’ absence should, theoretically, also come to a close sometime soon.

Not only do the Warriors now share the same record as the Suns, but they also have one more win than the team directly ahead of them, the Portland Trail Blazers — a team they recently beat in their string of comeback wins. The Warriors are a half-game back from being a top-six team in the West and avoiding the play-in tournament. They are also only two games back from being a top-four seed and earning home-court advantage, something that surely looks important for a team that sports a 17-2 home record compared to 3-16 on the road.

The top-seeded Nuggets are 24-13, 4.5 games ahead of the Warriors. That’s not an arm’s reach away, nor is it impossible to catch.

Along with Thompson, and probably most other Warriors, Draymond Green naturally peeks at how the standings are shaking out here and there. He also maintains the same message he has stated all season long: It doesn’t matter what seed the Warriors are. Get in the playoffs, and good luck to the rest of the league.

“I’m a basketball fan, so I look at it, of course,” Green said in the Warriors’ locker room. “But I don’t look at it from a perspective of, ‘Oh man, we need to do this.’ I told y’all this before — we get in the playoffs, I don’t care who we play or what seed we are, nobody wants to play against us in the playoffs.

“We just got to continue to get better and embrace the process of improving each and every day. And understand that a championship is not won in December, it’s not won in January, nor is it won in April. Well, beginning of April – – then you start to trek mid-April. We are always going to keep one eye open on it, just like competitors.

“But at the same time, we never come in here and say, ‘Hey man, we’re right here in the standings and such and such.’ We don’t. We come in and try and get better each and every day, and go from there.”

When the Warriors returned home from their ugly six-game road trip, Green sent a message. Never one to hold back, he made it clear he believed the Warriors were too mentally fragile. Those were his exact words.

Whether it’s what he said or wanting to silence the outside noise, the Warriors have looked the opposite since those words. Stars such as himself, Thompson and Jordan Poole have put together great performances to get back in the win column and to stay there. They also haven’t been alone.

Thompson shouted out “Strength In Numbers” at the podium on a night when he was a one-man show at times. He’s right, though. By halftime of Monday night, the Warriors’ bench, while missing key players, had scored 27 points and the Hawks had scored only four. Anthony Lamb ended up playing 33 huge minutes off the bench with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Warriors wouldn’t be on this run without him, Ty Jerome, Jonathan Kuminga, Patrick Baldwin Jr., James Wiseman or Moses Moody.

Stars have to shine. Winning doesn’t happen without them. It also doesn’t come without pieces to the puzzle coming into place, which is what’s happening with the Warriors as they wait for the return of Curry and Wiggins.

“I think since I said that, we are starting to build an MO, which is gritty,” Green said. “No matter what the situation is, we’re a team that’s gonna keep fighting. I don’t think this team had built an identity all year, and we’re starting to build an identity. And it’s coming at a great time.

“With all the guys that we have out, you have to find something and I think everyone is buying into that grit — no matter what. Some of the things that we’ve gone through these last five games, if they were happening in Game 10 everybody would be sulking and feeling sorry for themselves. You don’t see much of that anymore.

“Get down eight points with three minutes to go, nobody’s panicking, nobody’s pointing a finger at anybody. Everybody’s buckling down, knowing that we have to come up with stops. We’ve always said, when we get stops we can score on anybody You see guys locking in more and more, and I think that’s huge.”

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To close out this eight-game homestand, the Warriors face the 10-win Detroit Pistons, 13-win Orlando Magic and a Suns team without Booker. Can they leave San Francisco with an eight-game winning streak?

Execution is everything, and it’s all coming together for the Warriors — right when the basketball world thought they might have fallen off.

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