OAKLAND, Calif. -- When the Golden State Warriors decide to focus and play the way they're capable of, there is no team in the NBA that can beat them. Golden State's best is better than anyone else's in the league, as they reminded the Denver Nuggets on Friday night in a 122-105 romp at Oracle Arena.
But after four straight trips to the NBA Finals, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr has acknowledged throughout the season that it is not humanly possible for his proud group of players to get up the same way for various regular-season affairs. Simply put, some nights they have it, and some nights they don't.
After getting blown out by the Boston Celtics by 33 points at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, the worst home loss of Kerr's tenure, the Warriors felt the kind of embarrassment they usually inflict upon their opponents. In a season that has seen plenty of emotional swings, the Warriors played at times with both the joy that has defined Kerr's tenure and the anger and frustration that has shown up at various rough patches throughout the year. All three feelings helped the Warriors offer up a reminder to both the Nuggets and the rest of the league just how dangerous they can be when everything is clicking.
"When we're challenged, when our backs are against the wall, we are at our best," Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson said before the game. "Knowing what is at stake in these next 18 games, we got to play like that and not lose this grip on the No. 1 seed. So, tonight is a huge game."
After losing five of their past eight games coming into Friday's showdown, Kerr and his players were open about the fact that they recently had a couple of solid days of practice and group discussions. Kerr noted that he felt like the group owed East Bay fans a better effort in Oracle's final year, but more importantly, his players knew they expected better of themselves.
Kerr's group appears too often to be going through the motions of another long campaign, waiting for the bright lights of the playoff stage to wake them up. As the regular season fades, the loss to the Celtics seems to have provided the group with the wake-up call it needed. At 45-20, the Warriors are now two games up on the Nuggets with 17 tilts left to play, including one more at home against Denver.
"It's extremely important I think a lot for different reasons," Warriors star Stephen Curry said of locking down the top seed in the Western Conference. "One, obviously, just to get -- if there is a Game 7 in any series, the Western Conference playoffs, we want to be at home. But it gives us something to really shoot for in these last 17 games, to take care of our business.
"And it's not just about winning games that's important, but how we're playing. We say that all the time, but at this point, it really needs to resonate -- walking off the floor every night feeling we did get better and not taking any steps back at this point in the season."
The Warriors are so talented that the players know there are times they can coast through games against inferior opponents -- which is pretty much every team they face. The group's emotional engine, Draymond Green, admitted as much after Wednesday's practice. But as the Warriors search for motivation on the chase to their third straight title, the ability to center their energy on a short-term goal is important. This is a team that already has proved it can reach basketball's pinnacle. What was fun and different several years ago doesn't hold the same weight for the group four years later.
The best example of this came just before the All-Star break when Kerr and his staff openly cheered for Denver to win a game just before the All-Star coaching staffs were announced so that his group could get a few extra days with their families. With a better record in the conference at that point in the season, the Denver staff earned the right to coach the All-Stars. Kerr didn't want to make the league look bad or take away from the excitement of the league's showcase event in Charlotte, North Carolina, but after four long years of extra games and another set on the way, a few precious days away from the game -- and each other -- was just what he knew most of his players and coaches needed.
Now, with the stretch run in clear view and a league full of teams hoping to knock them off their throne, the Warriors have come back together the way every great team has the ability to do when it needs it most.
"I think our focus level right now is more important than our energy level," Green admitted after the Friday's game. "Obviously, the energy was great, but we're not going to play with that energy every night. I'm not going to sit here and lie and act like we are. But we can play with that focus every night. I think that's more important going down the stretch. There's going to be some games where you don't have that energy. If you have the right focus, then all of a sudden 17 turnovers is 10. Then we give ourselves a chance to win any game. So, I think that will be more important than necessarily the energy level."
The numbers certainly back up Green's point about the energy level. The Golden State defense contested 61 of Denver's 87 field goal attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Denver shot 26.2 percent on those contested shots, the lowest by a Golden State opponent this season. Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic was a -29 on Friday night, his worst plus-minus in a game in his career.
The contrast in messaging about the importance of the top seed and what it means to each team was apparent before the ball was even tipped off.
"Not one time have we talked about it," Denver head coach Michael Malone said before the game. "When you're a team that's missed the playoffs each of the last two years, we're not worried about being the No. 1 team. Now, we don't shy away from it, we're not running from it. We love a challenge. But our whole thing is, with 18 games to go, finding a way to hit our stride hopefully into the playoffs. We've been a great team at home this year. We got to continue to be more competitive on the road ... for us, let's improve every day. And from where we were last year to where we were now is a huge improvement, but we're not satisfied. Tonight will be a great challenge to see where we compare against the best team in the world."
Denver has had a great season, but the Warriors have offered a potent reminder of just how dominant they can be the past two times these teams have met. In January, the Warriors hung 51 first-quarter points on the Nuggets, demoralizing the young group at home. This time, amid speculation that DeMarcus Cousins and the starting five couldn't find their way and were about to start sliding, the Warriors offered up another reminder of their greatness. It's no wonder Thompson was so confident before a game in which he would go on to drop 39 points in 35 minutes, his first contest after missing the previous two with knee soreness.
"I have not one bit of concern in my body," Thompson said of Golden State's starting five. "We have too much experience, too much talent. As the playoffs come closer, I think everyone will see what we're made of."