SAN FRANCISCO — Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Golden State Warriors were confident the return of Stephen Curry would be just what they needed to continue the momentum they had established earlier at home without him.
They finally found their best player. Their starting roster — the best five-man unit in the league — was full for the first time since Dec. 3. They were facing an understaffed and struggling Phoenix Suns team.
Instead, the Warriors looked like a similar version of the team they were when Curry went down with a left shoulder subluxation, falling to the Suns 125-113.
“I think with Steph and [Andrew Wiggins] back, we probably relaxed a little bit more than we should have,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said. “We thought with them we’d just get the double.
But Curry and Wiggins have dust to shake off, and it was obvious.
Curry, who missed 11 games after being injured Dec. 14, wore a shooting sleeve on his left arm that extended from his shoulder to his wrist. He said physically he got through the game well and didn’t think about his shoulder during the action – something that was crucial for him to do to be cleared to play.
On Friday, Curry said he didn’t think his conditioning had taken too much of a hit when he was laid off, and although he played 31 minutes on Tuesday night, he admitted playing under a one-minute restriction was affecting his ability to find your own rhythm.
Knowing he would only play for certain periods of time, he said there was a level of pressure to get back into shape in a limited amount of time, which he tried to balance while playing within the game. .
“It’s random with how much rust you’ll get and how close you can get to game speed,” Curry said. “The first quarter was good to be out there, running with our guys. … I felt like I was getting stronger as the game went on. … By the fourth, the intensity of the game increased. We were playing very desperately trying to come back and make a few plays. I felt like myself again.
Curry scored 16 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. He shot 8 of 22 from the floor, including 5 of 15 of 3.
Wiggins, playing his second game after a groin strain and subsequent injury, finished with 10 points but did it on 5 of 16 shots and lacked the aggression and pace he had before his absence.
Thompson started the night scoring 14 of his 29 points in the first quarter, then cooled off. In his first game off the bench since Dec. 3, Jordan Poole scored 27 points.
With just over four minutes left in the game, Curry hit three straight 3-pointers to bring the Warriors back to life. Three minutes later, a Poole layup, a save, a Poole 3 and another save had taken the Warriors into the six after they trailed to 27.
Outside of timeout, Curry was called for a foul, sending Damion Lee to the line and giving the Suns a three-possession lead. Those free throws ended up being the dagger.
“Hopefully this fourth quarter was the team I’ve come to know, love and recognize,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But we have to show in the first quarter, not in the fourth.”
The fourth quarter, Curry said, exemplified the “level of focus, unity, toughness, high-IQ basketball” the Warriors stand for and what they know it takes to win.
But the first three quarters saw the Warriors’ offense disjointed and their defense almost non-existent. Phoenix, playing without Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne, ended the first quarter on a 10-0 run and by halftime held a 14-point lead.
“I have to do a better job of giving [the Warriors] the slap Phoenix gave us,” Kerr said. “A team has the edge emotionally like Phoenix did, and they set the tone right away. That’s all it takes.”
Both Kerr and Thompson said Tuesday’s contest should remind the Warriors that there are no easy games in the NBA, no matter how healthy their roster is or how exhausted their opponent’s is.
“You need a revival,” Kerr said. “You have to understand the level of commitment to each other, to the game that it takes to win a title.”
It’s not just a callback to the Warriors’ younger players and two-way players, who Kerr says didn’t play against Phoenix, but to their veterans who won multiple championships.
But after playing their 41st game of the season – the official halfway point – there were other reminders of that, other games after which the Warriors shared a similar sentiment: that they understand they don’t not meet their standard.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Curry said. “Eventually you have to do it, otherwise time is running out. … We have 41 games to figure it out – otherwise we won’t.”