Members of dynasties usually don’t accept moral victories. They don’t come with rings.
But even the Golden State Warriors, after playing seven of their first nine on the road — the last eight over a 13-day span that covered eight cities, culminating in a road loss to the reigning champions — can’t help but feel good about where they stand.
“You’ll take the record we have,” said Stephen Curry, leader of the 6-3 Warriors, “considering how we, you know, played …”
Curry stopped himself. He pointed his eyes upward, above the olive Curry Brand skullcap on his head, and muttered to himself aloud.
“No. I’m not going to keep talking about last year. Let me stop that.”
The Warriors are so tired of talking about last season. But it’s too soon to let it go. And after a performance like their 108-105 loss in the home of the reigning NBA champions, it’s impossible not to juxtapose the start to the season with what we remember about them last campaign.
Fought to the finish. pic.twitter.com/9UGiWGqxo4
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) November 9, 2023
Last season’s team would’ve gotten blown out. They probably wouldn’t have even played their starters. It certainly would’ve spiraled out of control after a 21-point first quarter that featured five turnovers and 1-for-8 shooting from 3. The Denver crowd salivated over their champs stepping on the gas against the hated Warriors. That would’ve been enough last year.
But this team is tougher now. Grittier. Their will is harder to break. Their ethos is to keep coming. And the surprise of the season, the Warriors’ depth, gives them a variety of counters. They can switch the game plan and attack another way. And this was without Draymond Green and Gary Payton II, their two best defenders and captains of grit.
They took the Denver Nuggets to the wire. They went blow for blow. And they did it while struggling. Andrew Wiggins continued his slump. Klay Thompson took only 12 shots and missed three free throws. Dario Saric couldn’t buy a 3-pointer with Curry’s money. As a team, they made just 11 threes, six of them by Curry.
But, they have gamers. They have a bench that competes. They have Curry. And all you had to do was look at Nikola Jokić sucking wind, and missing two clutch free throws down the stretch, to know how much of a problem the Warriors were.
Down two points and the ball, the Warriors, at the end of a brutal stretch, were in great position to control their fate. If there was ever a time to check a 3, to just go for it, this was it. This tired and dragging and undermanned team should’ve wanted no part of overtime. Draw up a play for the game-winning 3 or bust, and head for the plane home.
“When you start off the season with that many road games, it can go bad quick,” Kevon Looney said.
The Warriors were already playing with house money. Either way, this treacherous start had been conquered. This was the perfect time for Curry, the scariest 3-pointer shooter in the land, to do what he does best.
So he drove past Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and went for the tie. Curry was ready for five more minutes. So the Warriors were ready.
Curry missed the left-handed runner. But his decision was one of those signs of the difference. This wasn’t last year’s team.
Wednesday was such a stark contrast from a season ago, when the Warriors’ lack of fortitude shined in their 11-30 road record. Wednesday’s loss was a reminder this roster has been restocked with players who haven’t won a championship. The rotation has been replenished with players who watched their ring get earned for them from the bench. The hunger they’ve injected into this collection is tangible.
This was the Warriors’ first time facing the Nuggets since they became champions. Denver was without star guard Jamal Murray, who is a special kind of hell all his own. Still, the Nuggets became a different animal last postseason. They got their glow like Bruce Leroy and are now the formidable side of the two franchises. Denver is bigger, more athletic, younger, and has more experience together. The start of the season has solidified the Nuggets as the easy favorites in the West. Things are much different than when these teams met in the playoffs in 2022.
But the Warriors were plucky in Denver. They were one Curry runner from forcing overtime. One big shot here and there from knocking off the Nuggets. Perhaps one goal-tending call from playing crunchtime ahead instead of trailing. Not even that unfortunate break from the refs doomed them.
They took the L to the Nuggets, who are the superior team. But the Warriors walked away with a defined identity. They’ve got a better second unit than the Nuggets. They’ve got a defense capable of competing with the best offense in the league and the two-time MVP. And as long as they have Curry, the Warriors are a danger.
Most importantly, they head home knowing they’ve got something to work with. They’ve got some fight in them. They’ve bonded over the grind of NBA road trips. They’ve discovered some players who are cut from their desired cloth, especially Moses Moody and rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis.
They’ve got a ways to go. They’ve got growing to do. They need to get some players playing their best. Since they don’t have the upper hand in the talent department or size department, maximizing this team is going to require some of those intangibles. Nine games into the season, they know they have some of them. Last year, they couldn’t always find them.
(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)