CHICAGO — The Bulls bested the Golden State Warriors 94-87 in another game that featured the Splash Brothers struggling to do what defines them. Now Golden State, lacking ailing Kevin Durant for an unknown amount of time, is adrift as it seeks to maintain its edge on the league.
“He made the game easy for us, and you can get comfortable because of his skill set and his talent,” Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ savvy veteran small forward, said of Durant. “So, we’ve got to pay attention to the small things.”
Small things might have saved the Warriors on Thursday night, but the bigger, far more glaring thing was the avalanche of bricks.
The Warriors began this one cold, not hitting a 3-pointer until three minutes remained in the first quarter. Iguodala’s introduction into the game improved things, as it often does. He briefly changed the game by running in transition as others jogged. Iguodala caught a pretty touchdown pass from Curry to get on the board. Then he pushed in transition for a coast-to-coast bucket that no one assisted. After that, he cut through the defense with a pass that found Klay Thompson in stride for a layup.
In the meantime, Curry was trying to thaw out. He continued his mini-slump coming into this game, going 2-of-11 from deep. Over his past three games, he is 4-of-31 from 3-point range. On balance, Curry is having an All-Star-level season, but it has been a pronounced decline from last season’s MVP level. In theory, Curry might correct course while Durant is out with an injured leg. If there was any issue figuring out the share of the offense, the ball is back in his hands.
So far, through a mere two games sans Durant, Steph has yet to look like the Steph of old. He’s not alone in his recent struggles, though. Thompson was equally off, going 5-of-22 overall and 1-of-11 from deep. Thompson and Curry are now a combined 11-of-64 from deep over the past three games. This is an unusual circumstance for Golden State. Often when one guy slumps, the other is compensating. Right now, both are lost at a time when the Warriors need to hold the San Antonio Spurs at bay in the standings.
“It’s another one of those nights, we’ve had a couple in a row, where shots we normally make don’t fall,” Curry said. “But that’s not the reason we lost.”
On Thursday, Jimmy Butler was a couple of cuts above both Curry and Thompson, on both ends of the ball. Offensively, Butler ran Thompson ragged and, with his immense core strength, moved other defenders around like they were on ice. Near the close of the second quarter, Butler scored on three consecutive possessions, using his superior brawn on each.
Defensively, Butler disrupted a number of Golden State passes, throwing a wrench in the gears of a machine that usually hums. Thanks in large part to Butler, the Bulls blasted past the Warriors in the third, beating them 32-22 in a quarter that Golden State usually controls.
“What upset me tonight was the third quarter, a lack of intensity and focus, not chasing down loose balls,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “When you’re not making shots, every possession counts and the ball is gold. And the ball was just sitting there for guys to grab, and we didn’t grab it.”
Perhaps these third-period struggles informed why Kerr threw newly acquired swingman Matt Barnes into fourth-quarter crunch time action, despite this being Barnes’ literal first day on the job.
Though their shooting was often ghastly, the Warriors did not ultimately lose this for lack of effort. Golden State fought down the stretch, and it played rugged defense throughout. The Warriors generated plenty of positive looks but repeatedly rattled them out. Down six points with a little over a minute remaining, Curry pushed hard in transition and unleashed a 3-pointer. It, like so many others, rattled out, and rendered its verdict. The Warriors were not to win, not while playing this imperfectly.
That’s something Golden State seeks to improve upon. The Warriors are working on winning even when it’s ugly. Center Zaza Pachulia spoke afterward of how the Warriors “haven’t played our game.”
When asked what he meant, Pachulia said: “We need to figure out how to win without making 3s.”
Rookie Patrick McCaw just might help in that effort by more subtle means. While the young guard could possibly stand to be more aggressive, he has done well to move the ball and avoid mistakes in his minutes; and he did just that on a Thursday, when he went 4-of-5 for 11 points and had a pair of steals. With Durant out, the Warriors are in need of what McCaw can provide on the wing.
Iguodala, who also has been playing smartly, indicated as much while comparing he and McCaw to the sentient robots of HBO’s “Westworld.”
“We’re in similar situations, where we’re making plays for other guys, and that’s kind of been our role,” Iguodala said of himself and the rookie. “All of a sudden, you have to change a little bit. It’s kind of like ‘Westworld,’ you know, when they change some of the folks up a little bit. ‘Westworld?’ You watch that? They alter their characteristics a little bit. You amp up this, you take this down. Well, he and I will have to change things a little bit, but being a smart player, it’s not as hard.”
A team like Golden State can look so brilliant when the shots are going in, but that aura of intelligence can be artificial. Durant’s presence might have been a mask, in a way. Now, the scoring won’t come as easily, and certain flaws might come to the fore. Golden State’s margin of error has shrunk some. As much as the Warriors also want the rim to stop shrinking, they must adapt, improve and, just maybe, alter their own characteristics.