SAN FRANCISCO — Klay Thompson provided the exclamation point, his game-winner delivering victory from the clutches of defeat. But Wednesday’s 102-101 win over visiting Sacramento was a win for the vibes. The Warriors’ culture was the star in this one.
“I think I can’t name one person in there who hasn’t shown the willingness to sacrifice thus far,” Draymond Green said. “And I don’t see that changing. That doesn’t mean a guy isn’t going to be mad that he is coming out the game. We’re competitors. We want to play. But when it was all said and done, I’ve got my teammates’ back. I’m not going to be a distraction to this team. Last year, we had an awful team as far as chemistry goes. It was pathetic. But chemistry has been a strong suit here.”
A Domantas Sabonis 21-footer from the top with 15.1 seconds left felt ominous. Sabonis, who Kevon Looney owned in the first round of the playoffs back in April, has been hesitant to shoot against the Warriors. But with the Kings down a point, he launched a jumper and it banked off the glass. The Warriors trailed by one and this game looked as if it would be one of those learning losses. And that’s not all bad. Growing pains will be part of this journey.
Then Steph Curry got trapped at half court with eight seconds left. He passed out of it to Green, his safety valve. Then Green picked up his dribble and got stuck without options as the Kings pressed up on defense. Yeah, this felt like a rerun.
But Green was patient. He didn’t force a shot. He trusted. Eventually, Thompson, who started in the right corner, drifted to the right wing, giving Green a target.
Thompson caught the ball behind the arc with Kings defensive specialist Davion Mitchell pressing up on him. Thompson took two dribbles left and stepped back a couple feet behind the free-throw line. Mitchell, whose listed height of 6-foot-2 seems a tad generous, didn’t stand a chance. Thompson drifted left a little, but he got enough of his legs under him to get off a pure shot.
The midrange has been working for Thompson this year. He was 11-for-17 on the season from that distance as he rose up. Green raised both arms, celebrating the shot before it landed.
Make it 12-for-18.
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) November 2, 2023
“Any time you hit a game-winner,” Thompson said, “you are going to feel on cloud nine. If someone isn’t, they are just lying to you. I feel amazing.”
But Thompson’s 17-footer with 0.2 seconds Wednesday did more than give the Warriors a 102-101 win. It was the reward for their togetherness. Aesthetically, Golden State’s fourth win in five games was rough. With 18 turnovers and a tepid night shooting from 3-point range (11-for-31), the fully healthy Warriors struggled to beat a Kings squad missing De’Aaron Fox.
The beauty of this team, though, was evident in the struggle. What shined in their first home win of the season was their cohesiveness.
This wasn’t a night Curry saved them, wiping away their flaws with the stroke of his shot. He finished with a team-high 21 points on 7-for-15 shooting. But he was part of the problem with seven turnovers. The Kings outscored the Warriors by six points in Curry’s minutes.
This was a night where winning required a fortified front. Warriors coach Steve Kerr went 10 deep in his rotation, searching for combinations to find some momentum.
Then, at the end, he was faced with the dilemma of who would finish the game.
At the 4:30 mark, with the game tied at 87, Chris Paul and Thompson checked in for the final stretch. The question was who would come out. This wasn’t one of those nights where it was obvious.
The answer, this time: Andrew Wiggins and Moses Moody.
Not long after, Kerr replaced Kevon Looney with Gary Payton II so he could match up with Kings guard Malik Monk, who tends to torch the Warriors with his penetration.
Even rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis got to partake. With 0.2 seconds left, which per NBA rules is only enough time for a tip-in, Sacramento inserted JaVale McGee. The Kings’ plan was to throw the ball near the rim and hope McGee — a legit 7-footer who can jump well — could make something happen. Golden State countered by subbing in Jackson-Davis. He thought it was to cover McGee. Instead, it was to cover the inbounds, using Jackson-Davis’ height and leaping ability to make the pass more difficult. He just had to watch his feet on the sidelines to avoid a technical foul.
“I kept telling myself,” the rookie recalled with a smile, “over and over, ‘Don’t step over the line. Don’t step over the line.’ Then GP came up to me and said, ‘Don’t step over the line.’ I wasn’t going to touch that line.”
On this night, Wiggins and Kuminga spent crunch time minutes on the bench, as did Looney for the final two-plus minutes. The last crunch-time situation, last Sunday in Houston, Payton, Kuminga and Moody sat and watched. Paul did, too, until the final two minutes. Next time, perhaps in Friday’s inaugural in-season tournament game in Oklahoma City, it might be a different mix.
This is possible, though, because the Warriors have buy-in. They can’t stop talking about how different it is this year. How the focus is all on winning. How the message of staying ready is landing.
“Last year was horse s—. It was hard to come to work,” Green said as he channeled his inner Thompson and folded the stat sheet into a paper airplane. “Not fun. This year, you see the joy on guys’ faces when they come into the building. You’ve got guys staying over two and three hours after, just sitting around talking. Getting here two or three hours early just to be here. You start to see that and you’re like, ‘OK, this is a group that likes being together.’”
The journey to this place of harmony, which is tangible even beyond how often they mention it, began this summer. They had two team dinners. One in Los Angeles, another in Las Vegas. They also got together for some pick-up hoop before camp. The bonding sessions are paying off.
They’ve already talked about their depth and how some players will pay the occasional price for it. It began with Paul, the first-ballot Hall of Fame point guard who embraced coming off the bench for the first time in his career. Nine players have seen crunch-time action already. Well, 10 if you count Jackson-Davis’ 0.2 seconds.
The culture is at work. This is what Kerr wanted, what the veterans wanted, and what general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. delivered. Six months after Curry gave his speech imploring unity before Game 7, the Warriors seem to have it back.
“I have actually been on a team like this before. A couple years ago,” Payton said, referencing the 2022 NBA champions. “This feels like that team. We just wanna win. We don’t care. Whoever comes in, bro, do what you’re supposed to do. Make the right play. Next guy up — come on. Make the right play. It should be a routine now. It’s a new night every night. It’s somebody’s night every night. We just want to win.”
Playing seven of the first nine games on the road seems to be helping. Nothing like a road trip to expedite the bonding. Coming off a three-game stretch away from home, Wednesday’s game against the Kings felt a bit like another stop, especially since the Warriors fly out for a four-game road trip on Thursday. When they come back home, they will have played their last eight games in eight different cities.
The trick will be keeping the vibes. Right now, it’s fresh. It’s new. They’re winning. It’s all good. The revelation is they have a chance to be really good if they can keep it like this. They’re still learning each other’s play. Still getting a rhythm and, for some, getting in condition. If they can get enough players in midseason form and have this same spirit among them, the Warriors could be dangerous in the West.
Wednesday’s game was evidence. They didn’t play well, but they stuck it out. They buckled down on defense. They stayed ready. This time, it was Thompson who delivered.
“The way that the season ended and what happened over the summer,” Curry said, “I think the times that we got to spend together as a group, the two or three times we all got together, were huge. You could kind of get the elephants out the room. … We just played and hung out on and off the court. It helped to have some familiarity, and understanding everybody’s personalities and presence and motivation going into the year. I think it’s translated to some early success, for sure, because even though we’re not playing perfect basketball, there’s nice cohesion and chemistry and trust amongst each other …
‘And without that trust, there can be some bitterness that can creep up based on who’s the finishing five and all that type of stuff. We know it’s gonna change from game to game and everybody’s gonna get an opportunity. And we have to believe in that throughout the course of the year.”
(Top photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)