OKLAHOMA CITY — The Warriors have spent 50 regular-season games searching for signs of themselves. Because of an inability to sustain any level of consistency, their veterans have become skeptical. One game — even a longer string of decent performances — doesn’t move them.
“Ehh,” Draymond Green said. “We’ll see.”
The Warriors controlled Monday night’s game in Oklahoma City. They went up 38-20 in the first quarter, led by 21 in the second half, stabilized against a comeback from the young Thunder and pulled away for a convincing-enough 128-120 win. It’s the first time this season they’ve won back-to-back road games.
“Damn,” Green said, cringing at the negative connotation of a positive stat.
It’s too early to declare the Warriors’ issues solved. But there are at least hints of some building momentum. Their last seven games, in totality, have been encouraging. They beat the Wizards on the road, lost in overtime in Boston, went into Cleveland without their starters and stunned the Cavaliers, blew a late lead to the Nets and have now won three consecutive over the Grizzlies, Raptors and Thunder.
That’s a 5-2 stretch, enough to climb the ladder in an unthreatening conference. At night’s end, with their win over the Thunder and Minnesota’s home loss to the Kings, the Warriors flipped with the Timberwolves in the standings and somehow found themselves as the fifth seed, only a half-game out of fourth.
“Can’t really obsess over the swings,” Steph Curry said. “Because you’re one or two losses away from being 10th with how the standings are right now.”
Their veterans continue to fear they are one bad night from slipping back into bad habits that have destabilized this season from the start. It’s been a trend. But there have at least been shades of their better selves as of late.
“The assist-to-turnover ratio was special tonight,” Klay Thompson said. “That could be an indicator.”
The Warriors had 37 assists and a reasonable 15 turnovers against a Thunder team that entered eighth in the NBA in defense. In the first quarter, they had 15 assists on 15 made field goals. This comes a game after they had 40 assists, only 12 turnovers and 129 points in an easy win over the Raptors.
“I think so,” Thompson said, delivering the highest level of veteran optimism when asked about possible momentum. “We’re whole. I absolutely believe big nights are on the horizon.”
Whole is key. Curry is nine games into his return and beginning to produce like his early-season self. During this mini three-game win streak, Curry has scored 34, 35 and 38 points on 19, 21 and 20 shots. After the Toronto win, Steve Kerr said Curry looked like he had his “pop” back. In Oklahoma City, he scored 38, made eight 3s, sprayed around 12 assists and combined with Thompson, who scored 28 and made six 3s, to deliver Thunder fans haunting flashbacks.
But it’s Andrew Wiggins’ quietly steady night that was most notable. Wiggins missed the previous two games with another illness, meaning he’s missed 18 of the previous 26 games and looked rusty on the nights he did appear.
“When he first came back, seemed a little timid,” Green said. “I don’t know if timid is the right word. But you’re just trying to find your legs, find your rhythm, find your spots.”
Wiggins made a 3 to open the game against the Thunder and then went 6-of-9 the rest of the game inside the arc, regaining some of that touch on his floater and hook shot against smaller defenders. He also shouldered some of the challenging Shai Gilgeous-Alexander assignment, handled it decently and added two blocks and a steal.
“He just looked like himself,” Kerr said. “He’s had a rough go between the injury and being sick a couple times. He lost some conditioning, lost some rhythm. He had a great practice yesterday. You could see this coming.”
Since Wiggins went out early in the season, Jonathan Kuminga has emerged. This will be the first stretch of games in which Kerr can deploy them together as a versatile defensive combination on the wing. Kuminga gave Gilgeous-Alexander trouble in the first half Monday. Gilgeous-Alexander paid him back with some buckets in the third quarter. But Kerr’s increased defensive optionality was on display. Donte DiVincenzo also got a crack.
Kuminga and DiVincenzo are the established seventh and eighth men in a lengthening rotation behind the established sixth. Anthony Lamb was the ninth man Monday night against the smaller Thunder. JaMychal Green is edging into the rotation against bigger teams after a few decent performances recently.
“This was a key game for us,” Kerr said. “To start off with a win gives us a good chance to get rest tomorrow, prepare for Minnesota, attack that game and see what happens. The back-to-back in Denver will be difficult with the travel. So we needed this one tonight. Now we gotta go get greedy.”
The Timberwolves are a half-game behind the Warriors in the standings. They play Wednesday night. The Nuggets are first in the West. The Warriors play them Thursday night in Denver. It’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors will opt to rest their veterans against the Nuggets, even while trying to maintain this elusive momentum.
“I campaign to play every game,” Curry said. “That’s the misconception about load management. It’s never the player that’s usually saying, ‘Hey, I want to sit.’ So for all the people worried about our league, all that, it’s not usually the player going to the training staff and saying, ‘I don’t have it tonight.’ It’s usually the other way around and there’s a lot of science involved. So, yes, I will campaign to play. But we’ll see how it goes.”
Does he anticipate being successful?
“I do, actually. I do.”
(Top photo of Andrew Wiggins: Ian Maule / Getty Images)