The Golden State Warriors return home having proven yet again that when properly inspired and undistracted, they can be not just indomitable but defensively bewildering.
This, we have known from watching them slog to last year's championship, when their primary enemies were their attention spans. But watching this nostalgic 105-95 romp through the Milwaukee Bucks Friday night, it all came flooding back. Contested threes, active switches, defense keying offense, leading early and beating back challenges with confidence, all against one of the league's best teams at the height of their powers -- it was like the clock had turned back three years to the days when every game seemed like this.
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Friday was only the third time they had held a team under 100 points, and the first time Milwaukee, which had been the league's most prolific offense, had been held under 100. In the new hyperkinetic NBA where 77 percent of teams reach triple digits and the league average is 110, 100 is the new 80.
But the Warriors allowed under 100 points to opponents 40 times in 2014-15, 28 times in 2015-6 and 2016-7, and 20 times in 2017-8, so being on a pace to do so only nine times is noticeable.
True, those Warriors were younger and less body-weary and had more available Draymond Green. They were also more eager to make their stamp upon a league that had always disregarded them as the irrelevance they had largely been. Now that said stamp upon the game has been made, and in fact is more a bootprint than merely a stamp, their struggle has been partly a matter of them fighting their own ability to jade themselves.
Plus, while they added Kevin Durant after Year Two, they have also lost influential players on the defensive and stability ends, most recently David West, and in a battle to become younger and more athletic have lost a bit of their grit.
Which is why Andre Iguodala stood out so clearly Friday night. He was confident and active and clever at both ends, as he was when he first came to Oakland. He trusted his shot and his vision and his place in a way that is increasingly necessary for a team who has already been ceded yet another championship, and when he is playing with that unfettered sense of joy Steve Kerr keeps yammering on about, well, it's kind of Mardi Gras.
Not that Iguodala has withheld it, mind you. It's just more difficult to come by on a regular basis when his role changes to meet other exigencies, and his teammates have been distracted by the things that distract the dynastic when the future is starting to funnel. The Green-Durant dustup knocked everyone off-center, the Green and Stephen Curry injuries have done that again, and Klay Thompson's long slow retreat from an awful start shooting has trebled the effect.
Thus, it is a measure that with all this turmoil, which West reminds us is pretty normal for most NBA teams but rare for this team, they are mere percentage points behind Denver for the lead in the Western Conference, and the Nuggets just endured a massive blow in the apparent loss of Paul Millsap to a broken toe.
Maybe he and Green can swap X-rays.
In any event, a freed and free Iguodala is a wonder to behold on this team, and Green's return Monday will only add to the Warriors' defensive profile. The team that ranks dead in the middle in most defensive metrics is finally positioned to be dramatically better than it has been, and Friday is a reminder that Green's absence isn't the only reason it hasn't been better.
In other words, there are lots of different kinds of joy in basketball, and the Warriors' defense as the instigator of its offense is the most repeatedly forgotten pillar of their glory. They may have inspired the new trey-happy league and the spike in scoring across the board (the league has gone from having 27 teams who averaged under 100 in 2012 to 15 in the Warriors' first championship year to the current zero), but their best selves defended with length and aggression and zeal.
Friday was the most comprehensive showing those best selves this year, and now all they have to do is that again, and again, again.
Then they'll be up to their eyelids in the joy they say they seek, and their worst month in the championship era will be long forgotten. The subtle key will be Andre Iguodala.