SACRAMENTO – As raindrops were falling outside Golden 1 Center Saturday night, 3-pointers were falling inside for both the Warriors and Kings, who went after each other as if blood were at stake.
Pelted by Sacramento's 20-of-31 (64.5 percent) shooting from deep over the first 45 minutes, the Warriors shut down the Kings over the final three to slip out of town with a 127-123 victory that left a relevant question still hanging over the heads of the defending champions:
Can the Warriors get back to the top of the NBA playing furious defense only when the game is on the line, instead of making it a habit?
"We'll do it," Klay Thompson said willfully. "I know we can do it. Yeah, we'll do it."
Draymond Green, the most defensive-minded Warrior, who in October expressed his distaste for new rules designed to aid offense, naturally responded differently.
"You can't really play defense in the league today," he said, with an air of resignation. "I guess that's what they wanted, right?"
Leave it coach Steve Kerr to fall somewhere in between Thompson and Green.
"Sure. We can," Kerr said. "We're going to get a lot better.
"But it's lot harder to guard these days. Everybody's got shooters everywhere. There's a lot more court to cover. Defense is tougher today than it's ever been in the history of this game, in my opinion."
Evidence in that regard mounts with each game. Scoring is up. Pace is faster. The 3-point shot revolution – for which the Warriors' own Stephen Curry was the lead instigator – is in full swing.
That does not, however, mean there is no place for defense. Not when 16 teams are playing it better than the Warriors, who rank 17th in defensive rating. Not when 21 teams are allowing fewer points. Not when eight teams are limiting opponents to lower field-goal percentages than the Warriors and nine are limiting opponents to lower 3-point field-goal percentages.
So it was no great surprise that the Kings, No. 2 in 3-point field-goal percentage, were shooting holes through the Warriors. Sacramento was getting open looks in halfcourt sets and wide-open looks in transition. When Justin Jackson drilled a triple with 3:18 to play, it put the Kings up 120-119 and the put the Warriors on notice.
If they don't play better defense, they'll be on the ugly end of the score – despite their own remarkable 21-of-47 shooting from deep.
So the Warriors went to work over the final three minutes, taking away 3-pointers. Sacramento was 2-of-7 from the field down the stretch – but 0-of-5 from deep.
"We know in order to win a championship you've got to get stops," Curry said. "We did that in the fourth quarter."
Green, who got a steal with one minute to play and blocked Hield's final 3-point shot with 7.3 seconds remaining, took the crunch-time defense in stride.
"That's what we expect of ourselves," he said. "We know that when it comes down to it and we need to get a stop, you've got to do that. It was good to see that we were able to do it."
This time, that is. The Warriors couldn't do it two nights earlier against Houston. Couldn't do it 10 days ago against Portland. Couldn't do it three weeks ago at Utah. Waiting until the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance, to unleash the hounds is a risky game.
"When we had to tonight, down the stretch, we defended well," Kerr said. "But there is no defense for a fast break. Are we as good defensively now as we were in the past few years? No. But we're also not nearly as bad as what the numbers showed (Saturday)."
They are no better, though, than the numbers they've posted this season. The Warriors are 8-11 against the 16 teams with superior defensive ratings and 1-8 against teams playing better 3-point field-goal defense.
They are, so far this season, an ordinary defensive team that can turn it up for a few minutes. Sometimes that's enough.
Asked if there was any concern about the Warriors defending at a high level in the postseason, Thompson said, "Absolutely not."
History suggests he is right. The Warriors have ranked higher in defensive rating – no lower than second – in three of the last four postseasons. They were seventh in the 2016 postseason, and we all know how that turned out.