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Resurgent Warriors feeling familiar heat among West elite

Golden State races out to an 11-2 record without Klay Thompson or James Wiseman. Even a stumble leaves them sitting pretty atop the West.

Even after Sunday’s loss in Charlotte, Stephen Curry and the Warriors are still shining bright.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Let’s get straight to the Sunday night highlights for the league-leading Golden State Warriors.

Stephen Curry, here for his once-a-season homecoming, heaved a shot just inside the midcourt stripe that banked in and beat the third-quarter buzzer; that drew a gasp from a crowd anticipating something spectacular from Charlotte’s favorite son. The no-look, over-the-head assist out of a scramble provided an alternate option

Then, with the Hornets barely hanging into a two-point lead in the final seconds, Draymond Green showed his elite defensive chops, teaming with Andre Iguodala to trap Terry Rozier and force a jump ball.

But Curry made only two other 3-pointers all game. And despite a 6-inch height advantage, Green lost that jump ball to Rozier. Ballgame, Charlotte.

The Hornets' backcourt delivers down the stretch to help Charlotte end Golden State's seven-game win streak.

It’s been a minute since the Warriors have been in this position, where they’re the heavyweight in almost every matchup, sitting at the mountaintop — atop the standings for now — and where they’re generating title talk. Yes, though they were in The Finals just two summers ago, it seems like forever since Kevin Durant wore the uniform and Klay Thompson was dropping big shots and the dynastic Warriors had an entire league on red alert.

So in that sense, losing 106-102 to the Hornets was no big deal. When you’ve won seven straight games and lost only once previously this season, a stumble or two is allowed.

“We never put our imprint on this game,” said Green.

On this night, that meant leaks in their to-this-point stellar defense — the Warriors still hold the best defensive rating in the league by two full points — and a dearth of the usual dazzling showmanship from Curry, who’s off to a scorching start. Not to mention missing contributions from what’s been a surprising number of rotation players poised for breakouts.

Yes, this season has gone better than expected for the 11-2 Warriors, who are still awaiting the return of Thompson and also center James Wiseman, last season’s No. 2 overall pick. Curry and Green are clearly on pace to contend for individual end-of-season hardware: Curry ranks second in scoring at 28.1 points per game, trailing only an unconscious Durant (29.6 ppg). Green, meanwhile, is the centerpiece of a team that’s putting handcuffs on opposing teams and scorers.

They’ve done that before. Here’s the bonus: Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole have elevated themselves into worthy weapons, averaging 35 combined points and providing the Warriors reliable secondary options.

“We’re in a great place,” coach Steve Kerr acknowledged.

While most of the contenders in the West, with the exception of defending conference-champion Suns, are dealing with various issues at the moment, the Warriors locked themselves into a best-case scenario. Most of their vital signs are positive, a switch from last season, when injuries and heavy reliance on young and untested players ended with them sitting home after elimination during the Western Conference Play-In Tournament. That was a bitter pill for Green, Curry and the other healthy holdovers from their championship runs.

This season began with uncertainty, mainly because of the absence of Thompson — who likely won’t return before Thanksgiving at the absolute earliest — and the unproven youth, returnees and lottery additions all. But so far, so solid.

The Warriors have raced out to an 11-2 record -- without Klay Thompson and James Wiseman. How high is this season's ceiling?

“Their defense is what’s going to make them a title contender,” said Hornets coach James Borrego. “It’s impressive to watch. They understand it and embrace it. There’s not a ton of weaknesses. Everyone who steps on the floor plays at a high level. Draymond’s been quarterbacking it for a few years now … they’re a great example for us.”

For all of their early dominance, the Warriors have benefitted from a favorable schedule; the game in Charlotte marked only their fourth on the road. Next up is a Tuesday trip to Brooklyn and a meeting with Durant (7:30 ET, TNT), followed by a stop in Cleveland where the surprising Cavaliers (9-5) await.

Whether at home or on the road, the Warriors will elicit a different response than last year, when most of the league perhaps took pity on a struggling, injury-laden former dynasty. That’s no longer the case now. The respect has returned, clearly the case Sunday when the Hornets threw their very best at the league’s best.

“We were not on top of our game,” Kerr said. “I thought our shot selection was really poor. We never got an offensive rhythm. We were searching for 48 minutes. It felt like we were in a rush.”

Still, it was a winnable game. But Kerr stuck with Kevon Looney for defensive purposes late, and that’s when it backfired: Looney found himself with the ball with the Warriors down two, got fouled with 28 seconds left, and missed both free throws.

This was an emotional stop for Curry. He was raised in town, spent hours around the Hornets watching his father, Dell, when he played for Charlotte (along with his then-teammates Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning) and went to college at Davidson. Strangely enough, he hasn’t played in Charlotte in three years, missing the last two games because of injury. For that reason, he was the target of the crowd’s affections.

“It’s always special,” he said. “There was good energy in here. Saw a lot of Davidson red and Warriors blue. (But) I really didn’t have it tonight.”

Game recap: Hornets 106, Warriors 102

Already this season, Curry ripped off a 45-point triple-double in Golden State’s home opener, dropped 50 on the Hawks and was coming off 40 points against the Bulls.

So of course he saved his worst for Charlotte, shooting just 3-for-13 from deep, 7-for-22 overall, with three turnovers and never seemed in sync. He admitted feeling a bit desperate.

“I wanted it so bad, you tend to rush it a little bit,” he said.

Nobody’s ready to throw the Warriors overboard because of a stumble, which could be momentary. Once Thompson and Wiseman return, the Warriors will finally be whole and flush with talent, some of it unexpected. They can either stay with the status quo and take their chances come springtime, or package some of those young assets in a major trade before the February deadline. Either way, they’re sitting pretty.

Kerr did throw some caution to the wind by saying they can’t fall into a “false sense of security” from their strong start, and also assume everything will go next-level when the Splash Brothers reunite.

For the moment, the Warriors are enjoying the view from the West penthouse. And it looks familiar and lovely.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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