Warriors, Suns primed for marquee Western showdown
The NBA's two best teams meet on Tuesday night in an early season test of championship mettle.
• Tonight on TNT: Warriors vs. Suns (10 ET)
The fans swarmed around the Golden State Warriors player for a simple reason. They wanted to see Stephen Curry, cheer him on and possibly even land an autograph.
The only problem: the fans in Cleveland that stood outside the Warriors’ hotel identified the wrong person.
“We’re both light skinned, so they thought I was Steph,” Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson said with a chuckle. “When I took off my mask, they were all disappointed. I laughed. It’s cool to see.”
After spending the past two seasons stuck in either the NBA Draft lottery (2019-2020) or the NBA’s Play-In Tournament (2020-2021), the Warriors have suddenly become rock stars again both in their play and stature. Just like when they won three NBA titles in five consecutive Finals appearances (2015-2019).
Consider the scene before the Warriors’ eventual win against the LA Clippers on Sunday at Staples Center.
Fans filled the seats and stood along the baseline just to watch Curry complete his pre-game warmup. When he carried that shooting outburst into the actual game, the partisan pro-Warriors crowd serenaded him with “MVP!” chants. The same thing happened last week during the Warriors’ win in Brooklyn when Curry outperformed the Nets’ Kevin Durant, who had once secured two NBA titles with two Finals MVP performances in Golden State (2017, 2018).
“As an athlete, a part of what you do is entertain,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “When you see those followers, it gives you that juice. It gives you a certain confidence boost. I think it’s great. Nobody is following a [crappy] team. So you want that.”
The Warriors want something more than just fan adulation. They want to win another NBA championship. And the Warriors (18-2) have what Curry described as “a good measuring stick” with that progress when they visit the Phoenix Suns (17-3) on Tuesday in a nationally televised game (10 ET, TNT).
That’s because the Warriors conceded they view the Suns as the main roadblock that awaits them toward another possible NBA Finals.
“They won the Western Conference finals last year, so that team has a target on their back,” Warriors forward Kevon Looney said. “We didn’t make the playoffs last year, so we’ve been hunting everybody. We want to go out there and prove a point. We want to go out with a chip on our shoulders.”
How do the Warriors and Suns stack up?
The Warriors have a much bigger point to prove.
They want to show they can win an NBA title after experiencing a two-year hiatus. They want to highlight that Curry and Green can still excel in their prime. They want to demonstrate that Klay Thompson can eventually return successfully after missing the past two years with season-ending injuries to his left knee (2019-2020) and his right Achilles tendon (2020-21). They want to restore the “Strength in Numbers” identity that includes a trusted veteran (Andre Iguodala) and a handful of role players both young and old.
But while they are at it, the Warriors, who are on a seven-game win streak, would like to validate their best start has more to do than just playing 10 of their 15 games at home. So why not show more championship potential against a Suns team that currently has a 16-game winning streak?
The Warriors know they will have their hands full.
“You want to be the team that’s going to stop that,” Green said. “You got a great opportunity to do it. But overall, I think it’ll be a very tough game. Nobody is going to just walk in there and walk out with a win. You have to go in there and take the win and do all you can to try to take them away from the things that they like to do.”
The Suns rank high in several significant total categories. They are third in points per game (112.6) and second in points allowed (105). They lead the NBA in field-goal percentage (48.1%) and eighth in 3-point shooting (36.2%). They fare fourth in assists per game (26.3) and sixth in steals (9.0)
“They are a great two-way team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They defend really well. They’re really efficient offensively. They kind of know who they are.”
That’s because the Suns have mostly kept the same roster that appeared in last season’s NBA Finals.
They still have veteran point guard Chris Paul, who leads the NBA in assists per game (10.1) and has shown no signs of breaking down in his 17th NBA season. They still have seven-year guard Devin Booker, who won the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 30.0 points while shooting efficiently from the field (53%), from 3-point range (56%) and from the free-throw line (90%) in the Suns’ four wins.
They have lob threats in centers Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee. They have perimeter threats in Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder. And they have a trusted coach in Monty Williams, who has empowered his players by mastering how he deals with people and X’s and O’s.
“They’re a complete team,” Toscano-Anderson said. “They got a lot of shooters out there. They got a lot of guys that can iso. They got guys who are really good passers. They got guys who can put pressure on the rim. They’re long and athletic. So they have a really complete team, similar to ours. They don’t have too many holes within their capabilities.”
The Warriors don’t have too many, either. Sure, Thompson (right Achilles) and second-year center James Wiseman (right knee) continue rehabbing long-term injuries. Sure, Iguodala (right knee) and Damion Lee (personal reasons) will also miss Tuesday’s game in Phoenix. But the Warriors have the NBA’s second-leading scorer (Curry), a possible Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Green) and a possible Kia Most Improved Player candidate (Jordan Poole).
That has turned out to be more than good enough. The Warriors are the only NBA team to score at least 100 points in every game this season. They have ranked second in points per game (114) as well as first in assists (29.3), field-goal percentage (47.9%) and fast-break points (17.2). On defense? The Warriors are almost just as good. They rank first in points allowed (100.4), defensive field-goal percentage (41.9%) and steals (10.05) as well as fifth in rebounding (47.1).
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) November 29, 2021
The reasons go beyond the Warriors’ talent. It also traces back to their continuity.
“It’s a huge factor,” Kerr said. “I know it is for us. It seems to be for them. The league these days, there’s more movement than ever. You get the teams that are changing personnel year after year. Basketball is a five-man game. If you get guys who are accustomed to playing together for a number of years, it’s a huge advantage.”
Will this play mostly to the Warriors’ or Suns’ advantage? They will find out on Tuesday as well as when the Warriors host Phoenix in San Francisco on Friday. But the Warriors seem prepared for the Suns’ best shot. Earlier this season, Iguodala prepped his younger teammates to await an opponent’s best effort every night because of the Warriors’ historical success.
“As long as you got Steph Curry and Draymond Green on your team, you’re probably going to have a target on your back,” Looney said. “They’ve been the biggest stars in the league over the last few years. They’ve been part of a dynasty. When we got guys coming to the arena, everybody is hyped for it and the crowd is there.”
The Warriors saw that first-hand with the fans clamoring for Curry outside the team hotel in Cleveland and with the fans cheering for him before and during the games in Brooklyn and LA. The Warriors seem ready for both the cheers and the boos in Phoenix.
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