Imagine thinking the Golden State Warriors might actually be in trouble. Couldn't be me.
Relative to what they're capable of, the Warriors have not played particularly well this season. They came into Tuesday's game against the West-leading Denver Nuggets with the second-best record in the conference but had gone just 9-12 against .500-or-better teams. They'd suffered an uncharacteristically high number of blowout losses, and their signature blowout wins had almost exclusively come against lottery teams.
But there are certain games the Warriors get up for, and it's clear they can still be ruthless as all hell when they sense an opportunity to send a message. Tuesday's contest - against a team that's already beaten them this season and has emerged as a potential challenger to their Western Conference hegemony - was one such instance. The Warriors piled up an NBA-record 51 first-quarter points while besting their franchise record with 10 3-pointers in the first frame. They finished the game with 21 made threes, 38 assists, and a 71.4-percent true-shooting mark in a 31-point win that moved them back into the top spot in the West for the first time since mid-December.
It was the kind of casually soul-destroying performance that makes it seem as though they can do this whenever they choose. The message was clear: This is what it looks like when Golden State flips the switch.
"We've been paying attention," Stephen Curry told reporters after the game, according to ESPN's Nick Friedell. "We know who's been playing well - and to be honest, we haven't played as well against the playoff teams in the West. We wanna kinda correct that going into the last half of the season. So, this is a big night for us to continue to build momentum. We want to be able to carry this and put a nice little streak together, and we're doing it."
Said Kevin Durant about the Nuggets: "I think they know who we are."
Even the Warriors can't manage this kind of lights-out shooting every night, but when they bring this kind of energy, flow, and decisiveness, they don't have anything to worry about. When they're locked in offensively, the ball movement is crisp, their sets are fluid, and they opportunistically push the tempo. It became very obvious very quickly Tuesday that the Warriors were locked in:
They cut and danced circles around the Nuggets. They tossed 346 passes - about 32 more than their season average. They looked to run off every Denver miss. They hunted threes aggressively. They crashed the offensive glass and put Nikola Jokic in early foul trouble. Klay Thompson left Nuggets defenders in the dust while darting around off-ball screens and attacked the rim with newfound vigor, skying for a career-high four dunks.
However, the Nuggets have to take some heat for Tuesday's outcome. They looked totally unprepared for the force with which the Warriors came out, and got caught napping about a dozen times too many. Did their scouting report not mention anything about Curry's relocation threes?
Meanwhile, Draymond Green succeeded at not f---ing up the Warriors' offense. Beyond doing as well as can be expected at battling Jokic in the post, Green tapped into his playmaking mojo, using split cuts and off-ball screen-and-roll actions. Though he scored just four points on six shooting possessions, he matched his season best in assists with 13 and finished as a game-high plus-42.
And then, of course, there were the Curry and Durant heat checks in transition, the unguardable pull-up bombs from 30 feet out that they uncork when they're really trying to rip someone's heart out.
The whole thing was enough to make any concerns about the Warriors - Green's busted jumper, their curious shot profile, Curry's lack of pick-and-roll touches, their drop-off defensively - seem laughably quaint. This team still has a gear no other club in the league (and arguably in history) can match.
It's entirely possible the Warriors will turn around and lose to the Pelicans on Wednesday night. Their focus and intensity will wax and wane until playoff time. But I'm hopeful we'll see more performances like this from them in the second half of the season. The NBA is more fun when they give a damn.