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Warriors conquer late-game demons in eye-opening win vs. Lakers

In Sports
February 23, 2024

Warriors conquer late-game demons in eye-opening win vs. Lakers originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO – Far too often this season, the Warriors have bowed to their most persistent demons. They realize by now that conquering them is the only way to have a legitimate chance of reaching their regular-season goal.

Those demons began to stir late in the third quarter Thursday night. When the Lakers took less than three minutes to trim a 17-point deficit to nine, it sent a ripple of post-traumatic anxiety through the sellout crowd (18,064) at Chase Center.

Having seen the Warriors construct leads, only to fold down the stretch – it last happened eight days ago at Chase – they feared the worst.

Not this time. The Warriors slammed the door on the beast. Hard enough and loud enough to secure a 128-110 victory to pull within one-half game of Los Angeles in the Western Conference standings and, moreover, tie the season series at 1-1, with two more games to be played in LA.

Golden State’s goal, as stated this week by coach Steve Kerr, with the roster in alignment, is to climb into the top six within the West. To avoid the play-in tournament. They’re in 10th place now, largely because they’ve cost themselves so many wins with dreadful finishes.

“He had a great speech about all of that yesterday,” Stephen Curry said of Kerr. “The way I approach it, six seed is the goal because that guarantees you a spot in a series. And that’s what you want.

“But the way our season’s gone, taking a big goal and breaking it down, this is probably the ultimate test of ‘stay right where you are, win every game that’s in front of you, build up that joy and that energy.’ Momentum.”

Curry and his teammates want to keep their focus narrow because they’ve seen what can happen when they get ahead of themselves, particularly after cruising to double-digit leads. Get sloppy on defense, neglect fundamentals, abandon the offensive spirit that brought success and that’s enough to see a lead disappear and a game descend into the “clutch” category in the final five minutes.

With five minutes remaining on this night, the Warriors had a 15-point lead – which in six games this season has not been enough to ensure victory. With four minutes left, Kerr emptied the bench.

All because when the Lakers threatened, the Warriors responded with a vengeance. They took an 11-point lead (67-56) into halftime, pushed it to 17 (86-69) with 4:47 left in the third quarter, watched LA shave to nine (89-80) with 2:02 left – and then hit the jets.

Golden State got serious about defense and closed the quarter on a 9-2 run during which the Lakers got only two free throws.

Taking a 98-82 lead after three quarters, Andrew Wiggins took it upon himself to banish any thought of an LA comeback. After he opened the fourth quarter by scoring Golden State’s first nine points, the Lakers never got closer than 13 before being put away.

Seeing Wiggins take control was no less an encouraging sign than putting together the kind of finish that too often escaped the Warriors.

“He just looks more comfortable,” Kerr said. “He’s attacking the rim more. And the way we’re playing and the lineup that he starts the game with gives him more space to attack. He’s looked really good for a while.

“The way our team has evolved, and the lineups that we’re playing, kind of feeds into everything that he does well. He’s playing at a high level, playing unselfishly, making the simple play. I love how Wiggs is playing right now.”

Wiggins, who finished with 20 points (on 8-of-14 shooting from the field), was among five Warriors scoring in double figures, led by Curry, who tried to set a tone by scoring 16 of his game-high 32 points in 10 first-quarter minutes.

The win put the Warriors (28-26) two games over .500 for the first time since Nov. 11. Given where they are, and how far they want to go, it didn’t matter that they crushed a Lakers team without superstar LeBron James and key rotation players Jarred Vanderbilt and Christian Wood.

What matters is that the Warriors finished it. That they bared late-game fangs often unseen this season, have won nine of their last 11 games and are giving themselves reason to believe they can rise above the play-in tournament.

“This is a good window that we’ve had,” Curry said. “But literally every game matters for us to (win). I think I’m just trying to enjoy what’s happening each game, what it takes to win that particular game. It’s a lofty goal but we know we can get there.”

Maybe they can, but only if they can keep their demons from spoiling things over the final 28 games.

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