NEW ORLEANS — Golden State Warriors guards Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell walked off the Smoothie King Center floor after Monday night’s 134-123 win over the New Orleans Pelicans and headed into the tunnel toward the visitor’s locker room with their arms around each other’s shoulders and smiles on their faces.
Curry started to jump up and down as the happiness and relief of the proud group’s first win of the season washed over him. After getting blown out in two consecutive games to start the year, first by the LA Clippers on opening night and then by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, the Warriors were determined to prove to their critics that the season hadn’t already gone off the rails.
“Everybody loves to label you when you’re down or when you’re losing,” Curry said. “That’s easy. It’s easy to get on TV and say whatever you want, that’s easy. Just throw darts at a team that’s trying to figure it out based on how much success we’ve had. I would hope people can start to see through that and understand what we’re about as a team and what we’re going to build toward. That’s basically it. If you want to get on and say whatever you want to say, and fill that 24 hour news cycle that’s cool with us. We’re still going to hoop and just play basketball.”
The Warriors played their best game of the early season against a Pelicans team playing without rookie Zion Williamson (knee surgery) and veteran stalwarts Jrue Holiday (left knee sprain) and Derrick Favors (right knee soreness). The difference was that the defensive intensity that had been missing in the first two contests was present from the opening tip as the Warriors found the kind of rhythm on that end of the floor that opened up everything else.
“There’s a level of intensity that we got to today,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “A level of energy that we hadn’t seen the first two games — I thought it was more confusion on our young guys. Just kind of trying to figure out where to be rather than lack of effort. When you’re thinking too much it’s tough to just let it go and just go play. Tonight I felt like we just played and our guys didn’t think too much.”
Curry led the Warriors with 26 points while his brother-in-law, Warriors guard Damion Lee, scored a career-high 23 points.
Russell played the best game of his brief Warriors career scoring 24 points, dishing out eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds, but it was the team’s emotional heart and soul, Draymond Green, that set the tone on the defensive end that the rest of his teammates followed.
Green, who started the game at center for the first time this year as Kerr decided to put rookie Jordan Poole in the starting lineup to give the group an offensive jolt, registered 16 points, pulled down 17 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. The Warriors are now 23-0 in regular-season games when Green racks up a triple double, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. Green took it upon himself to set a better trend for his teammates.
“The first two games I didn’t set a good tempo,” Green said. “We got a lot of young guys. You got to lead them a way. And then [it] can go either way. I think the first couple games I led them the wrong way. I got to be better. Tonight I was better.”
What particularly irked Green was that he saw and heard a few former players writing off the Warriors after Green said they “f—ing sucked,” following Sunday’s blowout loss to the Thunder. For the first time all season, the proud Warriors group played with the kind of edge that has defied their championship reign over the last five seasons.
“We’re still not a very good team,” Green said. “We have a lot of room for improvement. Just because we won one game doesn’t mean we don’t suck right now. We still have a lot of improvement to do. When I said we suck last night I see a lot of people blew it out of proportion. A lot of former players who ain’t never led s— blew it out of proportion. We sucked. And we’re still not very good. But I’ve actually known how to lead my entire life, so those that have never led shouldn’t probably talk about leading. But we just got to continue to get better, and we got to continue to compete at a high level. The first two nights we didn’t do that, tonight we did. But we still have a lot of room for improvement.”
Green and his teammates are hoping that Monday’s game can be a springboard toward stringing together some better performances.
“Some people look at that as a negative,” Green continued. “It depends on how you look at it, it’s a negative or a positive. But I know this team got a lot of improving to do, and we plan on doing that. But right now we’re not a very good team, that’s just the fact of the matter. We’ve probably got seven guys under three years of experience. So getting those guys experience under their belt, as leaders of this team, we continue to try and bring it every night and give them something to follow, and we’ll win some games.”
Kerr praised both Curry and Green prior to the game for the way in which the veteran pair has helped try and lead the group this season. The Warriors have nine players who are 23 years old or younger and are still learning where they need to be on the floor. Both players know that one win isn’t going to change the narrative about this group, but they are confident that better days are ahead.
“It’s not only do you have to perform every night, you got to teach,” Curry said. “There are a lot of young guys that are hungry to learn, hungry to perform, take advantage of their opportunities, but there’s a process to it. You got to be aware of everything but also be at the top of our game every single night. We understand that. I think we accept that challenge and that responsibility.”
In the short-term the Warriors are embracing the excitement that comes with the first victory of the year. Curry brought a gigantic bag of popcorn out of the locker room just before addressing reporters. The relief among the players was palpable after two embarrassing losses.
“It’s more joy than relief to be honest with you,” Kerr said. “I was just happy that everyone went out there and played really well. Every guy came in off the bench and gave us good minutes. I loved the energy the whole night. So it was a really fun night.”
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