Tough stretch bolsters Warriors’ unshakable will

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OAKLAND — First, we had 120, Jerseys 90.

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Which was not long after Warriors 125, 94.


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Which was immediately following Warriors 132, Jerseys 98.

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So much for waiting to see what happened once the Golden State schedule got tougher. It got tougher and a grand total of nothing happened. The Warriors played. The Warriors won. Same as before.

The skeptics are down to about, what, Plan M to find a way to disparage the best team in the league, after “Yeah, but it was a lucky championship” and now “Yeah, but they haven’t really played anyone yet” have failed as attempts at analysis. Oh, and “Yeah, but just wait until they have to deal with injuries” is out too.

Inside Access: Spurs – Warriors

An inside look at the long-awaited matchup between the two top teams in the league.

The Warriors had played the Cavaliers once before, on Christmas, but didn’t really get to a difficult stretch until last week, partly because it’s how calendar broke and partly because of matters out of their control. (A run of facing the Houston Rockets, , New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers in the Warriors’ first five games of the season should have tried them — except that all four opponents were wandering around with glazed looks.)

Late-January would be the ideal live look-in in that case, the first chance to truly gauge the repeat bid and allow even the Warriors to see how they would respond once they were continuously forced into a corner.

“No question,” forward said. “Any time you go up against these great teams and these teams that have been deep in the playoffs and have that experience, that’s a measuring stick that lets you know where you are. You have no control of your schedule. You go play your games. But when you’re winning games and someone says, ‘Well, you haven’t done anything until you’ve seen Team X or Team Y or Team Z,’ OK. OK, when that time comes we’ll revisit this.”

That time has come.

That loss in Detroit was not something that we were expecting. I think that really made us anchor down and get back to our basics.

– Golden State Warriors center

The Warriors are 42-4, on pace for an NBA-record 75 wins and their biggest threats, the Spurs in second place in the Western Conference and the Cavaliers atop the East, couldn’t stay close in the last week. It’s hardly a referendum on what would happen in the playoffs, and a couple San Antonio wins in the series before the end of the regular season results in a swing toward the opposite direction among the knee-jerk crowd. But it is one more hurdle Golden State has cleared with ease.

The middle of the regular season, a stretch in January on a team aiming for June, can have unique value that way. The Warriors, with a few million reasons to be encouraged about the direction anyway, wanted to know for sure after finally getting their full roster in place. That was the case a few weeks ago after Barnes returned from a 16-game absence (sprained left ankle) and a couple months after missed six games with a concussion.

They needed to know for sure, actually. Players were grumbling a month ago about poor execution and underperforming, even as the best start in history looked like precision in the standings. Then came two losses in three games (against the Denver Nuggets and Jerseys) as a tangible sign the Warriors had lost their way, with the Pistons game especially concerning as Golden State was painfully out-worked.

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Five games and five wins later, only one closer than 20 points, players and coaches can barely get through a sentence without drawing a straight line back to Jan. 16 inside the Palace of Auburn Hills. It became the night that jarred them back in a good direction, with perfect timing and everything.

The return to Cleveland, where Golden State closed out The Finals in Game 6 last June, was up next. Losing to the Cavaliers as a third defeat in four outings would have changed perceptions about the Warriors. Instead, stoked by what happened against the Pistons, they stampeded over the Cavs and then the Bulls.

The Spurs without Tim Duncan could manage no better fight on Monday. By late Wednesday, after the Dallas Mavericks fell by 20 and another opponent on playoff pace had been dispatched, the Warriors had so reclaimed their edge that it was difficult to prove that this was the challenging part of the schedule. On paper perhaps, but not in the box scores.

“Obviously those are some of the top teams in the NBA, so we definitely were looking forward to this part,” said backup center Festus Ezeli. “But at the same time, that loss in Detroit was not something that we were expecting. I think that really made us anchor down and get back to our basics.

But when you’re winning games and someone says, ‘Well, you haven’t done anything until you’ve seen Team X or Team Y or Team Z,’ OK. OK, when that time comes we’ll revisit this.

– Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes

“I think that was really good for us. Maybe we were looking too much to this part of the schedule, but now that it’s here I think it’s good for us to get a sense of where we are. So far, we’re doing a good job of executing and playing defense. We just have to keep it up.”

The difficult stretch, or at least the projected difficult stretch, will be with them a while. The Warriors play 10 of their next 12 on the road. At one point, they will go 20 days without a game in front of one of the league’s best homecourt advantages thanks to trips and the All-Star break. That’s a big test beyond the opponents that includes a trip to the East Coast, a return to Oracle to face the Thunder and Rockets, stops in three cities around the Western Conference and then a second trip East within about three weeks.

“We’re still doing what we do,” Barnes said. “It’s good that we can play our style of basketball against anybody. A team that slows down like the Spurs. A team that gets up and down like the Cavs. A team that plays methodical like Chicago. When you go up against those teams and you’re playing the same way every single time, it’s a good sign.”

For the Warriors. For the rest of the league, it’s a very bad sign.

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“When we just move and execute,” Barnes said, “it’s a thing of beauty.”

It’s a supposedly challenging time that has instead become a smooth ride. This is the schedule getting jerseys for cheap china tougher, and the Warriors too.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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