Two ugly wins look fairly pretty in the stretch-drive standings

Carl Steward, in for Marcus Thompson after the Warriors survived the Sacramento Kings 87-83 Wednesday night at Oracle.

OK, I did my job. I not only gave Marcus a little R&R after his last two long road trips, I delivered a 4-0 in the four games I covered. I even brought one home against San Antonio, which borders on historic. But the Warriors didn’t make it very easy on me, taking the last three of those wins right down to the wire, which isn’t fun for a backup beat guy who isn’t used to NBA deadline pressure.  Hopefully, I got the score right in all my stories and they made some semblance of sense.

I’m more than happy to turn the W’s back over to MT as I head off to spring training to cover a much slower game that’s played mostly in the daytime. But I will say this — as flawed as these Warriors may still be, they are an enjoyable team to cover, and from the view of a guy whose first pro beat was the Warriors from 1978-82 (World B. Free/Bernard King/Joe Barry/Purvis Short), I would contend the best days are still ahead for this bunch.

Wednesday night should have been a loss. Last year it would have been, and the Warriors have only DeMarcus Cousins to thank for not bothering to show up. Cousins, a notorious Warriors-killer, had his mind somewhere near Thailand through the night. He went 2 for 10, 24 hours after going 1 for 12 at home in a loss to Denver, only played 20 minutes and scored 5 points. He spent his time on the bench looking thoroughly disgusted and disinterested. And during one timeout, while everyone else was in the huddle, he stood watching the house band playing up on the club level.

It’s definitely not what you like to see in such a young player. Just on Cousins’ bad vibes alone, it was only just that the Kings lost this game despite making a valiant rally to take a late 83-82 lead. Moreover, this was a night where the Warriors’ youngest players needed to get a bone  for their dogged efforts.

It was a terrific night for Klay Thompson, the second-year guard, who not only made the winning basket but hounded Tyreke Evans on a drive at the other end in Sac’s final try for an equalizer. Thompson was one happy guy afterward. He not only was the hero, he was soon to learn that his alma mater Washington State knocked off UCLA, ending a 20-year, 19-game losing streak to the Bruins in Pullman, Wash.

But he wasn’t the only young guy smiling. Rookie Harrison Barnes had his second eye-opening game in a row with 14 points, a strong defensive game and the general mind-set of a player who knows it’s crunch time. Another rookie, Draymond Green, got the final rebound with one second left and knocked down a pair of free throws to keep the Kings from getting one last chance.

And then there was Rookie No. 3, center Festus Ezeli. Ezeli was MIA for a good stretch of February. He just wasn’t showing the defensive energy he had early on. Maybe he’d hit a rookie wall for a stretch. But Ezeli was very good in this game — electric in a couple of instances — on a night when Andrew Bogut seemed a bit out of sorts. Festus was active, athletic, forceful inside and he even converted a three-point play on a flip layup that drew a foul and he made the free throw.

David Lee noted afterward that if Ezeli can play like that over the final 20 games in the 15-20 minutes he is allotted, it will be huge. And he’s right. No, you aren’t going to get a double-double out of this guy this year, but Ezeli is an intriguing cat. He can run the floor, he sets a mean screen, and when he’s as tenacious as he was in this game and can stay out of foul trouble, he can be a difference-maker defensively and on the boards.

In short, at a time when the young guys should be shriveling up from the sheer length of their first NBA season, they appear to be catching their second wind (or as Barnes said Tuesday after practice with a chuckle, “I think this may be my third.”). As for Thompson, he has been clutch down the stretch in these two wins. His hot shooting helped overcome a nine-point deficit in the first couple minutes of the fourth quarter against Toronto on Monday. And then he followed up with this performance, one of his best in crunch time at both ends of the floor. He’s scored 20 or more in three straight games, a career best. Bottom line at the end of the day, to channel my inner Mark Jackson: He’s owning it right now.

Ugly as they were, these were critical wins for Golden State. They have just a little breathing room now as the No. 6 team in the West — 2 games over Houston (which comes to town Friday) and 2 1/2 over Utah. With just 20 games to go — and 14 at home — it becomes harder to believe that the Warriors could blow their spot in the playoffs. And just making the playoffs will be quite an achievement for this team. Few expected them to get there, but if they can just go 10-10 the rest of the way, they’ll be a 45-win team, which would far exceed what the experts thought this team was capable of, particularly without Bogut for much of the season. They’re not there yet, but they should be able to smell the finish line now. The hemhorraging has been stopped.

There was much talk before the game about whether the Warriors should or would add a player in the coming days. Quite frankly, unless it’s for injury insurance, it’s hard to see a free agent out there who’s going to come in and give this team any kind of significant contributions. Dominic McGuire has been mentioned by name, and he surely gave the team some nice all-around contributions last season, but it’s difficult to see how he would come in and take minutes from a guy like Green. The Warriors had nine players play double-digit minutes Wednesday night and 11 players saw action. You need more? I’ll take my chances with a vet like Richard Jefferson as the 11th man.

Ah, but these are questions better ferreted out by your main beat writer, Mr. Thompson. Me, I’m looking forward to some Arizona sun, about 10 lazy, hazy days of harmless spring baseball and the chance to watch this team from a distance at some Scottsdale sports bar. Cheers!





Marcus Thompson