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Kurtenbach: The Warriors sent an unmistakable message — but here comes the tricky part

The Warriors promised that they would come correct to Friday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets — after a 33-point home blowout loss to the Celtics on Tuesday, pride had kicked in for the defending champions.
And without fail, the Warriors followed through on that threat, eschewing their recent nasty habit of falling behind early by jumping out to a 19-point lead in the first quarter, en route to a comfortable 122-105 win.
It was championship-level play, both engaged and kinetic — a top-shelf performance the Warriors have only dusted off on extremely special occasions this season.
The Warriors left no room for interpretation with their performance on Friday: they’re still the team to beat in the Western Conference and their best is a level (or two) above anyone else’s.
But now comes the hard part: sustaining that level of play.

“To start the game the way we did, you could sense that it was good. It wasn’t as if everything we’ve been struggling was fixed, but you could kind of sense that everybody was locked in,” Draymond Green said. “There’s still a lot of things we can correct… [But] it was good to feel that energy and focus level from the start of the game.”
But even on Friday, the Warriors struggled to keep their foot on the accelerator. That improved energy and focus wained.
After they opened up that 19-point lead, they gave it all back to the Nuggets, falling behind by a point in the second quarter and making it — at least for a moment or two — a ballgame.
The Warriors then “flipped the switch” again and opened up a 17-point lead in the same quarter they had relinquished the advantage. The dizzying strobe-light sequence played out again, in a lesser manner, in the third quarter, too.
“We had some lulls, but I think that is to be expected,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We are not going to flip it all around in one night, but this was a great start to getting back on track and playing like ourselves.”
Friday’s game further suggests (if it hasn’t already been proven) that the Warriors’ success is directly correlated to their level of care.
So how much will they care now that they’ve quelled a bubbling notion of vulnerability?
(Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 
After months of trying to fast-forward through the regular season, the Warriors claim that their embarrassing loss to the Celtics sparked the desire to use the final weeks of a regular season to find a steady rhythm of excellence and reestablish championship habits. Friday stands as the first piece of evidence backing up that claim.
The most significant habit the Warriors displayed against the Nuggets and want to show for the remainder of the season is a commitment to defense. It was, after all, the backbone of the team’s three title runs.
The big key: DeMarcus Cousins, whose woes on that end of the court had been glaring in recent games, turned in an excellent defensive performance Friday, blocking six shots and posting three steals against Denver.
It needs to be noted the Nuggets — namely Denver center Nik Jokic — were an excellent matchup for Cousins. Jokic might be the Serbian version of the Warriors’ big man — he too is a crafty inside-out offensive dynamo. This meant that on Friday, Cousins didn’t need to worry about his main mark’s foot speed on the perimeter, and that allowed him to establish a physical tone to the matchup — one that favored him — early in the contest.
But if the matchup isn’t to credit for the improved performance — if the Warriors’ increased energy paired with Cousins’ overt increase in aggressiveness on the defensive side is a formula that can be repeated nightly, then the Warriors will have no problems in the weeks and months to come.
For good measure, they should repeat the experiment a few more times to confirm Friday’s findings, no?
That should be easy enough to do in games that elicit similar emotions to the contest against the Nuggets, who could have moved into a tie for first place in the Western Conference with a win at Oracle Arena — next week the Warriors play at Oklahoma City and Houston, arguably the team’s two top playoff threats in the West. Those are games that deserve Golden State’s full attention. We’ll see if they heed that request.
But there are also games like Sunday’s — an early-evening home contest against the lowly Phoenix Suns — amid the Warriors’ 17 remaining games.
(Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 
In prior seasons, Kerr has referred to “appropriate fear” — the need to take seriously every game, no matter how unimpressive the opponent might be — ahead of contests against lottery teams like Phoenix. But after back-to-back titles, the Warriors’ tolerance to that fear is clearly off the charts.
In some ways, it’s defined the season. Golden State has only dusted off that top-shelf play for two stretches: at the beginning of the season, and then in January, ahead of Cousins’ return from his Achilles injury.
If the Warriors’ energy and focus continue to wane down the stretch, they could go into the postseason thinking that infrequently used traits are habits — that they can summon their superpowers at a moment’s notice and everything will be a-ok.
That’s not how things work — even for superteams.
It’s important to remember that hubris is the leading cause of death for dynasties.
But even if the Warriors can sustain their high energy levels through Sunday’s contest, it seems inevitable that the team lulls again in the days and weeks to come.
“I think our focus level right now is more important than our energy level,” Green said. “Obviously the energy [against the Nuggets] was great, but we’re not going to play with that energy every night — I’m not going to sit here and lie and act like we are.”
“But we can play with that focus every night.”
We’ll see if that comes to pass.
But if that is, indeed, the case, the rest of the Western Conference can start making vacation plans for June — the Warriors, the NBA’s best squad, has decided to fully join the proceedings.

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