Thompson: The Warriors needed a jolt, and old rival Memphis delivered again

SAN FRANCISCO — Moses Moody isn’t one for much banter. He’ll reply, just not initiate. One of the let-his-game-do-the-talking types.

“When I get going,” he said, pausing to pull his shirt over his head, “I don’t necessarily gotta tell you about it. I just bust your ass. It’s as simple as that.”

But he doesn’t have to do the jawing to enjoy it. That’s why the Christmas Day affair against Memphis, a much-needed 123-109 win, was Moody’s kind of game. He knew the vibes going in. This was the Grizzlies they were playing, and it was clear this was a game circled, bolded and highlighted.

Everyone in the Warriors locker room understood how much Memphis wanted to send a message in their Christmas Day debut. And how the Grizzlies’ hubris remained even after losing to the Warriors in the 2022 playoffs. And how much their fan base despises Draymond Green. And how Dillon Brooks regularly harasses Stephen Curry and flagrantly injured Gary Payton II in the playoffs. And how much Klay Thompson wants to beat them.

Sunday at Chase Center, Thompson embodied the Warriors’ resistance to their fastuous foe. He’s been seething about the Grizzlies’ constant prophesying of their pending dynasty, and shots they’ve taken at the Warriors — enough for Thompson to dedicate part of his championship moment to firing shots at Memphis. Enough for him to uncharacteristically taunt Brooks after a fourth-quarter basket.

“When you’re on a team, and somebody just pops off like that,” Moody said, “you’ve got to go. You know what time it is. You’ve got to laugh. I like it. The intensity picks up. It’s like, ‘We’re in it now. We’re talking. We’re on that.’ I knew what time it was.”

When the book on this era of the Warriors is finished, whenever that is, the Grizzlies will have a prominent chapter. In 2015, Memphis was the contrast in style the Warriors had to get through for legitimacy. In 2021, the Grizzlies knocked the Warriors out of the play-in tournament, giving the Warriors a taste of their mortality and the resolve to respond. In 2022, the Grizzlies were again the contrast to push the Warriors. This time, Memphis’ youth and athleticism were an affront to the Warriors’ wisdom and pedigree.

Sunday, the Grizzlies were once again catalysts for a Golden State surge. Instead, the eminent threat of the Grizzlies inspired something special out of the home team. The urge to conquer Memphis, to buck against the demise the Grizzlies represent, lifted the Warriors to another level.

It burned the Warriors a bit. They picked up six technical fouls as their emotional edge wore down the referees’ patience. But the highs far exceeded the lows. The home arena responded to the Warriors responding.

“I think it gets us to the appropriate level of intensity,” Kevon Looney said. “We’ve had two guys ejected against them, which is never good. But we usually find a way to win those games. Every time we play them, we have our antennas up. We’re ready to play. Sometimes we overlook teams but we never overlook them because they talk a lot of stuff. So I think it’s good for us.”

On the heels of two blowout losses in New York, with Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins out with injuries, the Warriors needed the jolt. The Grizzlies didn’t stay close enough to create clutch time — officially when the score is within five points with five minutes remaining. But the Warriors were clutch in their presence. Memphis coming to town was the perfect slump-buster.

The Warriors’ competitive spirit was turned all the way up Sunday, despite not being up enough on the recent road trip. The Grizzlies had them locking in from the gate.

Jordan Poole went to Brooks like he was playing for Curry’s honor.

Thompson’s defensive intensity was on point to start, smothering Desmond Bane, taking away the air space of the Grizzlies’ sharpshooting guard and helping hold him to 2-for-13 shooting and 0-for-7 from 3. No doubt, Thompson did not forget Bane calling himself the second-best shooter in the league behind Curry, which was akin to taking Thompson’s cornbread.

No imagination is needed to know how Green, who declared the league “The Warriors Invitational,” took hearing Ja Morant declare he wasn’t concerned about any teams in the Western Conference. Green grabbed a season-high 13 rebounds, tied his season-high with 13 assists, and, according to coach Steve Kerr, was “all world” on defense.

Even Jonathan Kuminga, the second-year forward trying to find his consistent spot in the rotation, was locked in on defense. No doubt he remembered the shot Morant fired his way in May when Kuminga, after the Warriors’ Game 6 win to eliminate Memphis, took to Twitter to jab the Grizzlies.

Kuminga, three years younger than Morant, made the Grizzlies superstar feel his presence when he got the chance to defend him in that series. The Warriors countered Morant’s explosiveness with Gary Payton II, an exceptional athlete in his own right. Sunday sure looked like Kuminga was trending toward being a defensive option on Morant. His vigor of him for the assignment was palpable.

“I’m good against anybody,” Kuminga said. “I love it. I love doing it. I love competing. I don’t let nobody punk me on anything. I can’t do it.”

Sunday, the Warriors did not get punked. Routinely flagellated on the road, where they are 3-16, the Warriors have found salvation at Chase Center. In consecutive games, the Warriors defied expectations and dominated top-tier teams — first Boston and now Memphis. The Warriors had ample motivation against the Celtics, who they beat in the Finals and who had separated themselves as the best team in the league. But then they went on the road, lost Curry to a shoulder injury, and lost some of their respect to the Knicks and Nets. But Chase Center proved again to be a safe space. With Memphis in town, boasting a share of first place in the West and claims of Warriors’ ruin, a spirited effort was inevitable.

“They’re feisty and they talk a lot of s—,” Looney said. “And we’ve got a lot of petty people on this team. They live for people to talk and do all that extra stuff. It just makes the game a lot more fun.”

It matters that the Warriors’ veterans got to, again, deliver against the odds and show their will still has some might. It matters that the young players got to feel the intensity of that environment and respond for the namesake of their leaders.

Moody played 21 minutes of the second-round series, most coming in the Grizzlies’ massive blowout of the Warriors in Game 5. His 17 minutes, 21 seconds on Sunday were his most meaningful in this rivalry. James Wiseman played 8:17 in what was probably the most heated game he’s played in as a professional. Kuminga was in the rotation in the playoffs, so it made sense he looked comfortable out there Sunday. All of this is foundational if these are to become role players in another pursuit of a championship. Which may go through the Grizzlies.

Kerr isn’t one to use bulletin-board material. He doesn’t print out Grizzlies quotes and post them in the locker room. He said he doesn’t follow the trash talk between the teams closely, not well enough to use as fodder. But Kerr is aware some tension exists and it’s not lost on him how it helps his team. Even if it gets a little hot, he likes the appropriate fear it produces.

It was good for the Warriors to produce a game like that without Curry and Wiggins. It was good for the new blood, specifically Donte DiVincenzo and Ty Jerome, to have their moment in the spotlight and produce. It’s how they become part of this culture. A year ago, it was Otto Porter doing just that in a big win at Phoenix.

The Warriors needed a cleanse after that last road trip. They needed to remind themselves this season has the potential for a significant harvest. They needed a new whiff of their superiority.

If, somehow, they can springboard this into a winning streak during this eight-game homestand, the Grizzlies will have really delivered. As they always seem to do for the Warriors.

“I think it’s good for our guys to feel that threat and feel that confidence from the other side,” Kerr said. “We enjoy the challenge. Our guys love the challenge, and they generally, you know, step up to it when they feel that. … They’ve got something special, and our guys feel that. Both sides chirp back and forth. This is what competition is all about.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How the Warriors outsmarted and upset the Grizzlies on Christmas Day

(Photo of Klay Thompson: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

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