SAN FRANCISCO — Brandin Podziemski, the rookie whom Steve Kerr has entrusted as his high-leverage inbounder, saw Bradley Beal navigate around Draymond Green’s screen and jump the direct passing lane between Podziemski and Steph Curry. But Podziemski said there was never a chance he’d pass it to anybody but Curry.
So he got creative, firing a veering curveball several feet to Curry’s left, avoiding Beal but making life difficult on Curry, who needed to one-hand snag a short-hop bounce.
“If you look on the replay, I’m like: ‘Ahh, s—,’ ” Podziemski said, flinching in fear that his pass was destined for a turnover.
Curry scooped it clean, spun and fired in one fluid motion, getting it off before Devin Booker could fly into the picture. The shot rescued what was nearly another Golden State Warriors’ late-game heartbreak, delivering a 113-112 win over the Phoenix Suns that planted them at an even 25-25 record through 50 games.
Even after Curry’s ninth 3 of the game dropped — his 20th made 3 in 32 attempts over the past two games — he had a slight bit of hesitation within the celebration. He noticed that 0.7 seconds remained on the clock.
“You know the way that our season has gone, 0.7 seconds felt like an eternity,” Curry said.
Andrew Wiggins hit a 3 with 1.4 seconds left against the Thunder in November to take the lead. Chet Holmgren hit a fadeaway on the ensuing inbound to steal back the win. Last week, Curry hit a 3 with 5.4 seconds left in double overtime to go up by one on the Lakers. LeBron James powered his way into a foul moments later and hit both free throws.
“Steph has hit several shots like that down the stretch this year, and we haven’t been able to close it out on the defensive end,” Green said.
It wasn’t a painless final 0.7. On the Suns inbound, Wiggins was called for a grappling foul while trying to fight off a Devin Booker post-up. The Warriors disputed the call. Wiggins thought Booker hooked him. But they didn’t have a timeout, which means they couldn’t challenge.
The officials went to the monitor to determine whether Wiggins fouled Booker before the inbound. Had he, it would’ve been one Phoenix free throw (to tie it) and possession. But because the foul was after the pass left the hand, it was ruled on the floor. The Warriors had a foul to give, so the Suns didn’t get two free throws.
The final inbound came with 0.6 seconds left. Phoenix tried to lob it over the top to Kevin Durant. The Warriors put Green on him. He knocked it away and let the Suns know about it.
Green’s final stand was a fitting way to end the game. His return to the lineup has turned their season around. They’ve gone from the 29th defense in the NBA without him to a top-10 defense with him.
They received an extra jolt of energy and length with Gary Payton II’s return on Saturday. Payton guarded Durant, Booker and Beal at various points of his high-voltage 14-minute stint, dunking his way to 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting on the other end.
“His defense, speed and on-ball pressure,” Kerr said of Payton. “We had him on Kevin quite a bit and as soon as he got in the game. He got the fast-break dunk, knocked down a three. You just feel his presence out there. That is why he is such a fan favorite.”
Curry finished with 30 points. Jonathan Kuminga continued his rise as the team’s second scorer, living at the rim and supplementing Curry with 21 points. Wiggins had 12 points, two steals and shouldered long shifts on Phoenix’s scoring trio. Podziemski was the fifth member of the closing lineup again, replacing a struggling Klay Thompson.
But it was Green’s electricity that ignited the Warriors again. He got into it a few times with Jusuf Nurkić, the player he struck back in December, leading to the indefinite suspension that spiraled the season and placed him under an even closer microscope.
Green has remained out of the league’s crosshairs since his return. He had zero technicals and zero flagrants his first 10 games back. He received his first technical on Saturday, yelling for an and-1 after he was bumped on a layup without a whistle. But, in his interactions with Nurkić, he chirped and stomped and taunted back, but didn’t take it over the edge.
“We need him competitive,” Kerr said. “Draymond, if he’s passive, we might as well not play him. Everything with him is about his force and his energy and his competitiveness. It’s what makes him unique and the great player he is. We do want him to walk the line but don’t want him to cross the line. Technical, I’m fine with. A flagrant foul, he’s fine. But he has to stop right there.”
After the game, Nurkić made headlines with the below sound bite, saying Green hadn’t learned anything and it was a matter of time before he hit someone else.
One of the highlight sequences of the game came in the third quarter after Nurkić made a hook shot and stopped for an elongated “too small” celebration, smacking the floor twice for emphasis. Green went through him on a post-up soon after and returned it.
“You can’t be a nothing defender if you gonna do that,” Green said. “He outweighs me by 70 pounds and got put in the rim? Gotta be more careful.”
Curry watched the Nurkić sound bite before doing his postgame media session, calling the comments “idiotic” before defending Green.
“Draymond was in his head,” Curry said. “Plain and simple.”
The win moved the Warriors into the 10th spot in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz, a team that they will play twice in Salt Lake City this week. They are 4 1/2 games behind the Suns in sixth, which is their target spot in the standings.
“The defensive improvement I think the last couple of weeks is going to help us close out games like this,” Kerr said.
(Photo of Draymond Green and Steph Curry: John Hefti / USA Today)