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For the Warriors and the Suns, It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Playoffs

Stephen Curry caught himself.

What was he doing talking about the playoffs already?

“Still four months away,” Curry mused.

He had just had his best Christmas performance — 33 points to surpass his previous high of 19. His team had beaten the Phoenix Suns, who entered with the N.B.A.’s best record.

He admitted the Warriors had just earned their best win of the season, but as he spoke postgame his thoughts kept returning to the postseason.

“It’s all a part of that progress in terms of every opportunity you have, you’re taking a step forward,” Curry said. “Confidence that you’re getting better as a team. Tonight was a night like that for sure, especially because you got to feel what a playoff type atmosphere is.”

The N.B.A.’s Christmas games offered a chance for all of the participants to gauge their progress. In the case of Phoenix (26-6) and Golden State (27-6), it was a game many believed to be a preview of the Western Conference finals. It was a close game, Golden State won, 116-107, on the road, but as of now, there appears to be a chasm between the teams that isn’t reflected in the standings.

They played each other three times in 26 days, with Golden State winning twice, and have kept a keen eye on the standings all season.

“I think you naturally kind of look,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said before Saturday’s game. “We know the records. Even though guys try to act like they don’t look, we all look.”

A few minutes later, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr was a bit more loose, and a bit more direct.

“I look at the standings every day,” Kerr said, smiling. “And I hope we win and I hope Phoenix and Utah lose.”

He almost got what he wanted for Christmas this year. The Jazz beat the short-handed Mavericks, who were missing six players, including the star guard Luka Doncic, due to coronavirus protocols.

The league’s Christmas schedule seemed in danger of disaster in the week leading up to it, with stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kevin Durant of the Nets and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks out due to the protocols. For vaccinated players that means a positive or inconclusive test for the virus.

Antetokounmpo cleared the league’s protocols on Friday and the Bucks needed every minute he gave them in their 4-point win over the Celtics. The Knicks beat the short-handed Hawks with a triple-double from Kemba Walker. The Nets had seven players in coronavirus protocols, including Durant, but beat the floundering Los Angeles Lakers anyway, leading by as many as 23 points.

Golden State versus Phoenix was the only game whose biggest stars were untouched by coronavirus protocols. The Suns didn’t have any players out because of the protocols.

Accused by some of benefiting from a playoff path softened by opponents’ injuries when they reached the 2021 N.B.A. finals, the Suns’ start this season answered that critique. Phoenix opened the season 1-3, then won 18 consecutive games, including a win over Golden State. They had positioned themselves as a worthy adversary to Golden State. Their streak snapped with a loss to Golden State on Dec. 3.

Despite that, even before Saturday’s loss, Williams encouraged caution about his team’s record so far.

“There’s just too many good teams in the West we haven’t played yet, and too many good teams in the East we haven’t played yet,” he said.

He has a point. The Suns have yet to play the Jazz (23-9), the Chicago Bulls (19-10) and the defending-champion Bucks (22-13).

Their last two matchups against the Warriors have shown cracks in their armor that they’ll need to address to have a real shot at topping them in the playoffs. Despite throwing everything they could think of at Curry, they couldn’t best his team. Phoenix struggled to untangle the Warriors’ stifling defensive effort.

“He does what he does, he hit some crazy shots tonight,” Williams said. “He took 27 shots, he made 10. I can live with that with a guy like Steph.”

The problem was everyone else (and that Curry still had 33 points). What personnel Golden State had available made the loss particularly damning for the Suns.

Golden State had four players in coronavirus protocols, including two who had been starting regularly. Klay Thompson traveled with the team and participated in pregame shooting drills, but he still hasn’t been cleared to play in games after a 2019 knee injury and a 2020 Achilles’ tendon tear.

That meant 14 minutes for Quinndary Weatherspoon, whom Golden State signed to a 10-day contract last week. Until then, Weatherspoon’s biggest N.B.A. contribution had been defending Thompson in scrimmages with the team’s developmental affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif., as Thompson worked to get himself back into shape.

Weatherspoon played in the G League showcase last week before learning Kerr wanted him on the big-league team.

“Went home for like two hours, literally, and got the call that I was coming up to play for the Warriors,” Weatherspoon said.

Weatherspoon said playing with Curry and Draymond Green makes things easy.

Otto Porter Jr., on a minimum deal with Golden State, scored the team’s final 7 points.

More than they have in years, the Warriors are relying on young players who need a bit of guidance in the ways of winning big games. That falls on Curry, Green and Andre Iguodala, who have won three championships together.

“Been through a lot of experiences so you understand what it takes to win,” Curry said. “You have to balance that with focusing on doing your job when it’s on the court and understand what expectations come with that. I enjoy seeing guys coming in and stepping into their own. Finding their confidence.”

His demeanor as he answered and his demeanor on the court both communicated sincerity — Curry genuinely cares about the growth and development of his teammates.

But he also knows how important that will be for Golden State as it marches forward.

“Everybody’s gotta be a part of that journey, be impactful and help us win games,” Curry said. “Then when it gets to the playoffs, that playoff rotation, you have to have a certain chemistry and certain level of expectation of how we do things and go through those reps. It’s the physical part of it, but it’s also the mental part of it.”

Curry wasn’t the only one to notice the playofflike atmosphere Saturday in Phoenix. Suns guard Devin Booker did, too.

“Jumping into the playoffs last year, that was my first experience,” Booker said. “So anytime you can get any type of playoff-feel-like game during the regular season, I think it’s beneficial for the team moving forward. We have some things to work on and we’ve seen that tonight.”

The challenge will be not just fixing what they discovered wasn’t working, but catching a Golden State team with less of a learning curve about how to win championships.

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