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What we learned in Golden State’s win over the Nets

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OAKLAND — For anyone who wanted to write the Warriors off because of injuries to Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Shaun Livingston; for those who viewed Thursday’s blowout loss to the Bucks as a sign that they were slipping — Golden State had a response Saturday.

Even without three key players, they’re still pretty damn good.

The Nets, playing the second-half of a tough back-to-back that started in Denver, weren’t much of a test for the Warriors, as their different-look lineup won the first three quarters of the game and racked up a 24-point lead in a 116-100 win.

Here’s what we learned in the bounce-back win:

Kevin Durant saw a sneak preview

I certainly don’t know what Kevin Durant is going to do this upcoming summer, when he becomes a free agent. I’m leery to even venture a guess. (Imagine that…)

Of course, plenty of people have their own thoughts on his future decision — after all, it will likely change the course of the NBA once again. And I’m sure, despite his public claims to the contrary, that he thinks about it from time-to-time too — but at the moment, any spoken whim or verbalized gut feeling from anyone outside of his tight-knit camp is a baseless conjecture about a decision that’s nowhere close to being made.

But I can’t help but think that Saturday’s game against the Nets could serve as an interesting data point for Durant to consider in June — the Warriors team around him was as close to a facsimile of an outside, viable free agent suitor as he’s going to get wearing blue and gold.

With Stephen Curry and Draymond Green out of the lineup due to injury, Durant was called upon to be the main man for the Warriors on Saturday. Yes, Klay Thompson was still there, and yes, other Warriors stepped up with increased playing time, but Saturday’s game centered around Durant from the start.

He finished with 28 points on 60 percent shooting, with 11 assists, five rebounds, three steals, and a block.

So yeah, he was pretty good. I wonder if he found a bit of extra enjoyment in being The Man once again.

It hasn’t always been easy for Durant to take on that role for the Warriors — there was some contention in the Warriors’ locker room late last season regarding Durant not being more domineering with Curry sidelined with injury. There were plenty of stories written about Draymond Green’s 4 a.m. text message to Durant — challenging him to be more aggressive and attacking on both ends of the court — but the Warriors’ series with the Pelicans was not the first time that gauntlet was thrown.

Durant really hasn’t looked back from that famed call-out on, though — he thrived in big moments for the rest of the playoffs and has stepped up, again and again, the early-goings of this season.

And Saturday’s performance might have been his most impressive performance of the campaign. (That’s saying something, even though the season is 13 games young.)

Durant diligently studies the game and views it as art — there’s no doubt that he derives great pleasure from being a cog (a big one, but a cog nonetheless) of the Warriors’ unparalleled winning machine, but he looked great as the engine Saturday.

Yes, it’s a regular-season game — relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things — but whatever emotions stemmed from Saturday’s performance (he’s smart enough to be inscrutable when it comes to things like that) could play a role in the summer.

Stephen Curry can take as much time as he needs

Warriors reserve guard Quinn Cook has never lacked for confidence, and that’s what’s made him such an outstanding pickup for Golden State. The Duke product is intimidated by no one, and that, paired with his intelligence and work ethic makes him an easy player to get behind.

The Warriors coaches might decide to get behind Cook for the next few games, as he turned in a stellar performance Saturday, scoring 27 points in 29 minutes on 68 percent shooting.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson called it Curry-like.

I won’t go that far — Curry is a generation-defining player and I don’t take too kindly to roundball blasphemy — but there was no doubt that Cook was the best point guard on the court Saturday, even with former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell and the perpetually underrated Spencer Dinwiddie playing for Brooklyn.

Cook earned himself a full NBA contract with his play late last year, when Curry was sidelined for 16 of the final 17 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs.

Cook didn’t have much of a role in the first 12 games of the season, but he again thrived with Curry out Saturday.

Cook — to steal a fantasy football term — is a handcuff. He plays the role extremely well.

Kerr said after the game that Cook’s performance has no bearing on Curry ’s return date — an obvious and logical statement — but I can’t help but think that some pressure has been relieved after seeing Cook play so well Saturday.

If it takes a week or two longer than expected to get over his thigh injury, that’s ok. Curry can take as long as he needs to get right — the Warriors are in good hands with Cook at the helm for the time being.

Of course, one could have presumed that going into Saturday’s game — Cook is a pro who has proven that he can thrive at the NBA level.  A reminder never hurts, though.

The most impressive part of Cook’s performance Saturday wasn’t his offensive game — as good as it was, I’ve seen him do things like that before. No, it was his defense that stood out.

Cook is undersized and that makes him an easy target for opposing offenses, but Kerr called his defensive performance “solid” against the Nets.

I’d call it tenacious.

Cook was clearly trying to prove a point on that end of the court, and with his sweet shooting stroke and controlled ball handling and passing (zero turnovers Saturday), he only needs to be competent there to be a significant plus player.

He was certainly that Saturday.

The Big three can all click at the same time

(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Durant and Cook (and the forever-dependable Thompson) weren’t the only solid performers on Saturday — the Warriors’ three young big men — Damian Jones, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Bell — all turned in strong performances of their own against the Nets.

Jones’ box score doesn’t necessarily pop — he scored eight points and pulled down six rebounds in 19 minutes — but I thought he was an excellent energy player on Saturday. His rim-running is something to be reckoned with when he plays with the consistent charge and confidence we saw against the Nets. It was an excellent game to build upon for the third-year big who is seeing his first significant and regular playing time this season.

Looney is so solid he’s becoming an afterthought — every night he comes in and gives the Warriors outstanding defensive minutes and a lil’ something on the offensive end. He fouled a bunch Saturday — some of those were tough-luck — but he was a plus-10 in 13 minutes. It’s no accident that he has the best offensive rating in the NBA, the highest net rating on the team (which is second in the NBA). This guy isn’t just a system player — shame on anyone who would even suggest such a thing.

The most important contribution though — at least for the Warriors’ long-term goals — was Bell.

I don’t envy the second-year big out of Oregon. With a logjam at the center position — Jones, Looney, and Green have all been given priority over him — he’s being asked to play more power forward, when he does play. And while Bell can absolutely fill that role, the truth is that he’s better suited for the 5 — his top skills are rim-running and being a super-switchable defender that can also protect the rim.

Power forward minutes require him to complicate his game a bit — he has to space the floor and play a more disciplined defensive role — all while he’s being asked to do the simple, center-centric, things well by the Warriors’ coaching staff.

It’s a difficult balance to be struck, for sure — the spacing problems alone led the Warriors coaches to start Jonas Jerebko over Bell Saturday — but I thought he did an excellent job in striking it against the Nets.

Bell can be an incredible weapon for the Warriors — the only question is how often he can be relied upon.

Saturday was a step in the right direction.

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