DENVER — For a Warriors team chasing its third NBA title in four years, the regular season is a six-month prelude to the games that matter.
The focus at this point is more on process than nightly results. During video sessions, head coach Steve Kerr often harps on the importance of not building bad habits. Mistakes that become routine in February can doom a team in June.
By that measure, the Warriors’ 115-108 loss Saturday night to the Nuggets at Pepsi Center was cause for concern. In the final 2:57, when a tie game devolved into its second defeat in three outings, Golden State failed to challenge shooters, box out on rebounds, pick up backdoor cuts — oversights that have been frequent in recent days.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re not building bad habits, and we’re starting to,” Kerr said. “You can’t win at the highest level and, game on the line, we’re just not locking in.”
Golden State had knotted the game at 104-104, only for Nikola Jokic to hit a three-pointer and two free throws to give the Nuggets a five-point cushion. After air-balling a three-pointer with 28.2 seconds remaining, Warriors guard Nick Young — in the game at crunch time instead of Andre Iguodala for the second night in a row — argued over the no-call and was assessed a technical foul. A technical foul to teammate Kevin Durant followed, and Denver guard Jamal Murray drained six foul shots down the stretch to seal Golden State’s fate.
After ending the third quarter with a six-point lead, the Warriors were outscored 38-25. Golden State shot 50 percent from the field, but missed 23 of its 31 three-point tries. Now, after three flawed performances in a row, it returns to the Bay Area staring down an important question: Can it get to the All-Star break, five games away, without further damage?
“The whole fourth quarter was rough,” Stephen Curry said. “We had some 50-50 balls go the other way, giving extra possessions. … We just didn’t make those timely plays to keep that separation. On a back-to-back, those 12 minutes, it’s going to be tough to get through, and we didn’t do enough to win.”
Tuesday night, the Warriors allowed an offensively challenged Jazz club to shoot 58.2 percent from the field, including 14-for-28 from three-point range, in a 129-99 loss in Salt Lake City. In Friday night’s 119-104 win in Sacramento, Golden State struggled to focus, committing 25 turnovers.
After that ugly victory, Kerr conceded that his team is “mentally fried” and “dying to get to the All-Star break” in two weeks. Golden State’s charter flight experienced heavy turbulence on the flight to Denver. It was nearly 4 a.m. local time when the Warriors pulled up to the team hotel, a daunting way to prepare for their third game in five days and the rough end of a back-to-back at altitude, where recovery is more difficult even under ideal circumstances.
Golden State hardly appeared fatigued, however, as it spread the floor, attacked the rim and shot 59.1 percent in the first quarter. It wasn’t until midway through the third, when the Warriors used an 11-1 run to seize a 77-67 lead, that they began to create some distance.
In the waning seconds of that period, after being elbowed in the face on a rebound attempt, Kevon Looney grabbed his mouth and walked to the bench before returning to the free-throw line. It was only after he missed both foul shots that referee Ed Malloy helped him find a large chunk of one of his front teeth on the floor.
That backup center David West was gone for personal reasons, and JaVale McGee picked up five fouls in six minutes, didn’t help. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, Warriors players were exhausted.
The Nuggets ratcheted up the tempo, feasting on layups, three-pointers and pull-up jumpers. It was Will Barton’s three-pointer with 4:12 left that gave Denver a 102-99 lead. Now, after cruising much of the season, Golden State is hitting adversity.
Before hosting Oklahoma City on Tuesday, the Warriors will review Saturday’s video in a bid to squash bad habits before they become issues.
“We fought all night, and we tried to make plays,” said Durant, who had a team-high 31 points. “But down the stretch, we couldn’t get it done.”
Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Con_Chron