The Golden State Warriors have been straddling the NBA’s snowy peak since November (even if the Sierras didn’t get much snow). Regular season adversity doesn’t exist unless a team has lost three straight games. Golden State never lost more than two in a row this year. That’s how you get to 67 wins. 23-3. 36-6. 63-13. All that while playing in the NBA’s better conference. If they played in the East, the Warriors may have won 73+ games. This made them the overwhelming favorites once the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs (regular season record matters less to calculating older teams playing the long-game) were eliminated by Chris Paul’s astounding game-ending, series-clinching shot in Game 7 of the Spurs-Clippers epic match-up.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr used the term, “appropriate fear,” to describe Golden State’s collective approach to facing the talented but imbalanced New Orleans Hornets in the first round. He was urging his team to stay “in the moment,” and refuse to get ahead of themselves. That kind of laser-focus is what got them to 67 wins and allowed them to craft a top-ranked defense. That focus, the scheming of assistant coach Ron Adams, and excellent health from four great individual and team defenders (Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson). But how do you make yourself afraid, even appropriately afraid, when you get so used to pummeling the competition that you often sit out your best players for the final quarter and rest up for the next game? How do you trick each player into finding and sustaining that extra gear that they so rarely needed for sustained stretches from October through April?
This is why the playoffs are dramatic and why match-ups are critical in a best-of-seven game series. Those 67 wins mean less and less with each passing playoff game. Ask the 60-win Atlanta Hawks, who have been far from dominant in all but one or two of their 10 playoff games.
The casual Bay Area sports fan who hopped on the various bandwagons of the past several years (Giants on three occasions, A’s on one occasion, Niners twice in recent memory) believed this Warriors team was destined for the Finals. There are plenty of die-hard Warriors fans who turn Oracle into the “Roar”-acle, who were genuinely aware of the threat the Memphis Grizzlies posed. Those casual (let’s call them “party fans”) were suddenly silent after Tony Allen stole Game 2 from Klay Thompson, as Steph Curry’s MVP award played tricks on his psyche and distracted him from his obsessive focus. You could hear it in Curry’s pre-game “Thank You” to the crowd. He wanted to get back to business. Understandably so. And yet, the threes rimmed out, and Tony Allen gobbled up loose balls, and turned the volume down on Klay Thompson and the crowd with his “First Team De-Fense!” chants. The microphone that TNT gives one player each game should always be worn by Tony Allen. He called teammate Mike Conley “One-eyed Charlie,” to the delight of America. Conley, who somehow gave an indelibly courageous performance, returning from multiple facial fractures without missing a beat in the first half, provided the psychic lift the Grizzlies needed and the series turned.
Heading into Game 3 the fear was suddenly all-too real for Warriors fans, but it’s hard to say how much of it had impacted Warriors players. Golden State’s infectious heartbeat, Draymond Green, shot 1 of 8 in Game 3. In addition to watching his three-pointers clang off the rim, Green committed five turnovers. Suddenly the Warriors had dropped two games in a row. Remember, three losses in a row hadn’t happened since Kerr became head coach. In large part because of the Warriors defense. Before Game 4, Warriors coaches decided to make adjustments. Defensive guru Ron Adams and Steve Kerr no doubt had a few long talks.
Each team is only as good as its weakest link. It’s why playoff defense leaves certain players wide open. It’s why Popovich got into LeBron’s head by going under on all screens, forcing LeBron to take wide-open (being too open can psyche out the shooter) 18-footers in the Finals a few years back. It’s why Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan end up back at the free-throw line over and over and over again. It’s also why the Spurs have gone deep into the playoffs so often that they became a fixture. No weak links. Everyone plays to their strengths and everyone defends.
Listening to TNT’s announcing team of Brian Anderson and Steve Smith, the familiar narrative of the all-offense Warriors was played, because opposites are simple and easy to digest. The idea: Memphis. Big. Tough. Defense. Suffocating. Warriors. Smooth. Swishing jumpers. Three-point party.
But that’s not the Warriors core identity. It’s who they appear to be to the casual onlooker. Draymond’s incredible balance and strength, while battling burly power forwards underneath doesn’t show up in highlights. Bogut’s uncanny knack for making himself a human obstacle with those long, swooping arms and great help-side defense doesn’t need to result in a blocked shot to impact the way the opponents drive to the hoop on Golden State.
When Game 4 tipped off, Bogut was defending the weak link: Tony Allen. Allen can’t shoot. He is an excellent cutter and a willing passer, but he can’t make a consistent jump shot. Bogut wasn’t so much guarding Allen as waiting for him in the paint. Waiting for anyone really. Zach Randolph, Mark Gasol, post-up behemoths.
Draymond screamed for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to come and get him. Z-Bo is one of the unstoppable forces on the block. He is a wrecking ball, but Draymond refused to cave. Draymond met him inch-for-inch. Randolph finished with a mere 12 points on 10 shots, getting to the line only 3 times. Gasol was an ugly 7 of 19, rimming out leaners, up-faking like a madman and tossing hooks that simply wouldn’t fall in.
Tony Allen was left out there and Memphis eventually had to play more Jeff Green and Vince Carter and less Tony Allen. The Grindfather was relegated to a rocker on the Memphis bench as the crowd trickled out early in the fourth quarter.
The Warriors correctly calculated that Memphis would have to beat them from outside. Mike Conley, after the adrenaline-soaked Game 2 performance, has looked predictably exhausted, going 7 for 25 from the field in Games 3 and 4. As most expected before the series started, the Warriors would win the series easily if Mike Conley didn’t play. Conley is giving it a remarkable effort, but it’s not fair to ask him to be the same player just two weeks after serious facial surgery.
The fear has been overcome. The Warriors have home court again. Game Five is Wednesday night back at the Oracle. Those casual fans that come out of the woodwork, they will be slightly less delirious from the opening tip, newly aware of the fragility of an NBA title run. The majority of Dub Nation, hardcore fans who have always created a genuine home-court advantage for their beloved Warriors, they will remain ecstatic with every three-point launch from Klay or Steph, as the ball hangs in the air, and the playoff journey up the alpine trail to the NBA’s mountaintop continues. Chris Paul and his Clippers are about to arrive at the higher elevations. The final climb will be the steepest.