What, you thought it would be a three-month game of hopscotch, a layup drill to the encore parade? Solitaire, this is not. The Warriors still will whip the Spurs in the Western Conference finals and still win their record 73 games, but Saturday evening in San Antonio, a blueprint was rolled out that shows how Steph Curry and a hyperkinetic express can be slowed and stalled.
And even beaten, 87-79, for only the seventh time since last June.
Gregg Popovich isn’t the best coach in NBA history — I said it, Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach — just because he has a professorial white beard and growls at sideline reporters. In the area that Curry has made his personal playpen, the hardwood beyond the three-point stripe, the Spurs suffocated him from tipoff to the final buzzer. He couldn’t move, couldn’t get comfortable and couldn’t shoot, making only 4 of 18 shots and (loud alarms and sirens, please) 1 of 12 of his threes.
When Tony Parker wasn’t meeting him near midcourt and stalking him, the bigger bodies of LaMarcus Aldridge, Boris Diaw and even Tim Duncan were switching onto Curry and trapping him, harassing with long arms to narrow his air space. The Spurs decelerated the pace to their liking, unlike their 30-point loss in Oakland two months earlier, and dominated the post game as Aldridge (26 points, 13 rebounds) and Kawhi Leonard (18 points, 14 rebounds) took advantage of the injury absences of Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeki and Andre Iguodala. When Klay Thompson also was frigid on his threes, making only 1 of 7, it actually was something of a miracle that the undermanned, fatigued Warriors were in the game until the final minute against a team with a 44-game home winning streak.
Not that the Champs ever accept any loss, particularly to a team they’ll see twice more in the regular season and most likely in one of the most-awaited conference finals ever.
“We played well defensively, but offensively, I didn’t allow us to get comfortable,” Curry said after a 14-point night. “I have to play a lot better, manage the game a lot better. If certain shots I’m taking aren’t falling, I have to adjust. Don’t lose confidence, but adjust. It was a good learning experience for me, especially.”
Said Popovich, unusually bubbly about his team: “Their competitiveness and execution defensively was outstanding.”
It’s hard to believe that Curry and Thompson, in a best-of-seven series, will be reduced to such scattershooting four times. And when all variables are considered here — being shorthanded, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, playing their ninth game in two weeks, facing a team with a home advantage as invincible as theirs — the Warriors shouldn’t have deep wells of anxiety about this loss.
“We still gave ourselves a chance to win a ballgame,” Draymond Green said. “We just missed shots. We’ll bounce back.”
Said Steve Kerr: “It was a combination of their defense and Steph missing a few that he normally makes. That happens. He’s an amazing player, the best shooter I’ve ever seen, but all the best shooters every once in a while have a bad night. Their defense had something to do with that.”
Kerr revealed his fiery side to a national audience, having to be restrained from confronting an official in the first quarter in a scene that probably concerned his doctors a bit. He can expect a fine from the league office after telling Mike Shumann of KGO-TV afterward, “Traveling is now allowed in the NBA. Silly me. … I’ll have to adjust.” It also was Kerr’s attempt to shake his team from an early slumber, proving that he dearly wanted to win this game. And why not? He had kidded, sort of, the previous night in Dallas that he was considering sitting out his stars, as Popovich is known to do.
“If I had any guts at all, I’d sit everybody tomorrow,” Kerr said. “It’s like our sixth game in nine nights. National TV. If I was Pop, I would sit everybody tomorrow. But I don’t have that kind of courage. I’m in my second year. I can’t flip the bird to the league like Pop does. That’s my guy, but I’m not in that class.”
But Curry, Thompson and Green played in the national showcase, to the relief of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and ABC network execs, expending big energy as the regular season nears its end. The Warriors, who still haven’t beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in a regular-season game since Valentine’s Day of 1997, now are 62-7. It would not shock me in the least, even as they continue to sit (and rest) Iguodala and perhaps Bogut, if they rattled off nine straight victories now: at Minnesota; Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington at home; at Utah; and Boston, Portland and Minnesota at home. That would make them 71-7.
Guess who comes to Oracle on April 7 for what would be a history-tying 72nd victory? The Spurs. Then they’d have chances to beat the record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls on April 9 at Memphis, April 10 at San Antonio and, in the final game, on April 13 against Memphis in Oakland.
“Seems like every time they lost one, they won 10 in a row,” Kerr said of his players. “That’s a testament to our team’s competitiveness. You saw how hard they played tonight. We’ll finish the season strong and feel good about going into the playoffs.”
The players would die to have this record. Curry continues to talk about it, doing so with an equilibrium that makes you think 73 remains quite possible. “It’s there and we want to get there and do it the right way,” he said before the game. “There’s a reason we’re still talking about it. Yes, it would be a huge accomplishment. I do think we can accomplish it if we stay true to who we are and don’t get distracted with playing for the record with our bigger goals in mind.”
Said Green: “We want to break that thing. Hey, we’ve won 11 games in a row this season. There’s nothing we can’t do. It’s possible. We’re going after it, so it’s possible. I’m not going to shy away from saying we want the record.
The bigger goals are still intact. Saturday night was anything but a massacre by the Alamo. What it did was remind the Warriors of what Dallas coach Rick Carlisle had said hours earlier. “Their playmaking and shot-making is beyond breathtaking at times,” he said.
“But they can be beat.”
What, you thought not?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.