You don’t want spinal fluid to become “Spinal Tap.” Almost predictably, that’s what is happening right now to the Warriors, who’ve abandoned their signature poise and equilibrium to comically fire back at criticism suggesting they were lucky to win an NBA championship. This is not the rebuttal circus their coach would prefer, but Steve Kerr is preoccupied right now, still recovering from two back surgeries — the second procedure required to fix a spinal-fluid leak from the first one, which sounds gnarly because it is.
He’ll be joined on injury watch by Harrison Barnes, who sprained his right knee Tuesday night. Right about now, Barnes is reminded of the fragility of an NBA career after rejecting a four-year, $64 million offer. And right about now, the Warriors might be wondering if all the good injury karma last season is turning bad on them.
When I asked Kerr recently if his players would respond to the chirping — they had remarkably good health all season, they avoided the Spurs and Clippers, they beat LeBron James when he didn’t have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, they beat Houston with a knee-hobbled Dwight Howard — he was confident they’d remain above the fray. “I don’t think our guys are gonna worry too much about that,” Kerr said. “Once the season starts, no one cares about hype and talk. You go out and play. We’re the defending champions.”
Tuesday, those defending champs let loose in a session with reporters before an uninspired 114-103 loss to Denver, their first appearance at Oracle Arena since the Finals. Rather than ignore the inevitable barbs in a league that dishes out regular controversy, the Warriors are eagerly participating, reacting in particular to a comment made by Doc Rivers, coach of the blood-rival Clippers, who told an ESPN-associated website, Grantland, “You need luck in the West. Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs.”
Kerr would have smiled, cracked a one-liner and reminded one and all that the Warriors-Clippers rivalry is the hottest in the league, if not in American sports. His players, unfortunately, bit the bait. In Draymond Green’s case, he’s probably going to hear from women’s groups.
“It’s funny. It’s like a bitter female. You ever dealt with a bitter female that’s just scorned? God. That’s rough,” said the Human Sound Bite, who better be careful not to veer too far into Chad Ochocinco/ Terrell Owens/Dennis Rodman territory. “When you’re dealing with a bitter female that’s scorned, that’s one of the worst things in the world. God, that’s bad.”
Now why did Green have to go there? When he cracked on Rivers last season, referring to him as “Glenn,” it was clever stuff. Now that he’s an NBA champion and the freshly minted recipient of an $82-million contract extension, Draymond already has won the bigger war. But he’s also just 25 and probably misses being in the news as the regular season approaches. So he and his teammates made their news, including Stephen Curry, emphasizing that their retorts are directed at the Clippers and Rockets and not classier foes such as the Spurs and Thunder.
“If they’re saying that, they’re not the champs. It’s simple,” Green said. “[Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich didn’t say that. That’s one organization that I really respect. And you haven’t heard anybody [there] make that statement. You haven’t heard anybody from OKC say that — some of the organizations that I really respect.”
He motioned toward the team-commissioned jeweler who has been at the Warriors’ practice facility, preparing their rings for Opening Night. “If they’re saying that … you see that ring fitter over there? Jason of Beverly Hills over there fitting us for our rings. That’s pretty cool. So if they’re saying that, there’s some bitterness and some saltiness going around,” Green said for the cameras. “They’re obviously not the champs, so who cares what they say?
“I would feel bad about myself doing that. That’s just crazy to me. That just lets you know how many people didn’t want to see us win. Because they’re sick. People hate change. People don’t accept change well.”
Sick? Maybe jealous or envious or even “bitter,” as Klay Thompson said of Rivers’ remarks. But not sick. You figured Curry, still remarkably grounded and well-adjusted even after his whirlwind Summer of Steph, simply would brush it all off and relate a new story about Riley. But he, too, succumbed to the blather. James Harden reiterated the other day that he should have been the league’s Most Valuable Player, not Curry, and NBA players agreed over the summer in naming Harden as their MVP at a Las Vegas awards banquet. Curry’s naysayers contend that all variables came together beautifully — almost too easily — for a historically gifted shooter who is not a complete player, as opined by Houston’s new point guard, Ty Lawson, when he told Yahoo Sports that Curry is just “chillin’ on defense.”
Said Curry, in subtle sarcasm mode: “I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.”
Thompson started the flurry the other day when, informed of Rivers’ comment, he said, “Ha ha, that sounds pretty bitter to me. That’s fine. At the end of the day, we’re still the champs. All you’ve got to do is look up at that banner we earned. If we got lucky, look at our record (3-1) against them last year. I’m pretty sure we smacked them.”
Added Thompson, who also has been dealing with Internet drama involving life, love and sleazy websites: “Didn’t they lose to the Rockets? Ha, ha, that just makes me laugh. Weren’t they up 3-1, too? Tell them I said that, too. That’s funny, man. That’s funny. That’s funny.”
“I wanted to play the Clippers last year, but they couldn’t handle their business.”
And, of course, Andrew Bogut chimed in, telling KNBR radio, “I’ve actually got my ring fitted for my middle finger, so they can kiss that one.”
At least Green was cordial when discussing Barack Obama. Curry and The Pres have become pretty tight on the golf course, but not so tight that Obama must call Curry his favorite player. That would be Green, who said, “Steph was telling me, ‘I’m golfing with him, and all he wanted to talk about was you.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t gas me up.’ And he was, like, ‘No, for real. You’re his favorite player.’”
When the Warriors appeared at a Obama rally Saturday at the Warfield Theater, Green was greeted warmly by His Barackness. “He was like, ‘My man, my guy, my favorite player — how are you doing?’ That was pretty dope to me,” Green said.
Why not stick with those stories, then, and simply dismiss Rivers as, you know, Glenn?
Now that they’ve exposed a vulnerability to trash talk, we’ll see how the Warriors respond on the court. If they snuck up on everyone last season, they’ll be targeted by the league in full force this time. Already, with Kerr doing little but resting and swimming until further notice, there is evidence that the same good fortune won’t carry over. It will depend on maturity and savvy, whether a team with young leaders can handle prosperity. And while Luke Walton may become a fine NBA coach someday, he isn’t ready for the responsibility of guiding this team through a daunting encore.
The champs need their head coach back. Soon. But it may not happen soon. “Steve is pretty hands off right now,” Walton said. “I talk to Steve whenever he calls me, but … I’m not going to call him and bother him with details. What he is focused on is recovery.”
Before he left the team, Kerr had advice for his players. “There’s a school of thought that when you win a title, it’s like you’ve got to forget it happened and move on to the next thing. I saw screw that,” he said. “I say enjoy every second of it, but also use it for the knowledge you gained from winning, what got you there in the first place.”
Engaging in garbage crossfire, while invoking “a bitter female that’s just scorned,” is not one of those wise lessons.
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.