Oakland — We find out tonight, at last, if the Warriors are a special basketball team in time or inconsistent, overpromoted wannabes. They’re at the corner of Hype Road and Truth Avenue, capable of either path. If they’re a franchise that will win NBA titles now and later, on both sides of the bay, then they’ll squeeze more figurative blood from LeBron James’ head and dispatch the weakest supporting cast in Finals history back to the YMCA lunchtime rec league.
If they’re just another flawed regular-season marvel, then they’ll slip back into their familiar complacency mode, miss open jumpers, complain to the officials, bog down, flame out and blow a championship that couldn’t be better gift-wrapped and bow-tied if Riley Curry were handing it to them on Christmas morning.
They have their good health, having used heart-rate monitors, advanced metrics, video tracking, common sense and the advantage of 67 victories and admirable depth to avoid major injuries that have sabotaged the Cavaliers and other contenders. “We all came into the Finals as fresh as can be. No one really has a heavy burden out there,’’ said Klay Thompson, not having to note that James has the heaviest singular burden ever in the Finals.
They have their feel-good momentum, with the national media lapping up the idea that Steve Kerr’s special assistant, 28-year-old Nick U’Ren, suggested using Andre Iguodala and the smallball-intensive lineup for Game 4. Never mind that Kerr has been pondering such an option throughout the playoffs and had to make the final decision on Iguodala. Let the kid, best known for creating practice-music playlists and serving as assist man for Stephen Curry’s shooting sessions, have his day in yet another tribute to a rookie head coach who will consider advice from anywhere — even in a 3 a.m. text message from another assistant, Luke Walton, who’d been out with U’Ren at a Cleveland hangout called Lola’s. All of which leads to a bigger question: Isn’t this a subtle shot at the outgoing assistant in charge of the offense, New Orleans-coach-in-waiting Alvin Gentry, who should be the one coming up with dramatic revisions?
“As I told Nick, he’s gotten way too much credit now. It’s gone totally overboard. So enough about Nick,’’ said Kerr, smiling. “Actually, I told him on the day of the game, ‘If this doesn’t work, it’s your fault. And if it works, I’m taking the credit.’ He’s a major part of our staff, and I don’t care where an idea comes from. I’ve taken ideas from our players during games when they make suggestions, from our scouts. Doesn’t matter wherever the idea comes from. If it’s a good one, then we’ll use it.’’
They also have their team-first unity, with everyone on board with the Iguodala move and everyone expecting it to play out again tonight. Why mess with success and go back to Andrew Bogut when the switch worked so well Thursday, with Draymond Green as the versatile big man? Kerr had fun Saturday with his lie before Game 4, when he denied he would make lineup changes so he wouldn’t be alerting Cavs coach David Blatt to the Iguodala move. “I’ll just say that I’ve established my penchant for lying,’’ Kerr said. “So however I answer right now (about Game 5), you shouldn’t believe me anyway.’’ Iguodala will start. Bogut will be on the bench, plotting another way to shove James into a baseline TV camera and then claim James was acting.
“Most likely,’’ Bogut answered when asked if Kerr will go small again. “They don’t have the bigs that Memphis and Houston had in Zach (Randolph) and Dwight (Howard), so I was out there a lot more. (Timofey) Mozgov is not really a post-up big; he’s a screen-roll big. We feel like having Draymond on Mozgov, being able to switch that (matchup) on LeBron, works in our favor.” Understand that Bogut isn’t the least bit upset about sitting, just as Iguodala and David Lee adjusted to roles off the bench this season before playing bigger roles in the Finals, a reflection of Kerr’s impressive ability to coax big-money veterans into accepting change without controversy.
The Warriors, too, have James in an unaccustomed position: having to bounce back from a rough Game 4 when he made only seven of 21 shots, wasn’t the same after Bogut bloodied him and admittedly “gassed’’ out in the second half — all this after he inadvertently flashed his private parts to an ABC camera. James already has made clear that he doesn’t view Game 5 at Oracle Arena as the same challenge of having to play in Boston with his previous team, the Miami Heat. That is his way of saying he thinks the Warriors are beatable in this situation, which is possible only if he produces as he did in the first three games, when he averaged 41 points.
“When you get to a championship-level-type game, with it being 2-2, I don’t think anyone has the momentum,’’ James said Saturday at the Warriors’ practice facility, where the Cavaliers worked out. “Obviously, everyone would say (the Warriors have momentum) because they’re coming home after the game they had the other night, but momentum starts once the game starts. We’ll see who can put the most possessions together, who can make the most plays and put themselves and their team in a position to win. We’re going to play our game. We’ve gotten to this point by playing the way we play, and we’re not going to change.’’
And the Warriors have adjusted well to a delicate dynamic that has wrecked teams with weaker equilibriums. You’ve noticed that this isn’t all about the Splash Brothers anymore, that Iguodala has become the team’s rock-sturdy leader and Finals MVP candidate. Thompson was not scheduled for the big interview room Saturday — Curry and Iguodala were there, with Kerr — and this is no small development for a team that has marketed Curry and Thompson as the team’s two best players and leaders.
Credit Thompson for not making waves, saying he’s having the time of his life despite up-and-down individual performances. Credit Curry for fighting through the darkness when everyone from President Obama to his former coach, ABC’s Mark Jackson, was commenting on his two sub-par Finals games. In an introspective moment Saturday, Curry admitted to self-doubts and wondering if he’ll have any more MVP-type performances this season.
“I think in the midst of Game 2 and 3, you’re kind of trying to figure it out: Why am I missing shots? Why are things going the way they’re going?’’ Curry said. “I thought Game 1, I played pretty well. Didn’t shoot many threes, but made a couple big ones. Made some timely shots, and then it all kind of went downhill from there. But obviously you never lose your confidence. You understand there is a lot of series left, a lot of opportunity to turn it around. I don’t know what that signature Finals moment will be. As long as we get four wins, that would be signature enough for me. But I hope to have an impact in that effort. But I don’t know what stat line that will be, if I can walk off the court like, yeah, that was my time.’’
It doesn’t have to be Curry’s time. That is the driving, compelling point here. As the Warriors reach the crescendo of their year-long odyssey — the Jackson firing, the Kerr hiring, the lineup switch to Green and Harrison Barnes from Iguodala and David Lee, the 67 wins, the Curry MVP ceremony, their three series in the Western Conference playoffs, the switchback to Iguodala and Lee in the Finals — all the moving parts have melded as one. Whether it’s Curry prioritizing a championship over his stat line or Nick U’Ren making a suggestion in a bar, this team has arrived at its defining juncture.
With “team’’ as the operative word, the only word.
“When you win,’’ Iguodala said, “everything takes care of itself.’’
The final answers come now.
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.