One never knows if Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s reigning smartass, is serious or hoodwinking us with sarcasm. But maybe he was telling the truth Monday when he copped to being nervous about playing the Warriors, not the usual confession from a worldly guy typically more consumed in January about dinnertime wine selections than urgent basketball thought.
“You feel different going against a team that’s the best team in the league,” he said. “I’ve got butterflies in my gut and [I’m] excited about the game and all that sort of thing, and I don’t feel like that every night.”
Seems even Popovich, he of five championship rings and exalted status, has been reduced to the same queasy feeling as every other coach. The reason soon would become drop-dead obvious: He’s going to the Hall of Fame, yet he can’t stop Steph Curry, either. Not since the Warriors became THE WARRIORS, NBA CHAMPS AND GLOBAL DARLINGS, had they played the San Antonio Spurs. Would this be the rude comeuppance that would have happened if they’d met last spring in the playoffs? Hadn’t the Spurs waited months to reassert their superiority as prior NBA champions? Wouldn’t this be a night of correction and sea change, a restoration of order, a reminder of who’s king and who should just get back in line?
Insert laughtrack here.
Thirty-seven points later, Curry was leaving the game to a standing ovation with 1:06 left in the third quarter, a 27-point lead in his pocket. With Popovich looking pale on the other bench and his team looking slow, old, dispassionate and very much outdated in style and pace, the Warriors gave the Spurs a harsh lesson in new-age basketball. The fans in Oracle Arena meant well, but when they chanted “MVP! MVP!” during this 120-90 romp, they were entirely understating the magnitude of Curry’s impact on hoops and sporting life at present. As a man of faith, he wouldn’t go for “God! God! God!” But MVP — and reserve the shelf for a second one, Mrs. Curry — doesn’t carry nearly enough gravitas now for a man who, despite resembling E.T. with a goatee, continues to live the most charmed of lives.
He and his texting pal, Cam Newton, are dominating America’s two biggest sports. His favorite team, the Carolina Panthers, is favored to win the Super Bowl only 40 miles down the road. This is more than a cosmic convergence. Here is a man who apparently can do nothing wrong and cannot be stopped.
Would he like to run for president? Please?
“For us, given the buildup for the game, the emotions coming in, it says a lot about our mentality right now,” Curry said. “If we take care of the ball, it’s tough to stop us. We have so many weapons.”
And where is his Panthers jersey? “At a safe. Not gonna tell you where that safe is,” he said. “I’ll wait [to wear it] two weekends from now. That one is my go-to. I’ve had it a year and a half since [Panthers coach] Ron Rivera personally delivered it to me. I haven’t talked to Cam. I don’t want to blow his phone up. From experience, when good things happen, you don’t want to get in the way.”
Popovich was left to salute what he saw while demeaning his own players, who committed 26 turnovers and shot 41.9 percent. “I’m just glad my general manager wasn’t in the locker room because this might have gotten me fired,” he said.
He was asked how the Spurs will keep up with the Warriors’ speed. “I have no idea. I can’t control their speed,” Popovich said. “It’s a hell of a team. They’re really disciplined. The coach has got them right where he wants them. It was like men and boys out there in terms of toughness and aggressiveness.”
Said a happy Steve Kerr: “I liked it, I liked the tone. We got the game to our pace, and I thought it was our defensive pressure that set that pace. They probably aren’t going to play that poorly ever against us. But some of that was about us. I loved the effort.”
It was apparent early in this purported showdown that Popovich’s butterflies were more than justified. There was an immediate Curry onslaught, which wouldn’t be a newsflash except much of his work was against Kawhi Leonard. He would be the same Kawhi Leonard who was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, who beat out Draymond Green for a starting spot in voting for the Western Conference All-Star team, who was called “probably the best two-way player in the league now” Sunday by none other than Kerr. Try as he did to stay in the same zip code as Curry with his 7-foot-3 wingspan, he couldn’t, vulnerable to the same deadly pick-and-rolls and same Curry shakeoffs. If Leonard can’t stay with him, then who can?
Von Miller and the Denver Broncos defense? A drone suspended above Oracle? Rarely has Curry looked more unstoppable than he did against the great Popovich and a lagging Spurs team that was just another rag-doll victim. He never tires of the nightly beatdowns, barking at his teammates after making a theatrical shot with a 22-point lead. Kerr, in his second game back after missing the first 43 games with back-surgery-related complications, landed a technical with a similar lead and almost got another.
No wonder Popovich raved about his protege and what his return means. “Steve is a different animal. He exudes a lot of confidence and he instills it,” he said. “A lot of people can’t do that. There’s no formula for it, but having Steve back is very, very significant for their club and that group of guys.”
And no wonder Kerr raved about Curry. “I never have to tell Steph to be aggressive. That’s just what he does,” he said. “He has a ridiculous shooting range, so it distorts the whole chessboard defensively. Where he’s really improved is finishing around the basket, with floaters and runners. It makes him that much more difficult to cover.”
With three more games in the regular season and as many as four months before they’d possibly meet in the conference finals, the Spurs have time to figure out how to play the Warriors. One piece of advice: Start shooting three-pointers. They took only 14, making five, and when Curry was making six by himself, well, Popovich is a smart guy who can do NBA math. The Spurs rank 25th in the league in three-pointers attempted, and for all we know, he has his players practicing long-range shooting for an hour every day. But on the court, they aren’t trying to play the same game as the Warriors, and like every other team, they will fail that way.
Leonard was ordinary, with 16 points and five turnovers. Tony Parker looked old. Manu Ginobili looked older. Tim Duncan didn’t play because of purpored knee soreness, giving the Spurs an excuse, but his presence wouldn’t have mattered. When Curry is hitting threes and the other team can’t make simple shots in the lane, the result is a 30-point rout. In the last week, the Warriors have done the following: blown out the Cavaliers in Cleveland with such ferocity that LeBron James fired David Blatt and replaced him with Tyronn Lue, who said the players have to get in better shape to play faster-paced ball — Warriors ball. Then that went to Chicago, where Kerr appeared in a comedy club, and ripped the Bulls. Now, this, in front of Drake and Jay Z.
And to think some were concerned that Popovich had called Kerr twice over the weekend, as if fraternizing would lead to competitive oneupsmanship. The calls were reasonable, justifiable, the human touch at work. He wanted to welcome back his friend, who’d just spent six months in headache hell, yet before the game, a local reporter suggested Popovich was trying to get in Kerr’s head.
“He IS trying to get in my head! I didn’t even realize it!” said Kerr, sarcasm thick. “Why did you have to tell me?”
Obviously, there was nothing to worry about, not that there ever is.
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.