If the searing headaches have stopped and Steve Kerr is able to put on a designer suit and coach again, this might be that moment. For the first time during their audacious foray onto sacred ground, the Warriors needed a stern lecture Tuesday evening, if not a kick in the ass. It feels strange to say after they extended the best start in American sports history to 23-0, but a 131-123 survival test against the Indiana Pacers felt like a loss of sorts.
That’s because Klay Thompson, after reminding us that the Splash Brothers remain lethal as a tandem and haven’t been reduced to a solo spectacle, suffered a sprained right ankle when he shouldn’t even have been in the game. Armed with a 28-point lead after three quarters, the undefeated/winless interim coach, Luke Walton, yanked the starters … and watched helplessly as the huge lead dwindled as quickly as the defensive intensity waned. The uninspired play of the second unit forced Walton into a move no coach wants to make: He reinserted the starters, which meant Steph Curry had to take the towel off his head, Draymond Green had to stop applying lip balm and Thompson had to return after cooling down from his 39-points-in-34-minutes barrage, including 10 three-pointers.
What happened next was scary. During a furious and unnerving final few minutes in which the Pacers cut the lead to six points, Thompson’s ankle came down on the foot of teammate Shaun Livingston and rolled awkwardly. He limped to the bench, winced in severe pain and left through the tunnel. This was not a good look for the Warriors or for Walton, who allowed his team to lapse into a we-got-this mode. Somewhere in front of a big-screen TV, Kerr had to be upset. While X-rays on his ankle were negative and Thompson talked tough afterward — “I’ll be all right. It’s a sprain. It’s gonna be sore and bruised for a couple of days, but I should be back in no time,” he claimed — this is the sort of injury that can linger and affect the Warriors for a longer term.
All because a championship team couldn’t put away a staggering opponent. To a man, the Warriors were more bothered by the lapse than they were elated by the victory, which also gave them the best NBA road start ever at 13-0.
“You don’t want to see that happen to Klay when he shouldn’t have had to go back in the game,” Curry told the media. “That’s a learning lesson. We don’t want to lose a double-digit lead like that and make it harder. We’ve got to handle the end of the game better. You don’t want to have to win the game twice or even three times.”
“That was ridiculous,” Green said. “We just lost the focus. That is a team [Indiana] that will continue to fight, and we didn’t come out with intensity in the fourth quarter. We know what our standard is. We didn’t meet it in the fourth.”
Said Andrew Bogut, who is dealing with lingering back problems and has to stretch on the baseline when he’s not in the game: “The problem with all of this is, Klay Thompson had to come back in and rolled his ankle. We need to do a better job of finishing off. If we happen to lose a game soon, we want to lose it on our terms.”
Thompson wasn’t about to point fingers, as no one on a closely knit team points fingers. But now that he finally has recovered from back issues, the last thing he needs is a recurring ankle problem when his shooting stroke has returned and he has averaged 25.5 points in the first five games of the road trip. “We’ve still got to play better than that,” he said. “It’s one thing not to make shots, but it’s another to let up on the defensive end. We’ll get better from it.”
This is the first time Walton’s guidance has been questioned. He has acknowledged every day that it’s “a pleasure to coach these guys,” but here was evidence that the players weren’t fearing his wrath and were capable of letting up — no-nos when Kerr is on the bench. At first, Walton praised the second unit, which was odd after a quarter when the Pacers scored 40 points. Then, when asked if it was a bittersweet loss, he bit.
“It’s bitter because Klay sprains his ankle in a game we felt we had control of,” Walton said. “If we get off to a better start in the fourth quarter, we don’t have to get him back on the court.”
Though the Warriors are Kerr’s creation, no one has thought much about him — other than hoping he feels better — when the Warriors are thrashing through opponents. In the land of Hickory High, Larry Bird and Bob Knight, in a state where an arena must be called a fieldhouse and where a driveway without a hoop is a punishable offense, the heartlanders were traumatized by a basketball rebellion for three quarters. The clinic came courtesy of a force of nature so streamlined, so balletic and so inevitably explosive from all angles and ranges, the Warriors seemed in the wrong venue.
Shouldn’t they have been over at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, competing against race cars?
But in winning their 27th consecutive regular-season game, which leaves them six shy of the all-time NBA record, the Warriors also realized that people are waiting for the first crack. Reggie Miller, the Pacers great and TNT loudmouth, predicted they’d lose Tuesday. He was wrong, but he’s probably gloating about the fourth-quarter flameout. Walton was asked afterward about his surreal head-coaching experience. This time, the answer wasn’t as emphatic.
“You just roll with it,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. You come to work each day and do your job. I was supposed to be an assistant, which I enjoyed doing, and when Steve comes back, I’ll be back to that. Until then, I’ll wake up every day as the head coach.”
When the team is on the road, Kerr is on the phone most days. “When Steve’s name shows up, I make sure to pick up that one,” Walton said before the game. “He’ll ask how shootaround goes, and I’ll tell him what our thoughts are as far as strategy. Most times, we just go back and forth with some ideas he thinks will work. I’ll tell him what we’ve seen on tape and what we’ve been talking about. We kind of just take it from there. Then, I share it with the rest of the staff. There’s constant conversation.”
It was interesting to hear veteran assistant coach Ron Adams, the defensive specialist, say this on KNBR radio Tuesday: “I don’t care if [Kerr] comes back if we lose a game or two. We need him.” He added that the strategy isn’t as nuanced and detailed without Kerr.
Not to be too hard on Walton, who generally has been terrific in a difficult situation, but no one assumed this was going to be a long gig for him. When the Warriors finally lose, the sense is that Kerr will be back soon after, health permitting. At some juncture, a realization will kick in that this is his team, and that his team needs him.
A scary fourth quarter in Indiana may have been that flashpoint.
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.