MEMPHIS — To escape the playoff stress-grinder, Steve Kerr is committed to finding a quiet place and reading. One of his mentors, Phil Jackson, will be proud to know the material doesn't involve basketball: the California water crisis, an Al Pacino feature, the Wall Street Journal, a World War II fiction novel. It's very Zen of Kerr, but it also seems unnecessary.
He has Stephen Curry on his team. Why would there be too much stress?
“I actually thought it was going in,” Kerr said of Curry's latest assault on our senses, the heavenly heave from 62 feet at the third-quarter buzzer Friday night that placed the Warriors in the NBA Western Conference finals.
Thing is, who didn't think it was going in, including Curry? “Just chuck it up, and it looked good the whole way,” he said with typical nonchalance. And the fact no one was surprised — his coach, his teammates, fans, media and, natch, Curry himself — should pound home (again) why this basketball miracle is the league's Most Valuable Player and why the Warriors aren't inclined to blow late 19-point leads like the team they still might face next.
Oh, they talked about the Thursday night collapse of the Los Angeles Clippers. Damn right they did. You really think the Warriors aren't going to yap a little, if not grin and giggle and LOL-howl, when their detested rival gags and loses in what might be the watershed moment that points them to the Finals? “It was a hot topic, for sure,” said Kerr, relaying his players' thoughts about the Clips choking away a series clincher. “I didn't even see it. I was tired. I was asleep. The guys were talking about it and, obviously, a crazy game. I'm not going to say anything beyond that.”
Nothing more needed to be said. The Warriors are not the Clippers, proving it in Game 6 by seizing an early 15-point lead, sustaining one final thrust from the grit-and-grinders of Beale Street, letting the lead dwindle to a point in the third quarter, then pulling away when You Know Who went YouTube again in what has become an expected nightly occurrence. I covered the Jordan dynasty in Chicago, and every night, when I was running out of spectacular descriptions and preferred to focus on someone else, Michael Jordan forced me to rhapsodize about him again.
Curry is becoming that superlative magnet. He will not let his team blow a big lead. He stole the final gasps of the mid-South crowd, the night after B.B. King died, by hitting a series of killer three-pointers, including the three-quarters-court killer. The Warriors then coasted to a 108-95 win that put them in the conference finals for the first time since 1976, the year after the franchise's last league title. In one furious, memorable sequence — Andre Iguodala blocks a Jeff Green jumper, Curry whips up a prayer that for him is a layup — the MVP and his cast were the steely antithesis of the choking dogs down south.
“It was fun to see that one go in,” Curry said. “I made one in college like that. That's the last time I made anywhere past halfcourt, and it was the same kind of shot: loose ball, grab it, throw it up, knock it down.”
“I was under the impression we got fouled there,” Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. “Steph picks up the ball and launches it. When he made it, it was like, `What just happened?' ''
It was coincidence that Curry's from-the-hip heave evoked slight memories of how Rick Barry, the superstar of the last Golden State title team, shot free throws. It was no coincidence that he made the shot. Before practice daily, Kerr allows music to be cranked and the players to warm up with a shot-a-rama sequence: full-court shots, three-quarter-courters, even dropkicks. Kerr cringed at how some of his former coaches, including Lute Olson, might react to the frenzy. “It's sort of our way to loosen up and get into practice,” said Kerr, who claims he's the best drop-kicker of the bunch.
He is not the best long-range shooter in those sessions. You'll never guess who is. “Makes a lot more than you think,” Kerr said of Curry.
“We see him in practice hit that all the time,” Klay Thompson said. “But that was (still) an unbelievable shot. You know there's a reason he's the MVP. He separated ourselves from them.”
“Does not surprise me at all,” Draymond Green said. “He stands at the other baseline, every day before practice, and just slings the ball to the other rim. He's made more than a few.”
Sitting beside Green, Curry was wearing a camouflage hoodie. He can't hide from the barrage of praise that will follow him into the next series, as America watches in awe. Someone asked if it was his best shot ever.
“Can't put that shot against game-winners,” he said.
That's what Curry does. He reminds us that we're watching a special moment in basketball time and gets us thinking. How did this shot compare to the game-winner in New Orleans, when he was tackled into the stands by Anthony Davis and still made the trey that led to a series sweep? “Hard to say. In a closeout game, that's a big turning point and the moment is magnified,” Curry said of The Heave.
It also was an exclamation point on who the Warriors are: a team that figured out its defensive issues, thanks to Kerr's tactical switches after losses in Games 2 and 3, and returned to its freewheeling, defense-ignites-offense, three-point-firing entertainment extravaganza. The Grizzlies need to join the 21st century. The five remaining playoff teams also are the league's five best three-point shooters. The Warriors hit 15 more treys, the third straight game in which the made 14 or more — something not done in the NBA since 1985. Curry had eight threes, giving him 25 for the series after a brief shooting slump in the two losses.
The Warriors want more than this. They can smell it, taste it, and are back home to watch the Clippers play Houston in Game 7 today. They claim not to have a dog in the race. Curry doesn't want to go down any hate-the-Clippers road, and while Green might, he prefers the bigger picture.
“Not celebrating at all,” he said. “We'll be watching that game, getting ready for the next series. We haven't really done anything yet. We've got a lot bigger dreams and accomplishments. We'll celebrate when we get to where we want to go.”
By simply mentioning that his players had yakked about the collapse and that he had slept through it, Kerr was taking a dig at Clippers coach Doc Rivers — or Glenn, as Green calls him — in the ongoing psychological warfare between these teams. Mortified Clippers fans now sense what the rest of us know: Any team that folds so ignominously at home, allowing an ordinary team to outscore them 40-15 while James Harden sat the entire fourth quarter, isn't emotionally equipped to win a championship Even if they somehow survive Game 7, the Clippers would limp into Oracle Arena as a sheepish, wounded bunch.
In the NBA, this is known as a mental edge. In this rivalry, it's a trash-talking point. When the Warriors have a lead of at least 15 points this season, they are 53-0, 6-0 in the playoffs.
Please don't commence heated discussions about their preferred opponent. They'd likely have an easier time against the Rockets, having won all four regular-season games while holding Harden to subpar performances twice. But come on. If you live for bloodthirsty sporting thrills, you want the Clippers. America wants the Warriors and Clippers, and with Curry as the angelic superhero, the Dubs will be the national rooting interest.
“No disrespect,” Curry said, “but it doesn't matter to us.”
It's all heady territory for a franchise that, for decades, was little more than an occasional Bay Area novelty. Though usually fun, the Warriors rarely were good. Now they're positioned for a long period of greatness as the demographic darlings of a high-tech hub. Owner Joe Lacob has no worries about his new Mission Bay arena, not when the mayor and governor support it. If the Giants are the pride of the region, the Warriors are the new passion.
“All new ground,” Kerr said. “It's a testament to all the work put in the last three, four years. Fact is, I jumped on board this year, and the train was already rolling.”
With the conductor just chucking it up, watching another long ball go splash.