He lost a basketball game for the first time in 28 days. He lost a home game for the first time in 99 days. Fortunately, he did not lose his dry, smart-ass wit.
“We changed everything. We're going to change the entire program,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We put in the triangle offense, and we're gonna run that for Game 3. We're gonna play zone [defense] the whole game. We just feel like everything's falling apart.”
And Stephen Curry … you're definitely demoting him, right?
“Steph was awful the other night, so I won't start him,” he said. “Yeah, it's a full renovation.”
He can chuckle and grin now, but remember the big question last summer — how did a guy who never coached in his life wrangle $25 million out of Joe Lacob? Kerr will hear it at maximum volume if the Warriors lose even once in Memphis, much less twice. This is where we discover if he is the NBA's next exceptional sideline mind, spreading the hybrid lessons of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, or if Kerr remains a raw, vulnerable playoff neophyte who is about to be crushed by the May gauntlet.
Draymond Green said something very interesting Thursday, not that he doesn't every day. Asked if the Warriors were prepared for Mike Conley's return from a facial injury in Game 3, protective mask and all, he said no. “Honestly, we didn't prepare for Mike to play. We didn't expect him to,” Green said. “They're a completely different team without him. It's kind of hard to try to prepare. Now, obviously, you have a game in there with him, we know what to prepare for, how to take a few [3-pointers] away. We think it'll make a difference, as opposed to an All-Star-caliber player that you just didn't expect to play. Then, all of a sudden, you prepare for him to play, and now you're doing things on other guys you shouldn't be doing because you weren't prepared for Mike Conley.”
Read that again. The Warriors were not prepared for Conley? You never know when Green, whose words don't always match the intended thought in his head, is speaking out of school. And we should note that Kerr said before Game 1, then before Game 2, that the Warriors were preparing for Conley as if he would play. Still, Green is an intelligent basketball player, and his statements suggest the Warriors weren't prepared defensively to make the proper switches on Conley, who immediately gave his team the fresh element of 3-point shooting in building an early lead. You can be prepared for Conley to play but unprepared for what he specifically brings to the Grizzlies: 3-pointers for a team attempting only 12 a game, an approach out of the stone ages. Kerr keeps repeating that nothing changes defensively for the Warriors whether Conley plays or not, a belief that was blown to bits Tuesday night.
Defense, Kerr contends, isn't what buried his team. “Our defense was good enough to win that game, our offense was not,” he said. “They dictated the pace of the game the entire way, for whatever reason. I thought we played hard and competed, but we weren't very poised and were a little out of sorts. They set the tone in the first quarter, and that affected everything. Our offense was not good.
“That's a good defensive team we're playing against. They've been together for years. You can't clog the paint. You can't do it on your own. You can't beat guys off the dribble and score in the lane because they've got a lot of size in the paint and they've got good perimeter defenders. We've got to do it on the pass. It has to come from our flow and spacing … good cutting and screening, the basics. That's what our team is, anyway. It's nothing more than getting back to our identity.”
You'd be an idiot to predict doom for this team after one defeat. Yet it wasn't just any loss — it exposed how easily the Warriors can unravel if they aren't making 3-point shots, if the basketballs are clanking instead of splashing. It's acceptable to lose a playoff game but unacceptable to lose the way they did to the Grizzlies, with 20 turnovers, the kind of offensive breakdowns seen in October scrimmages, a Curry off night and a Klay Thompson no-show. Anybody who said this team was living a charmed, overachieving life is grinning today — hello, Charles Barkley, and glad to see you survived the Shaq-quake on the TNT set — and anybody who said Kerr was just another spectator with a courtside seat can take satisfaction in a new reality.
Either he coaches this team up, fast, or the Warriors go home early.
Having won 72 times and lost only 16, this team deals with unfamiliar feelings and moods after a defeat. “Foreign territory,” Green said. The fact the loss came a day after Curry's MVP ceremony — and after he delivered a one-hour-plus acceptance speech that some teammates teased him about — is a tricky challenge for Kerr. Was there a little too much Steph, Steph, Steph for the equilibrium of a team that is all about selflessness? Kerr says no, that losing is a normal byproduct of playoff basketball.
“I told our guys, there's never been a team in the history of this league that hasn't felt like we did yesterday and today, [including] a team that has won the championship and gone on to pour Champagne over the heads,” he said. “I was on five of them [in Chicago and San Antonio]. On every one of those runs, there were moments, sometimes several moments, where you didn't sleep, you wake up feeling like crap. Where you say, 'How did we do that?' This is what you have to go through. The reason you celebrate when you do win is because it's hard — you're playing against good teams that give you problems. Part of what elevates you to a higher level is the adversity you go through.”
Just by doing the sheer mathematics, the Dubs should win this Western Conference semifinal series. They are playing in the 21st century and reflect it with their freewheeling, trey-happy gunning. The Grizzlies are stuck in the last century with their post-up, down-low offense of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, coupled with grinding defense. When one team wants three points each possession and the other two points, who should win? Even with their worst performance in weeks, the Warriors were positioned to win. “They played an incredible game, we weren't very good at all, yet we were right there and had opportunities to cut the lead to four or five points with two minutes to go,” Green said.
No worries, then? “It's an incredible opportunity. It's the first time we've really had adversity all year,” Green went on. “Everything has been great, everything has been just fine, kind of blowing with the wind. Now, we're facing adversity. We hadn't lost at home in a long time, hadn't lost a game in a while. Now it's time to strap it up, show what we're really made of.”
So, no, it's not the end of the world, though you can see it from downtown Memphis. When Kerr was asked what he planned to do there the next four days, he playfully said the questioner was trying to get him into trouble. “I'll be watching tape,” he said.
Probably a good idea. Because if the Warriors lose twice in the land of Elvis, a rookie coach will be issuing a plea to his critics: Don't be cruel.