So it has reached the surreal point where the former coach of the Warriors, the one fired because ownership knew he couldn't lift them to their current rarefied air, thinks the blur-tempo, jet-passing, smallball scheme of his celebrated successor will lead them to the NBA Finals. You're reading that correctly: Mark Jackson says the offense he wouldn't run here, the one where Steve Kerr turns Steph “The Flopper” Curry and Klay Thompson and all the others loose like feral animals, might wind up winning this franchise a Larry O'Brien jug.
It's not that Jackson isn't spot-on in his analysis. Once Dwight Howard collided freakily with Houston teammate Josh Smith and limped away in Game 1, gone with a sprained left knee that leaves him “questionable” for tonight and likely limited for what could be a short series, it made Kerr's smallball adjustment the buzz topic of these Western Conference finals. Without a healthy Howard, the Rockets will have difficulty beating the Warriors once or twice — much less four times in a seven-game scrum — even with James Harden. What's funny is that Jackson is admitting he loves smallball in his awkward role as an ESPN/ABC courtside analyst, meaning he has to sit quietly at the table during these nightly Oracle Arena house parties and wonder why Kerr is achieving what he couldn't.
Oh, how Joe Lacob, the owner who replaced Jackson with Kerr, must be laughing about it all. When Jackson coached Curry and Thompson, the Golden State offense was last in the league in passes per game. With Kerr, the offense is evolutionary in its pace, versatility and breathtaking explosiveness.
“They were able to do it [in Game 1] and do it successfully and not have to pay a price because of the absence of Dwight Howard,” Jackson said of smallball. “I think that's why he's very crucial in this series, his presence on the floor. You don't want to give a steady diet of defending him with smaller guys when he's at his best. So I really think to have a chance for the Rockets, they need Howard and his presence to be a force, forcing the Warriors to play big and have to deal with him.
“When the Warriors are playing small, they're so good and talented. And it allows them to spread the ball and give more air space to Curry and Thompson. No secret about that, they played [defensive] basketball [Tuesday night] with the smaller lineup on the floor.”
That is, in Warrior parlance, aggressive defense leading to furious offense — the streamlined second-quarter blitz that overcame a 17-point deficit quicker than you could run to the restroom. Why Jackson operated at a much slower pace with these amazing athletes at his disposal, only he knows. But that's why he was on a network conference call with Jeff Van Gundy in San Francisco while Kerr was meeting the media at the team's Oakland practice facility, where Jackson once presided.
“It's a fast game, and the game is chaotic,” Kerr said of his general philosophy, created with likely-to-be-leaving (to Chicago?) assistant coach Alvin Gentry. “A lot of people are going to be open.”
But smallball doesn't work without defensive success. “We made those stops because were were active,” he said. “We set a double-team a couple of times and forced turnovers. It spreads the floor, and we can put Draymond [Green] in that high screen and put shooters around him. It just opens things for us. The only way it works is if we make stops.”
You'll see it the rest of the series, early and often, if Howard can't play or is useless. Not to question the severity of his injury — he missed 41 games this season because of injuries, including knee cartilage issues — but this is what his career has become in his Mohawk-haircut phase after all these seasons. The Rockets can't depend on him to remain upright. He didn't practice Wednesday, saying, “Thank God we don't have to play tonight.” And if he feels the same way before Game 2?
“I would have to sit,” Howard said. “I have to listen to my body. The most important thing is that I listen to my body. Nobody can understand an injury but the person that is injured. It's going to be how I feel. If I feel I can tolerate it and go out and play with it, then I will. But my career is the most important thing. I want to do what I can to help this team, but I cannot help the team if I'm hurt.”
You can hear the talk-show callers already, hurling the same insults at Howard that Kobe Bryant and so many other critics have.
All that can slow down the Warriors now, it seems, is the NBA office. Wednesday brought the shocking realization that the angel/golden child who became an even bigger darling by bringing his talkative daughter to a post-game interview — Wardell Stephen Curry II — now has an NBA criminal record after being docked $5,000 for … flopping?
It happened at a critical juncture, with 3:07 left in the fourth quarter. The league says Curry violated anti-flopping rules when he tumbled to the floor after a shot. “I don't agree with it,” he said, saying he got hit in the arm by Terrence Jones and fell as a direct result of the contact.
Kerr was more realistic: Curry got caught. The coach, who can be on a soapbox up 1-0 in the conference finals, just wants to know why the calls are so erratic and random. “These plays happen every day. Everybody does it,” said Kerr, mentioning Russell Westbrook and Jamal Crawford as serial floppers. “So all of a sudden, to just randomly fine Steph just seems kind of strange. You can pick out flops every single game from half the guys on the floor.”
Did Curry intentionally flop?
“Probably,” Kerr said. “It's part of the game. I don't blame him for doing it.”
But it's against the rules. Gasp! The halo is askew.
With Howard perhaps out of the picture, the series actually may reach the point — as soon as tonight — where Harden has to out-MVP the MVP. The Western finals have been hyped as such, more out of convenience than reality, considering Harden and Curry don't guard each other and play somewhat different roles. Where this is a mano-a-mano battle is in the context of shotmaking — which man makes the bigger shots — and without Howard, Harden must drain a hell of a lot more than Curry for his team to have any chance. That's what we saw in the fourth quarter Tuesday, an MVP runnerup who decided he had to seize the game.
“Just get to the rim, be aggressive,” Harden said. “They went really small, so the rim was basically wide open. So just try to attack.”
It's difficult with Thompson guarding him, a matchup Curry admits to admiring. Improved as he is defensively, you don't want him on Harden. “It's a great competitive environment, and obviously we don't guard each other very much, but when you're out there, you kind of get riled up with the back and forth that might happen,” Curry said of Harden. “Or just the will to want to win the game even more because you know how great a player he is and what it takes to beat a team like Houston with a guy like James.”
Game 1 featured such a back-and-forth. Curry won, just as he has won everything in his sights this season, a triumph that happened only because a forward-thinker became his coach and his former coach became a broadcaster.