Does it even matter at this point if Steve Kerr, as whispers suggest, might not return to his coaching seat for weeks? Or that Stephen Curry, towel over his head and finger inside his ear, was on the bench in foul trouble not three minutes into the game Wednesday night, having been whistled twice in six seconds, the latter of which was a sorry call that must have slow-burned both the NBA commissioner and ESPN president?
The answer, of course, is no.
It does not seem to matter at all.
For the first time since mid-June, the Warriors faced a foreign and fuzzy experience — adversity — in an emotional, electrically charged game that felt very much like, well, mid-June. With Kerr watching from the locker room again, heavily medicated and dogged by the same headaches, his team fell into dilemmas that tested the interim head coach, Luke Walton, and all the players. They blew a 17-point lead and watched their heated adversaries, the bitter and trophy-envious Clippers, assume a nine-point edge with about seven minutes left. The crowd at Oracle Arena was unusually nervous. Owner Joe Lacob, at courtside, did not look like a man who told Haute Living magazine that he and his fiancee, Nicole Curran, had a threesome with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“Nicole and I did sleep with it,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the imagination. We had a lot of fun with it.”
By the time Lacob and everyone else had exhaled after a 112-108 victory, fueled by 13 straight fourth-quarter points by You Know Who, fun once again was the prevailing mood. The thrill is much bigger when the work is arduous and intense, and that’s why this win, after four easy ones this season, was ultimately the most rewarding. From Curry’s typical lasers and shimmies to Harrison Barnes’ three-pointers and defense to Klay Thompson’s smothering block of Jamal Crawford’s final trey attempt, this crazy three-hour slice of nationally televised/streamed drama left the crowd exhausted but sated.
And it left the Warriors with their same swagger, beating Doc Rivers with an interim coach and extending their home winning streak over the Clippers to eight straight and their overall dominance of the rivalry to 18 of 20. Doesn’t sound like much of a rivalry, huh Steph?
“This was about our experience as a team together. We’ve been through this situation in the playoffs last year. We remember that stuff,” Curry said after his 31-point evening.
“Everyone made big plays — Harrison making the threes, Andre [Iguodala] with his defense, Draymond [Green].”
He then had a pronouncement for Rivers, the Clippers and all the other doubters. “We’re better than we were last year,” Curry said. “We’re more composed. Our defense obviously is at a championship level. We’re better, no matter what the noise is, what everyone else around the league is saying.”
It’s unclear whether Walton made a major strategic move in the fourth quarter on his own — or via a sheet of paper that appeared to be handed to him by a Warriors public relations official, which could have directions to a pizza place for all we know. Whatever the impetus, the scheme reverted to smallball, as it did in the NBA Finals when Walton and Kerr’s personal assistant came up with the plan in a Cleveland restaurant bar. In this case, out went big man Festus Ezeli and in came Green to play center. It worked again, though the Warriors had help from the normal boneheaded stuff from the Clippers. Chris Paul, who was in foul trouble himself, tried unsuccessfully to make a three over Green when Blake Griffin was wide open for a late game-tying layup or dunk. It’s another reason why Curry already is certain to be remembered in history as a better player than Paul, who has yet to play in a conference final, much less win an MVP award, and had the nerve to bristle at a shootaround Wednesday when fielding numerous questions about Curry.
In the fury of it all, Walton huddled on the bench with his team — yes, his team — and had a quick, simple message. “Take a deep breath,” he told the players. “This is fun. Enjoy this.”
Did he pass a litmus test? “Well, a lot of the coaching we actually do is in practice, to be honest,” said a humble Walton, who now is 5-0 — victories that count on Kerr’s magnificent ledger. “When the game starts, it’s about players making plays. We have guys who keep their poise. They’re battle-tested, and they responded beautifully down the stretch.”
If you think Kerr is dominating the halftime oratory, think again. “Mainly, I speak to the team,” Walton said. “If he has anything he wants to say, we obviously allow that to happen. As a staff we always meet in the coaches’ room before we go in and talk to the players, and we kind of discuss what points we need to emphasize and what the message should be to the guys heading into the second half. Having him in there is obviously nice to have his brain and his input involved.”
It helps to have Curry around to ease the stress. Even Rivers, the root of all Warriors Evil, couldn’t stop talking about him. “It’s amazing. I don’t know if we’ve seen anything like it really,” said Doc, comparing Curry to the Pistol Pete Maravich miracles of yesteryear. “We’ve seen great shooters in the league. We’ve seen great ballhandlers in the league. He’s both and I don’t think we’ve seen a combination of what he can do.
“I was hoping he’d be on a championship celebration all summer. He’s been working on his game, that’s too bad for all of us.”
Which begs a question: When is a rivalry so lopsided that it’s no longer a rivalry? When a new banner adorns the rafters and a golden trophy gleams in the case, tell me: Why should the Warriors even acknowledge that they have a heated rival anymore? Certainly, it’s fun for basketball and the American soul that their scrums with the Clippers are viewed as the best ongoing feud in pro sports, but didn’t all of this become a one-sided runaway last spring, with no better visual evidence than the two times Curry shamed Paul?
First, there was the breakdancing, behind-the-back, between-the-wickets, dribble-and-turnaround-pop three-pointer that left Kerr laughing on the sideline after he’d been ready to scream. Then there was the jarring reverse twister weeks later that fractured Paul’s ego, if not his ankles. Between those memories and an NBA championship, the Warriors have no reason to regard the Clippers as anything but another opponent until they actually prove they can ball better than they blab.
I know, you love a good villain in your encore brew, if for no other reason than pro sports doesn’t offer many crackling rivalries anymore. The 49ers-Seahawks rivalry was interrupted by the misery at 4949 Marie P. DeBartolo Way, aka Dysfunction Junction. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was diluted by ESPN overkill and the ballclubs’ recent mediocrity. The Cowboys-Redskins rivalry has been trivialized by lousy owners. The Giants-Dodgers rivalry has involved too much violence beyond the ballparks, too many arrests and wheelchairs. In general, pro rivalries are difficult to maintain in the 21st century when so many elite players are mercenaries and the names on the jerseys keep changing.
The Warriors and Clippers? Perennial laughingstocks for long stretches — remember the year they combined for 34 wins and were symbolized by Mookie Blaylock and Michael Olowokandi? — the franchises finally grew up together on a parallel trajectory into the NBA elite. But when the Warriors broke free and produced an all-time dominant season, the Clippers were left behind, having gagged again without reaching the Western Conference finals. Predictably, they whined and dropped the L-word, and when the Warriors spent October disputing that they were lucky and firing back, it seemed beneath them to stoop to Rivers’ level. Why were they bothering?
So it was healthy Wednesday, though not necessarily good for media who love a retaliatory verbal war, that the Warriors refrained from trash-talk heading into their first of four regular-season games with the Clippers. In their evolution as NBA champs, they needn’t participate in the frivolity. The days are long gone when the Warriors felt compelled to fight with the Clippers on Christmas night, when the Warriors were slighted when the Clippers didn’t attend the pregame chapel service with them, when the Warriors’ bench broke out in laughter when Blake Griffin bricked one against the side of a backboard, when Bogut always shoved back and Green always talked back. Those teams were coached by Mark Jackson, who encouraged an underdog feistiness. But he was replaced by Kerr, who encouraged a dignified mentality more conducive to winning a title, which happened right away.
Wisely, probably with Kerr’s input on his early-week practice days with the team, they said nothing flammable before this game.
“There’s a perception that someone doesn’t like each other. It’s a game like any other game,” said Green, not even dropping his famous “Glenn” reference to ridicule Rivers. “We just got to go and play the game.”
They have not lost since June.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.