The Jerry Colangelo hiring came out of nowhere. Well not nowhere, exactly. Tom Ziller looks at the silent hand of the NBA in the Philly situation.
BOSTON -- Tucked away in a bandbox gym in the basement of Emerson College, the best show in sports was going through its daily routine unbothered by the growing army of media massing in the tiny upstairs foyer. Given the cozy confines, the press contingent had a Finals-like feel as it filed down the stairs and took its position along the baseline. Even something as benign as off-day, post-practice shooting rituals had the unmistakable atmosphere of a major event.
The Warriors went through the session with the detached cool of a team that’s used to being in the spotlight. They’ve been on the road for more than two weeks and have seen it build with each stop along the way. They’ve accepted it as part of their life now, but more than that, they’ve embraced it. Theirs is a once-in-a-lifetime existence and they’re not too jaded to enjoy it for what it is.
So, there was Steph Curry draining shots from all over the court, moving four, five and six feet behind the arc before he let loose from the hash mark, hitting nothing but net. Luke Walton, the interim head coach with no official record and nary a loss to his name, was still performing his assistant duties by working with Draymond Green. An assistant coach swished a halfcourt shot because apparently everyone in this organization has range.
Pressure? With this group? Pressure was winning the championship, which they did last spring confirming once and for all that a perimeter-based, jump-shooting team could not only win a title, but dominate the league. This is almost, dare we say, fun?
"Very fun," Green confirmed. "It’s not something that we take for granted."
Way down at the other end of the court, Andrew Bogut sat by himself in the bleachers. It’s a measure of how quotable this team is -- and how much Curry has ascended to rock star status -- that one of the most candid dudes in the league was sitting all by his lonesome. Bogut’s been with the Warriors longer than anyone but Steph and is generally unfazed by anything as silly as hype, so he has a solid perspective on the mania this team is generating.
"When I first came here there were probably two people in the locker room. Now it’s what you see," Bogut said. "With success comes all that. We don’t hide from it. We don’t mind it. Look, we’re really not worried about it to be honest. We’ve noticed it but it’s not like it’s changing our routine or what we’re doing. We’re still doing the same thing on a daily basis."
What they’re doing is reinventing professional basketball while playing the game with an unabashed joy that attracts fans and new converts in droves. Unless you are a die-hard supporter of whomever they happen to be playing, how can you not love the way this team operates? They play fast, they defend like crazy, they’re unselfish and they make highlight shots from ridiculous distances that appear like they’re part of their regular offensive flow. Which they are.
The Warriors have become a phenomenon not unlike Jordan’s Bulls, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers or the Big 3 Heat. There’s a long lineage of superteams that have transcended this sport, but the Warriors are something entirely unique. While the Bulls took on mythic personas, the Lakers were fueled with Hollywood melodrama and the Heat were immediately cast as villains, the Warriors are approachable gods. There is nothing salacious about this team.
Curry is an MVP that even the worst pickup player can emulate. Green is an earthy, self-made star. Even their role players are journeymen with inspiring backstories. The Warriors do not overwhelm you physically. They were not blessed with lottery luck and they were not created out of free agency’s thin air. It’s taken them four years to get to this point and they defied most of the conventional rebuilding tropes along the way. In turn, everyone wants to be like the Warriors and to that they say, "Good luck."
"It’s a copycat league," Bogut said. "Teams are trying to copy us because we won a championship but you have to have the personnel. It’s not as easy as just saying, ‘Let’s go small.’ We tried to go small four or five years ago and it wasn’t so good for us."
They saw it themselves in Indiana a few nights earlier when the reconstituted smallball Pacers took their best shot and actually hung with Golden State for a few minutes of thrilling back-and-forth action. Then the Warriors went on one of their usual runs and the winning streak rolled on to another city, bringing even more attention along with it.
It had reached 23 games by the time they reached Boston, or 27 if you insist on counting back to last April when they closed the regular season with four straight wins. Semantics really, not worth arguing about, but it would have put them on track to equal the record off 33 straight regular season victories on Christmas Day in a Finals rematch against the Cavs. The league is nothing if not savvy in these matters.
"I’d love to go 82-0, but in a realistic world are we going to go 82-0? I’d probably bet against that," Bogut said. "It’s going to be interesting when we happen to lose our first game. It’s going to be like the end of the world for some of the media but for us, it’s like, that’s fine. We’ll go on to the next game and be fine."
What would it take to beat these guys? That’s the question that everyone’s been asking and no one had been able to answer. The Raptors came close but their chance at history dissolved down the stretch. The Jazz played them tough. The Clippers blew a huge lead. The Nets even took them to overtime way back when no one outside the league was really paying attention yet. What the Warriors have found during this streak is they can prevail when they’re not at their best.
"If you’re going to beat us, you’re going to have a play a pretty perfect game. We’re generally not going to beat ourselves," Bogut said. "If we lose a game, let’s get beat. Let’s not lose ourselves. We don’t want to have a game where we’re turning the ball over and we’re not there mentally and we’re getting blown out by 30. We don’t want to have one of those. But if we lose to a team that’s 15 for 20 from three, have a guy go for 40, and they’re making tough shots and they beat us? Congratulations."
The Garden was already filling up when the Warriors came out to shoot. All day long people had been predicting that this was the night the streak was going to end and don’t think for a second they didn’t know that. The local Comcast station made the decision to broadcast the warmup live, which might have seemed like overkill but was perfectly in keeping with the gravitas of the moment. Their ratings would be the highest in 20 years.
The fans applauded as Curry left the court, not as a show of support but more like an appreciation for being privileged to watch the maestro work. By the time tipoff arrived, the building was in a frenzy rarely seen since the halcyon days of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
The Celtics didn’t play the perfect game that Bogut prophesied, but they nearly pulled it off anyway. With Avery Bradley hounding Curry all over the court, the Celtics cut down Curry’s space and forced him to take tough shots beyond his comfort zone. They stretched the floor with their own unconventional lineups and had enough versatile bigs to avoid the smallball deathtrap that has claimed so many others. This was brutal, blood-and-guts basketball and there were at least a dozen moments when one play could have swung the fortunes for both teams.
There would have been no shame in losing this game. Certainly not with Klay Thompson sitting on the sidelines resting an ankle injury that he suffered at the end of the Indiana game. Thompson joined Harrison Barnes, who has been out since the start of the trip, but no matter. They simply rolled with Brandon Rush and Ian Clark, who was making his first career start. Losing this game would have been fine, to use Bogut’s word, but the thought never really entered their head.
"We never felt like we’re going to lose the game," Green said. "I think it was 99-94 and Steph looked at everybody like, ‘Yo. Relax. We’re okay.’ A couple of times we told Steph, ‘Slow down. We’re alright.’ That’s how we are. Sometimes we may inch away from that a little but we always get back to it and that’s how we win."
The Celtics had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but Shaun Livingston blocked Isaiah Thomas’ jump shot. The same scenario played out at the end of the first overtime, only this time Thomas drove and simply missed. On it went into double overtime and it seemed like the whole sport paused to see what would happen next.
Tense as it was, there’s a point in games like this when heroics are no match for attrition. Even on an off night Curry had 38 points. "Exhausting, but fun," was how he put it. Green filled the stat sheet with an absurd line that included 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five blocks and five steals. Andre Iguodala made huge plays and Bogut recorded a number of key blocks. Festus Ezeli had a double-double. Livingston came up big. The Warriors were stretched to the breaking point and still weren’t ready to yield.
"I think everything’s kind of recognized at this point," Green said the other day. "Honestly, you hear a lot about our starters. You hear a lot about our stars. You hear a lot about our small lineup. It’s been done collectively. It’s been done using our entire team. Everybody has contributed to something. That’s the biggest thing. It’s not just Steph. It’s not just Klay. It’s not just me. It’s been ev-ery-one."
The streak lived for one more day. It ended 24 hours later in Milwaukee and died of natural NBA causes: A back-to-back following double overtime on the last night of a long road trip. The Warriors were on their heels from the opening tip and even they have limits. There are few things as anticlimactic as a schedule loss, but make no mistake, the Bucks were great. They answered every Golden State run with one of their own and took advantage of the Warriors’ two-big bench lineups and built a comfortable cushion.
Many will say that this is the best thing that could have happened to the Warriors and they may be right. There have been subtle signs of slippage recently and they now have a stretch of only five games in the next two and a half weeks to get healthy and ready for what lies ahead. It’s been lost in the mania, but the Spurs are lurking in the shadows. The fight for homecourt advantage will be real and they will not be able to cruise to the finish line.
The streak is a part of history now and the Warriors are better for it. They thrived under the spotlight and embraced the madness. That will serve them well in the long run. Long live the streak. It was a moment in time that will last forever and it was a hell of a good show.
All-Star voting started this week and while I reserve the right to change my mind several times, here’s who I would have on my hypothetical ballot at this point in the season. Reminder that two of the starting spots are reserved for guards with three held for frontcourt players with no official designation for centers. A final note that the Western Conference may be down a bit this year, but the quality and depth of its star power remain unrivaled. The frontcourt is ridiculously tough to pick, and that’s before accounting for the likelihood that fans will vote Kobe Bryant in as a starter. We start in the East where things are a little clearer.
Kyle Lowry: There was some debate about whether Lowry deserved his starting All-Star nod last season, but there is no question about his worthiness this season. Lowry arrived to camp in tremendous shape and has been dominating since the opener, while averaging a career high 22 points and leading the league in steals. Isaiah Thomas and John Wall have also been All-Star worthy, but Lowry has been a more efficient player and better defender.
Jimmy Butler: The Bulls swingman made the leap to stardom last season and he’s maintained that level during a very weird start to Chicago’s season. He’s the Bulls’ leading scorer, best two-way player and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before this becomes his team.
LeBron James: Are we taking LeBron for granted? He’s 30 years old and has over 36,000 regular season minutes on his odometer, yet he’s still producing at an elite level that few can match. Bron’s long-distance shooting has taken a notable drop, but he’s attacking the basket as much as he ever has while resisting the nebulous mid-range.
Paul George: In a Steph Curry-less world he’s a leading MVP candidate and the single biggest reason for the Pacers’ strong start to the season. Even the most optimistic PG supporters couldn’t have predicted these kind of scoring and shooting numbers.
Chris Bosh: I’ve gone a half-dozen ways here and you can make a fine case for Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Andre Drummond or Nic Batum. Bosh is averaging 17 and eight and is a key part of Miami’s second-ranked defense. Any arguments for anyone else on this list are totally valid. There’s very little separation here.
Steph Curry: Obviously.
Russell Westbrook: You know how many players have averaged 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds per game like Russell Westbrook is doing this season? That would be one and the player would be Oscar Robertson, who did it six times (!) and remains the gold standard by which we measure unique statistical accomplishments. Westbrook is yet another player whose MVP-worthy season has been eclipsed by Curry’s brilliance.
Kawhi Leonard: Other guys have bigger numbers, but very few (if any) offer the kind of two-way impact that Leonard does. Those individual numbers aren’t bad either: 21 points and seven rebounds along with a league-leading 50 percent mark from behind the arc. Leonard is the Spurs’ best player. That’s not a transition anymore. That’s a fact.
Draymond Green: The Warriors are 22 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when Green is playing. That’s a huge number, but the Warriors have a lot of players with outrageous differentials. What separates him is that they are only 1.6 better when he sits. We all know about Green’s defensive versatility and importance to Golden State’s smallball lineups, but it’s his ability as a playmaker that elevates him to this status.
Kevin Durant: This last spot came down to a choice between KD and Blake Griffin and I’m completely torn on the selection. Ask me again tomorrow and I could go the other way. Durant’s played a few less games due to injury but he’s produced at a slightly higher level when he’s been on the court so I’m leaning toward Durant. This will all become very tricky if Kobe is one of the top three vote-getters and we haven’t even mentioned Anthony Davis, Derrick Favors or DeMarcus Cousins.
The Jerry Colangelo hiring came out of nowhere. Well not nowhere, exactly. Tom Ziller looks at the silent hand of the NBA in the Philly situation.
Yaron Weitzman makes a strong All-Star case for the Charlotte swingman Nic Batum, who has completely transformed a predictable offense with his playmaking and shooting.
How long should it take to rebuild in an era of quick turnarounds? Ziller and I peg it at between two and three years before results are necessary, which Sam Hinkie found out the hard way.
Remember the name: Markelle Fultz. Our Ricky O’Donnell has the story of the University of Washington recruit who went from the JV to a five-star prospect.
How have the Celtics have built a top defense without a shot-blocker? Jesus Gomez explores the C’s method.
"When I was 20, I was scared to death out there and had a brutal first year. He's averaging almost a double-double. He's way better than I was at 20, so the comparison's probably unfair to him."-- Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki on Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis.
Reaction: This isn’t just some throwaway line from Dirk. He really did struggle as a rookie, averaging a shade over eight points a game and shooting about 20 percent from three-point range in less than 1,000 minutes during a lockout-shortened season. Of course it didn’t take him long to figure it out. The bottom line is that Porzingis has already established himself as a Player In This League. Where he goes from here will ultimately determine his fate.
"I still hate it. I'll never embrace it. I don't think it's basketball. I think it's kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don't we have a 5-point shot? A 7-point shot? You know, where does it stop, that sort of thing. But that's just me, that's just old-school. To a certain degree, you better embrace it or you're going to lose."-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Reaction: And that’s the difference between an old-school curmudgeon who understands the modern world and someone who’s stuck in the past. Lest you think he’s lying, I asked Danny Green during the Finals a few years back when Pop said something similar and Green confirmed his coach’s dislike of the arc.
"Yeah it sucks. We don’t want to be a team that you feel like you’re not giving max effort. I think it’s a little deeper than that but we’ve got to stick together and find a way as a team. It’s not about pointing fingers at anybody. It’s about jelling as unit, not letting frustration get in the way, not letting adversity get in the way. It’s a lot easier said than done. As a team we have to stick together through that adversity. Sometimes we let that adversity get the best of us."-- Bulls big man Joakim Noah on Wednesday before playing Boston.
Reaction: The Bulls dropped three in a row before getting a couple of much needed wins. Still, the mood in Chicago seems tense with questions about lineups and inconsistency hanging over the heads.
"Our owners made it very clear they want me leading us long term. Adding one more voice will make the conversation richer. Might it be challenging at times? I'm sure it will be. But making big decisions shouldn't be easy -- it shouldn't be that you have an idea, and you get to execute it without anyone questioning it."-- Sixers GM Sam Hinkie to Zach Lowe.
Reaction: Even with Jerry Colangelo on board, there are only a few things that Philly can do now to bring some form of temporary relief to what had become an untenable situation. (Lowe suggested veteran Elton Brand could be on the way as the team’s designated grown-up.) At this point, however, there isn’t much use for a major shakeup. The Sixers’ course for this year is already set and with another top-five pick on the way, the best thing they can do is grab another prospect or two and come back next year with a more competitive roster.
"There’s no reason really to go home, back to Maywood, to my house. That’ll be tough. First time in my career, in 30 years in the league, where I don’t go home for dinner."-- Clipper coach Doc Rivers on the passing of his mother Bettye, who died last summer.
Reaction: A heartbreaking story ably told by Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. One thing about Doc, he always asks about your family whenever you run into him.
Anything is posssssiiiiibbbbbbllllle! You have no idea how happy Kevin Garnett’s turn-back-the-clock tomahawk made me and old guys everywhere.