Now that it’s over, Tom Ziller argues that it’s time to reform the lottery.
OAKLAND -- It’s supposed to be hard to win a championship. That was the message that Warriors coach Steve Kerr kept delivering after a Game 1 loss in the Western Conference Finals. Losing the opening game of a series at home may have been uncharted territory for these Warriors, but Kerr had been through just about every possible situation during his days as a player.
There was the one in 1999 when the Spurs lost a home game to the Knicks or maybe it was 2003 when they dropped one to the Nets. (It was 2003, for the record.) When you experience five championships like Kerr did as a member of the Bulls and Spurs they all blend together into a single coherent memory: This is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Life with the Warriors has only seemed easy and carefree.
Winning 73 regular season games comes with a unique set of expectations, one of which is that you’re supposed to be perfect and that’s the opposite of what this Warriors team is at its core. They are not a juggernaut in the traditional sense of overwhelming physical stature or supernatural athleticism. That’s a significant reason why old-timers have such a hard time accepting their accomplishments as anything more than just an odd blip in the NBA’s evolutionary cycle.
Even when they win, the Warriors can appear quite ragged. They can be careless with the ball and they do slip on defense even in the best of times. It’s almost like they need a few degrees of difficulty to reach their exalted level. That’s part of their charm and a huge reason why they are so endlessly fascinating. It also must drive Kerr just a little bit insane.
Their losses, and each one feels significant because there have only been a dozen, have fit into three overlapping categories: the schedule, a key injury and/or boredom. They were obviously not bored in Game 1. They had ample time to rest and a full complement of players. They simply didn’t play well, especially down the stretch when they couldn’t get out of their own way offensively. The great Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group has a theory that it’s only time to panic if the Warriors lose when they play up to their standards, which has really not happened yet at all this season.
So while there was no need to panic, what made their Game 1 loss to Oklahoma City so jarring was that the Golden State couldn’t get away with its imperfections. That’s mainly due to the fact that OKC has a pair of superstars who can transcend any moment. Kevin Durant missed a ton of shots but made the key bucket in the closing minute, while Russell Westbrook shook off a terrible first half with a sublime second half performance.
By their very presence, KD and Russ make the Thunder just as scary as the Warriors, albeit for completely different reasons. Collectively, Golden State can run you right off the court at any moment. Russ and KD can each do that on their own without the benefit of flow or rhythm. That’s what makes this such a compelling matchup.
In the time between games, the Warriors pointed to their success in rallying from 2-1 series deficits with statement wins on the road. They smiled and said this was going to be fun, but here they were in a must-win Game 2 in front of their home crowd and it must be said that Oracle wasn’t its usual raucous self.
Nervous is probably the wrong word to use here, but confident isn’t right either. Cautiously expectant. Okay, that works. Oracle was waiting for the Dubs to be the Dubs again and all the while Durant was going off. It wasn’t doubt creeping in, just the realization that this whole thing is going to be really difficult to pull off again. Great teams win championships, but historic teams win multiple titles and that’s where the Warriors find themselves, trapped in the most enviable of circumstances with no other acceptable outcome.
Then in the third quarter, Steph Curry shook free for a 3-pointer for his first points since the opening quarter. The crowd exhaled. Curry thought he was fouled on the next possession and he seemed agitated. The ball kicked around and suddenly found its way back into his hands where he lined up another 3 with Durant closing. KD made contact sending Curry to the line where he made all of his free throws. Durant earned a tech, which gave him another.
Curry kept getting loose and he kept knocking down shots. Three points became seven and seven became 10 and before you knew it, Curry had scored 15 points in less than two minutes. For all intents and purposes, that two-minute barrage won the game and evened the series. It was as shocking as it was completely expected, which may be the most amazing thing of all. As Festus Ezeli so memorably put it, "Steph gonna Steph."
What stood out to Kerr about the outburst? "Nothing. This is what he does."
Later, I asked a member of the team’s front office if he could remember a time when Curry scored 15 points in less than two minutes. Sure, he said nonchalantly. Maybe not that exact scenario but everyone around here has witnessed Curry do so many sensational things that his periodic flights of immortality have passed from legend to routine.
We expect to see things we’ve never seen before when we watch the Warriors. We expect Curry to shoot the lights out, even with a lump the size of a golf ball on his elbow and a string of injuries that kept him out of the lineup for several playoff games. We expect the undersized Draymond Green to play center and bang heads with a bunch of 7-footers while serving as a playmaker on offense. We expect 34-year-old Andre Iguodala to cool off the best players in the game, no matter how much size or athleticism he may be surrendering in the matchup. (Klay Thompson, meanwhile, just keeps cranking shots. He may be the most ordinary member of the Warriors core, even if his talent is anything but mundane.)
When genius is not only the norm, but also a necessity, then life will be hard for the Warriors. Kerr suggested that the MVP is still not 100 percent, although there are no minutes restrictions. Golden State’s ability to downsize with its killer death lineup is the ultimate ace in the hole. Yet Kerr has been reluctant to use it all that much, given the physical demands it places on Green and that one of OKC’s strengths is its dominance on the offensive glass. The spectre of Westbrook and Durant loom ominously over everything.
Kerr was fortunate that Game 2 became such a rout because other than a brief Lineup of Death appearance in the first quarter he was able to keep a big man on the floor throughout most of the game. The Warriors did break out one of their other patented tactics, which was straight up ignoring Andre Roberson. That allowed Green to patrol the middle of the court and it gummed up the works for a while.
The Warriors’ gameplans are ruthless and flat-out mean. They find the weak link and attack it relentlessly, whether it’s Roberson’s lack of shooting or Enes Kanter’s defensive issues. With three days between games they will have had ample time to prepare something new and dastardly, just as OKC coach Billy Donovan has enough time to counter. There is no gameplan for being great, however. That just comes with the territory for both teams and will ultimately decide this series.
Realistically, Golden State has to win one of these next two games on the road in one of the toughest environments in the league. The Warriors know that and they’re confident in their ability to handle the assignment. This is fun for them, but they also know that it will be hard. It always is this time of season, no matter how routine they make the extraordinary look.
Now that the lottery is behind us, here are five key takeaways from the event and what lies ahead.
This was not a validation of Sam Hinkie: Getting the first pick in the draft was always about math. The more chances you have, the more likely you are to be rewarded. Hitting the lottery was only one part of Hinkie’s plan, albeit a significant one. The rest involved scouting, drafting and roster building, all the things that kept getting kicked down the line in pursuit of better draft positioning. So yes, that part of the process "worked," but it also worked in prior seasons when the Sixers had top-3 selections. You still need to pick the right guy.
The second pick is not better than the first: There’s a notion that in a two-player draft you want to pick second because then there is less pressure on your selection. You simply take the next player and defer to the basketball gods. Unless you think that one player is significantly better than the other and then you are at someone else’s mercy. Still, it’s far better to be second than third ...
There will be trades: It’s not a secret that the Celtics will be looking to deal out of this draft for established players, but they are only one team of many with multiple picks. The Suns and 76ers also have three first-rounders and the Nuggets have a pair of selections in the top-15 of the first round. This draft is said to be deep in the middle and latter parts of the first rounds so for teams with their eyes on specific players there will be opportunity to move around.
Jaylen Brown is still the most interesting prospect: We devoted significant Shootaround space to the Cal forward last week and his story has only become more intriguing with the report that he will forego representation on his first contract. Agents don’t do much contract negotiating for first-round picks, but they do help steer the process and guide their players through the maze of workouts, promises and innuendo. Brown’s a really smart kid who is choosing an unconventional route. Hope it works out for him.
Masai Ujiri robbed the Knicks twice for the same pick: In the winter of 2011, then-Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri orchestrated a massive trade of Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks that included a pick swap due this season. That allowed the Nuggets to move up two spots from ninth to seventh. In the summer of 2013, Ujiri traded the immortal Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks in a deal that hilariously included a first round pick that is also due this season (that would be the ninth selection). Raise a glass to Masai for the coup and remember to always call the Knicks.
That thing about the Warriors living on illegal screens? Yeah, it’s not true. Jesus Gomez dug into the myth.
Our college hoops guru Ricky O’Donnell offers seven things to know about this year’s draft class. Key takeaway: The next two drafts could be much better.
Kevin O’Connor defends the draft in his initial mock and says there’s plenty of talent available beyond the top two picks.
"He's obviously our No.1 priority, period. You don't have to look further than that. While there might be players out there in free agency, our No. 1 priority is Hassan Whiteside. He's 26. He's a game changer."-- Heat president Pat Riley.
Reaction: Miami’s offseason is going to be fascinating. You can never discount Riley when a top player like Durant becomes a free agent, but if not KD, then who? Building around Whiteside would be a logical path for Riley to pursue and a return to Miami’s support structure might be the best thing to happen to the young center.
"It is a highly unlikely scenario that anything comes forward that would lead us to move the pick."-- Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo.
Reaction: Colangelo hinted that all the options could be on the table before the drawing, but that apparently didn’t include the No. 1 overall pick. Colangelo had a strong draft record up to the moment when he took a chance on Andrea Bargnani with the top pick in the 2006 draft over LaMarcus Aldridge. This is a chance to get it right.
"I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to [Rockets general manager] Daryl [Morey] and said, ‘I want to be more involved.’ Daryl said, ‘No, we don't want you to be.’ My response was, ‘Why not? Why am I here?’ It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, ‘No disrespect to what you do, but you've never played the game. I've been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.’"-- Dwight Howard in a revealing Q+A with the great Jackie Mac.
Reaction: Howard still seems to think that he’s at his best when he’s getting post-ups instead of diving to the basket and cleaning up the offensive glass. He also admitted during the interview that he doesn’t like taking jumpers because he doesn’t like looking bad. It’s a shame that he’ll never figure out why he has value because he can still be effective in the right situation. One wonders if it will ever happen for him.
"I think what I learned as a whole is that talk is cheap and learn to keep your mouth closed. I think that's a lesson I've had to apply in life the hard way at times. Just because maybe I do talk too much. That's on the basketball aspect of it, the leadership aspect of it, all aspects of it. Just be quiet, just do what you're supposed to do."-- Bulls guard Jimmy Butler.
Reaction: I don’t for a second believe that Jimmy Butler will keep his mouth closed next year, but I do believe the Bulls have to decide if they’re going to build around him. And if that’s the case I think they need to clean house and start over with Butler and the young core they’ve assembled.
"Hubie Brown one night. We were in Cleveland. And I throw him on the way to the locker room. He was annihilating me. I said, "Hubie, stay in the locker room, you're done! You're done! Stay in there." We had a guy who used to take care of our locker room. And the poor guy, he knocks on the door. He said, "Hubie's out here; he wants to fight you." And I went, "I'm not coming out!" Because he could have kicked my ass. Hubie and I laugh about that to this day when we see one another."-- Retiring ref Joey Crawford, telling stories.
Reaction: I would pay so much money for an after-dark NBA show featuring Hubie, Joey and Rasheed Wallace.
Please don’t take LeBron for granted, part infinity.