The Dallas Mavericks, still barely hanging on to a playoff spot as I type this, found themselves in a tight game with the Golden State Warriors last night. Even though the Warriors were 61-6 and chasing history, the game didn't seem to have the intensity one would associate to a heavy underdog fighting tooth and nail with a Goliath. On the contrary, there was more of an ABA playground feel to the proceedings with both sides threatening to short-circuit the scoreboard and little to no defense being played.
J.J. Barea tossed in a 25-footer and it was 98-97, Warriors with just under nine minutes to go. The fans at the American Airlines Center were howling with approval. Maybe the Mavs would pull another upset, maybe they're just a tricky match-up for the Dubs, and a potential 1 vs. 8 first-round series could go the other way, with Dallas playing the part of the "We Believe" Warriors of 2007. Maybe the playground fun and games suits them juuuust fin-
It was 32-15, Warriors from that point on and they tied a franchise record, canning 22 three-pointers, 10 from Klay Thompson, who's their other shooter.
22 threes is a good week for the Spurs. They've made 20 in a game once in franchise history and that was four years ago, coincidentally enough also against Dallas. The Spurs have made 16 or more threes just eleven times in franchise history, and they've been one of league's more prolific teams in that regard during the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan Era.
Despite all of this, against my better judgement, I predict the Spurs will beat the Warriors tomorrow, and perhaps convincingly so.
As you're aware, the common denominator between the two organizations, aside from being the holders of the past two championships and their unblemished records at home, is Steve Kerr, who played four seasons for Popovich at the end of his career and helped the Spurs win their first two titles.
Casual fans by and large associate Kerr more to Phil Jackson than to Pop. He was closer to his prime during his time with the Chicago Bulls, a regular member of their rotation and part of a dynasty, including the 1995-1996 edition which went 72-10, the all-time single-season record that the current Warriors are almost certain to break.
However, the facts point to Kerr skewing far closer to Pop than Jackson in his managerial and tactical approach. He doesn't run the triangle offense. He doesn't believe in playing his stars to death. He doesn't campaign for beneficial referee calls through the media or engage in pissing wars with his front office. He hasn't yet felt the need to write a library's worth of books to show off his basketball expertise, nor has he aired out dirty laundry with his star. He publicly and privately teases his guys and they tease him right back.
"He's gotten over himself," in Pop-speak.
Like Pop, Kerr is comfortable enough in his own skin to not feel compelled to validate his competence. He makes it abundantly clear his players win the games and he constantly pumps up his assistants and doesn't seem to mind when his GM or owner puff up their chests. Last June, Kerr made sure to everyone knew it was Nick U'Ren, his personal assistant, who came up with the idea to start sixth-man Andre Iguodala in the Finals, and that lineup tweak helped turned the series around, with Iguodala winning the Finals Most Valuable Player award.
Can you picture Jackson ever doing such a thing? Would his ego ever permit him to listen to an underling much less reveal that he had?
Kerr is obviously more media-friendly than Popovich --and more than Jackson was, for that matter-- but he too can be sarcastic if somebody lobs a stupid or insulting question at him.
My theory is that we're going to learn that Kerr is a true disciple of Pop Saturday night, with the Warriors getting thumped on national television.
As long as the Warriors' main goal is to repeat as champions more than break the wins record, it would make strategic and pragmatic sense for them to lose on a SEGABABA at San Antonio. They're not mutually exclusive ideas, of course. Not only is it possible for them to win 73 or more games and the championship regardless of tomorrow's result, it's likely. I figure Kerr knows this.
Kerr also knows that he hasn't been particularly thrilled with his team's play since the All-star break. Their defense hasn't been as consistent as last year and they've been sloppy and turnover prone. His players look complacent and bored at times, stuck in the dog-days of the endless season, and like countless defending champions before them, spanning dozens of sports, the Dubs seem to be playing as though they can turn the switch on whenever they feel like it.
Kerr's job is to not accept that mentality, to not tolerate it and to do everything within his authoritative power to fight against it.
We know that one Popovich's pet mantras has been that his guys need to play "with appropriate fear," to respect and approach each and every opponent with the understanding that they can win if the Spurs don't play with intensity and focus.
By now Kerr is probably wondering if his guys fear anyone. They've lost just six games, none to anyone important and most with key guys missing. They're 18-0 against the current top five seeds in either conference, including a 120-90 humiliation of the Spurs at home on Jan. 25, the only previous meeting between the two.
I've already argued that there were some dubious circumstances coming into that game and then some suspicious tactical moves from Popovich during it. The Spurs had won 13 in a row prior to the showdown and were just a couple games behind the Dubs in the standings. They knew that Tim Duncan would be unavailable due to a knee injury.
Imagine what the story-lines would've been like had the Spurs won without one of their best players, if they handed the Warriors their first home loss in a calendar year. It would've been chaos. Every talking head would immediately declare them the best team. All the national reporters would've parachuted into Texas to ask Pop about being title favorites and hounding him about the possibility of winning 73 games.
There is nothing Pop finds more annoying than fawning press coverage and burdensome expectations in January. He wants to peak in April, not before. Losing --and how!-- to the Warriors got the media off their scent for six weeks and the pundits immediately dismissed the Spurs and trumped up the Oklahoma City Thunder as the best bet to challenge the Warriors.
Or maybe you didn't find anything unusual about Popovich starting the game with Tony Parker guarding Stephen Curry instead of Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green. Maybe you didn't notice him taking Leonard out midway through the first quarter while Curry was still in the game, when he almost always sync's his star's rotations to those of the opponent's biggest perimeter threat. Maybe you didn't think anything of it when he played guys like Rasual Butler and Kyle Anderson in the second quarter.
This time it's Kerr who'll be shorthanded. He'll be without Iguodala, Festus Ezeli and probably Andrew Bogut, who hurt his left big toe early on against Dallas. He's going to have to play people who won't see the court much in the playoffs and you might be surprised how much he'll play them tonight.
If Kerr is really Pop's apprentice, he'll make some head-scratching moves on Saturday and stand idly by as the Spurs romp at home. It'll be his last chance to prove to his guys that they're not invincible, that the playoff road will be tougher than the past five months have been. If the Warriors beat the Spurs tonight, they'll hit the point of no return in overconfidence, as well they should.
And all that would be left is for Kerr to wonder if he's even necessary or if he really just has to roll the ball out there and watch along with the rest of the fans.
[Editor's Note: The material for this story was largely (and I mean LARGELY) borrowed from a story I wrote for another website the day before.]