Rarely does an NBA game conclude and I think to myself, “Damn, that game warrants an entire column.” I generally reserve columns and posts to bigger-pictures debates or series-long/season-long storylines.
But, as Patty Mills clanged his 2nd free throw with half-a-second remaining and someone in the mass of humanity that congregated in the paint batted the ball over the near baseline, I realized I couldn’t immediately digest everything that had just transpired. From Kawhi’s left ankle, to Steph’s 3rd quarter magma-river, to Draymond’s technical – I couldn’t grapple with it all simultaneously.
So, I went out to dinner with my mom for Mother’s Day, watched a Syracuse lacrosse game (I know, when there’s no nighttime NBA, my livelihood suffers immensely), and then watched the Phillies drop the second bill of a double header. I let all of Game 1 sit and marinate. Now, I’m ready to fire some takes.
1. Kawhi’s Injury Sucks
This is my largest umbrella point of discussion in regards to WCF Game 1. Simply, while Kawhi was a functioning athlete, San Antonio outscored Golden State by 23. After Zaza Pachulia (who, by the way, sucks) undercut him on a jump-shot (more on that, later), San Antonio scored a -25. If you’re good at math, you’ll notice the extreme numerical difference Kawhi’s effect had on the basketball game at hand.
Surely, Kawhi played very well before the Zaza incident. He finished 26 points, 8 boards, 3 dimes on 7/13 from the field – in only 24 minutes. More noteworthy, however, was how easily, and almost invisibly, Kawhi compiled his line. The Spurs, as a unit, dominated so many facets of the game in the first half that it was hard to pinpoint just what exactly the most impressive aspect was. When players like CJ McCollum and Joel Embiid are cooking, it’s obvious because not only are they making fools of their opponents, but the players on their own teams are woefully incompetent as well. For Kawhi on Sunday, his outstanding performance on both ends of the floor was masked by his own teammates. Every Spur was firing on all of Popovich’s cylinders in the first half, causing us to praise “Spur Culture” instead of realizing “holy hell, Kawhi is going off.”
Many point to the San Antonio second half collapse on Sunday as the strongest case for Kawhi as Most Valuable Player. But, how soon we conveniently forget that just a few days ago, a Kawhi-less Spurs team ousted the Rockets in Houston from the playoffs by a jaw-dropping 39 points – a performance that inspired many of us to the “San Antonio doesn’t even need Kawhi because culture” mindset.
Both of those above mentalities are flawed extremes, and the truth about Kawhi’s importance lies somewhere in the middle, and I think I’ve pinpointed exactly where.
First of all, Golden State is better than Houston. It’s not surprising that a Kawhi-less Spurs team was able to beat Houston, but not Golden State. I figure this – it’s easier for Popovich to hide Kawhi for the first 45 minutes of a game. This, meaning, the Spurs culture prevails far easier over a large sample size than a small one. In a 48-minute game when Pop knew there was a good chance Kawhi wouldn’t be a full-go, he was able to game-plan for that plausible circumstance, and the Spurs were able to pull every single San Antonio trick out of the bag early and thwart Houston from the tip. If you jump out to a huge lead early, there is no crunch time.
On Sunday, there were two glaring differences. For starters, Pop probably didn’t anticipate Kawhi’s injury and was thrown into the coaching fire when he discovered his star would be a no-go for the final 18 minutes or so. I know Popovich is a coaching God, but even Mike Trout struggles with an 0-2 count, and having to wheel-and-deal on the road in the first game of a playoff series like that is nearly impossible for anyone. Secondly, the Warriors are just better than Houston, by a lot.
Even right before Kawhi’s injury, you knew there was a Golden State run coming. The way I look at it is this: The Warriors were going to cut it to 12 in the 3rd quarter no matter what. Kawhi or no Kawhi, they were going on that third quarter run. There’s nothing Kawhi could have done to stop it.
Where San Antonio royally missed Kawhi was in crunch time. Simply put, the Spurs almost don’t have anyone who can dribble the ball against the Dubs’ Lineup of Death in a tie game with two minutes left. Culture gets you grind it out wins. Culture can guide you to a huge first half lead against Houston, causing them to give up at halftime so you cakewalk to a 39-point win. Culture gets you 20-year-old Dejounte Murray hitting floaters in the middle of the 4th quarter to keep your team afloat.
In the last 2 minutes of a basketball game, culture only gets you so far. You need a dude who can go out and get a bucket. Without Kawhi, San Antonio is dude-less, no matter how many times you think Manu can turn back the clock.
But, even as I say that, Manu did blow by for a dunk to cut it to 3, and then a Patty Mills steal on the inbounds just a few seconds later led to him knocking down two free throws at the line, making it a one-point contest. Culture almost did it! But, then Steph got a high-bounce mid-range on the other end, and LMA missed a potential game-tying three in the corner with just a few seconds left. For the Spurs on Sunday, culture came up just a bit short – but against Golden State, it always will. They need Kawhi, even if not for the first 45 minutes, but for the last three. Without their killer, the Spurs will stay in games, and some might even go down to the wire….but there’s no chance in hell they’re winning a game in crunch time if Jonathan Simmons is taking the big shots.
The Spurs would have won 55ish or so games without Kawhi. But, if he remains hobbled, they won’t be able to win a close one against Golden State in the playoffs. Culture is cool for 45 minutes. Shot-making prevails in the last three, every damn time.
2. Zaza Pachulia. Dude, seriously?
I’ve gone back and forth on this since ABC showed the replay 18,000 times and I can’t decide if he did it on purpose or not. But, Zaza undercut Leonard pretty badly on a three-pointer just minutes after Kawhi stepped on David Lee’s foot as he was running past the Spurs bench.
I’ve landed here – it doesn’t matter whether Zaza did it on purpose.
If he did, well, cool then. There’s a special spot in basketball hell with “Zaza” spray-painted on it. If not? Ok, maybe he’s not immediately being thrusted into basketball hell, but undercutting a jump-shooter is the lowest of the low. As a basketballer, at any position, you must train yourself to contest while also giving them a clear place to land. After all, it’s a jump-shot. The players will naturally be JUMPING. It’s a pretty easy thing to ensure than you’re giving the dude a spot to land, and this defensive maneuver should be long-engrained into the brain of any NBA player. This is the kind of bullshit that goes on at the YMCA or your local men’s league. At the professional level, defenders need a level of muscle memory developed enough to unconsciously slide their lower body as if to not interfere with the shooter’s. This isn’t hard, and Zaza, even if he didn’t mean to, deserves the blame here because that was cheap.
Not only was it cheap, but his maneuver allows Skip Bayless a cop out. When the Warriors win this series in four or five, he’ll drone on and on about the Kawhi injury and how obviously the Spurs would have prevailed not only over Golden State in the WCF, but then over LeBron in the Finals. So, somehow, this is LeBron dodging another bullet and facing an “easy” road to another ring or that BS. Even if Zaza doesn’t feel bad for Kawhi or San Antonio, he should apologize to the United States of America for subjecting us to more Bayless whining for the next 11 months. You suck, Zaza.
3. The Warriors’ rotations are…. interesting.
I’m going to tread lightly with the following take.
For the last two summers, I was a camp counselor. Just your standard day camp counselor. We played soccer, kickball, capture the flag and everything in that ballpark. We did arts and crafts. We swam in the pool. We got stung by a lot of bees and on Fridays, the zoo came. By and large, it was your average day camp.
I was usually in charge of a group of eight five-year-olds. This particular camp that I worked was on the grounds of a rather prestigious country club. Needless to say, much of my job was viewable for many of the patrons of the club. If I did anything wrong (accidentally let a kid run into traffic, accidentally yelled at a kid too loudly for running into traffic, forget to tell a kid not to run into traffic, all that good stuff), the patrons let me hear it. Or better, they let my boss hear it.
(I don’t want you guys getting the wrong idea – I really did love this job and learned many valuable life lessons. But, it did really suck that I was constantly being watched by 70-year-old croquet-playing women drinking mimosas on a Wednesday morning on the patio.)
Anyways, one day toward the end of last summer, I was cutting through the pool area with my parade of five-year-olds. It was the afternoon. One kid had already peed himself and I had dealt with several bee stings at the golf station, so I was fairly exasperated and ready to go home.
As I dipped and dodged my group through the pool crowd, I was tapped on the shoulder by a seemingly unassuming club patron. She was an older woman – probably a grandparent watching her grandkids swim in the pool while the parents are at work. Something like that. I’ll never forget what she said to me.
“Excuse me, sir, the kid in front looks like he’s getting red on the ears. You know, you should really make sure these kiddies are getting sun screen. Sheesh, you’re not very good at this, are you?”
Ok, first, I was good at being a camp counselor. I’m not good at many things, but I was a kick-ass camp counselor.
Anyways, I peered back at the woman and uttered a quasi-sarcastic, “Oh you’re right, the sun is out, isn’t it?” to which she nodded and walked away.
The entire summer, I worked with this group of kids. I had a routine down to a tee. I know every camp counseling trick in the book. Throw literally any scenario at me and I’ll tell you just exactly how to handle it. And here this woman was, trying to tell ME how to do MY job? Woman, you’ve literally never done this a day in your life and you’re about to tell me when I should sunscreen my dudes? Here, I’ll just hand over my yellow camp counselor shirt, my visor, my name tag, my paint-stained khacki shorts, and my walkie-talkie and just let you do the camp counseling, sound good?
Yeah, ok I was bitter.
This unnecessarily drawn out anecdote leads me here: Mike Brown probably knows more about how to handle the Warriors’ rotations than I do. He’s not Steve Kerr, but like, they probably talk a lot. I am in no way chastising the way Coach Brown or Coach Kerr have managed substitutions for the 67-win Warriors this year.
But, isn’t it a little weird that their staple rotation all year includes sitting both Steph and Durant simultaneously? In the regular season, I get why this was effective – it let Klay cook against regularly lesser competition. But, now, here’s the thing – the Spurs are really good and Klay Thompson looks as if he has forgotten how to play basketball. He has about as little interest in creating his own shot as Pau Gasol has in guarding a ball-screen effectively. Without Steph or Durant, the Warrior offense struggles drastically against this stifling Spurs defense.
I’m not saying Brown should change the way he coaches, because I am not in the business of telling people how to do their job. I’m merely just pointing out that “huh, isn’t it weird they sit at the same time when it probably makes more sense for Brown to stagger their minutes so that never has to be the case?”
That’s harmless. Just as harmless as if that woman, instead of publicly confronting me about my sunscreen neglect, has simply thought to herself, “huh, it’s weird that he doesn’t put more sunscreen on the kids.”
(Note: I was literally walking back to camp to put sunscreen on them when that lady confronted me. I swear, I wasn’t like intentionally burning my kids’ faces off or anything.)
4. Draymond’s technical foul was purely a reputation technical foul
In the third quarter, Draymond was t’d up (I know, shocker!) for seemingly taunting Danny Green after a Danny Green turnover. It appeared as if Green was just fired up about forcing the change of possession, but the ref took exception with Draymond’s posture (he did sort of stand over Danny Green and yell loudly) and there’s a chance Draymond yelled “Fuck you, Danny.” But, I really think Draymond was just yelling and beating his chest to fire up both his teammates and the crowd at a critical juncture of the game.
Anyway, it looked like a reputation call. If Mike Conley, or, I guess, literally any other player in the NBA, did what Draymond did, they’re likely not given a technical foul.
At first, this outraged me. As a Draymond sympathizer and fanatic, I was frustrated that he was penalized solely based off of past actions. This seemed unfair, I thought.
Then, I reflected back again to my camp counseling days.
If I was leading my group of 5-year-olds through the field and looked back and saw one kid standing over another lying on the ground, I would take two things into consideration: who is the kid towering over the one on the ground, and who is the kid on the ground. Likely, if the one standing generally has an affinity for pushing and bullying some of the other campers, I’m going to assume that he shoved this kid to the ground, too. If the roles were somehow reversed, I would assume that the physically imposing kid just tripped over his own shoes. In accordance with the former scenario, I would reprimand the kid for shoving yet another innocent camper to the ground, even though I didn’t actually see the incident. In the latter scenario, I’d yell, “you good?” and hope the kid dusts himself off and keeps walking.
My actions, solely, would be based off past actions of the two kids. The ref in this case, probably heard Draymond yelling and saw him slightly standing over Danny Green, assumed the worst, and whistled him for a quick T, because it’s Draymond.
I realized that as much as I love Draymond as a player and as a man, I’m ok with this technical. Draymond has earned that. You take the good with the bad.
5. Steph Curry played one of the best quarters I’ve ever seen
Over the last two seasons specifically, I’ve watched a ton of Warrior basketball and I’ve seen countless Steph Curry explosions – but his 3rd quarter rush on Sunday might be his most impressive.
Usually, Curry’s runs are quick three-pointers in transition off of run-outs. It’s fun and entertaining, but also harder to come by against a staunch San Antonio defense.
In Curry’s 19-point third quarter on Sunday, the Dubs simply ran their offense through their point guard. He hit threes off screens, he moved the ball, he collected rebounds, he hounded Mills and Danny Green on the defensive end – he took over the game. But, he took over the game in an anti-Steph way. He took over the game in a Kawhi way – It was a quiet 19 points. There were no flurries and he did a whole lot that won’t show up in your box score. But, if you go back and watch those 12 minutes of basketball, Steph Curry was EVERYWHERE on both ends of the floor.
With Durant, Steph’s endured his fair amount of growing pains this season, but Sunday’s game served as a serious coming-of-age. Steph found a new way to take over a ball game. He dropped an almost quiet 40! I didn’t know there was such a thing for Steph. Regardless, Sunday I think signaled the start of an evolution, a maturation of sorts, for Steph’s game. I’m excited to see this develop not only as the 2017 Playoffs conclude, but as he furthers his on-court relationship with Durant.
6. Pau Gasol is no more than a crash-test dummy defensively
That’s… Well, that’s honestly about it.
7. Jonathan Simmons is a less-insane Lance Stephenson
I watch basketball with a “Lance Stephenson Meter” installed in my brain. On this meter, I rate individual players in how much they play like or resemble Lance Stephenson. This meter rates players 1-10. 1 is, say, Chris Paul. Smart, athletic, always has his feet under him. 10, is, well, obviously, Lance Stephenson.
Since this meter came into existence in 2012ish, no player other than Lance has rated higher than a 6. Let’s be honest, here… Lance Stephenson is one of a kind.
But, today, I found myself actually thinking, “oh my god, Simmons has a fair amount of Stephenson in him!” It makes perfect sense. Neither can really shoot, but both players hit that “oh my god, are you kidding me?” contested mid-range jumper sometimes. Neither player really knows what is happening with their feet or legs. Both players are good for one insane highlight play every like 30 games (Simmons had a dunk late in the year that was pretty incredible). At least two times a game the announcer will say something along the lines of, “Simmons/Stephenson driving, loses the handle, and, well, I don’t know what that was but the ball goes flying out of bounds.”
The similarities are uncanny, and for that, I give Simmons an 8 on the Lance Stephenson Meter. (Remember, it’s hard to get a 9 or 10 here… Stephenson literally blew in LeBron’s ear to try to get in his head. Even Simmons isn’t on that level.)
8. Dejounte Murray is going to be really good
In just one week, the 20-year-old rookie from Washington has gone from literally not even being able to dribble against Patrick Beverley to getting crunch-time floaters to go over the outstretched arms of Kevin Durant at Oracle.
If that massive jump is anything indicative of his future career progress, Murray will be a quintessential Spurs guard for years to come.
9. Matt Barnes played 10 minutes. So did Andre Iguodala.
Does this make any sense to you? No? Ok, cool same.
10. None of us considered that this is the David Lee revenge series.
I sort of remember David Lee’s final days in Golden State being sort of like this:
“Look, man you’ve been really solid here for a while and even made the all-star team last year. But, I mean, cmon… We’ve got these new guys, Steph and Klay and they like to play fast and shoot from the outside. Then, we have Draymond who can basically play any position and I mean… you’re not athletic, nor do you really stretch the floor at the 4 spot, so… you should probably just go.”
And David Lee was like “Yea, you’re right, I’m out.”
But now, David Lee is back, seeking revenge against the Splash Brothers who essentially jettisoned him from the Bay Area. I had not considered this prior to the series, but Lee could turn back the clock and wreak havoc with his left-handed jump hooks.
Lee finished Game 1 with 0 points in 16 minutes. BUT! He was a +15 with 7 rebounds. (Glue guy alert!)
It’s also the David West revenge series, but that feels far less prescient.