The San Antonio Spurs are a team that “executes you to death,” as Mark Jackson says. In Game 5 they threw the first kill shot, and a resilient yet exhausted Golden State Warriors team wobbled through Game 6, made a run near the end, but fell a bit short.
But most young teams with negligible playoff experience don’t win in the first round over a higher seed with a 38-3 home record during the regular season. They don’t scare the crap out of the San Antonio Spurs on their home floor in Games 1 and 2. That’s one of the many reasons why this playoff elimination wasn’t as sad as most.
There are always what-ifs when a team’s season ends without a championship. What if they hadn’t given up that huge lead in Game 1. What if Stephen Curry didn’t suffer all those setbacks to the other ankle. What if Harrison Barnes didn’t fall and hit his head in the second quarter of Game 6 (he passed concussion tests, but after returning and playing in the third quarter he had headaches and was removed from the game for good).
“On paper we might be the better team if we were healthy. But San Antonio played well. Well enough to win. They deserve it,” said Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
“But we’ll be back next year. They and the rest of the NBA will have to contend with us.”
The “We Believe” Warriors brought short-lived joy to everyone who watched, but were so much more volatile than these Warriors we’ve gotten to know, almost more in 12 playoff games than over 82 regular season contests. It’s not that the 2007 group which came together and shocked the Mavericks fought amongst themselves, but it’s hard to think of any NBA team that seemed to genuinely like each other as much as this year’s group. So while they did suffer through a set of injuries worth mentioning, the Warriors got further than most NBA teams on their first time through the playoff gauntlet due in part to better than average chemistry.
“That starts with our coach,” Jarrett Jack said. “I just can’t say enough about him. I have some guys in here that are very tight knit and we fight for one another. We just have a selflessness that you just can’t teach and a cohesiveness that you just can’t teach.”
Mark Jackson wasn’t exactly content during his postgame press conference, but he seemed to grasp the unique qualities shown by his team.
“I could not be prouder of any group. I can go on and win championships and I will not be prouder of any group that I ever coached than this group. I’ve never had one issue. Didn’t have one guy with a separate agenda. Didn’t have cliques inside of my locker room. It was incredible. I thank them from the bottom of my heart because by them buying in, you know, they put a stamp on me. It’s been an incredible ride.”
Lacob also mentioned the lack of cliques, and that was something one noticed when walking into this locker room — especially lately. Andrew Bogut might poke fun at Festus Ezeli, who in turn would yell out something to Jack while he was trying to answer a reporter’s question. Curry and David Lee would race before games and were the co-leaders of this team all season, but there was no awkwardness after Lee tore his hip flexor and Curry became perhaps the most popular man in all the playoffs for a couple weeks.
The Warriors don’t have any draft picks, although I was speaking to Danny Leroux of Real GM after the game and he made a good point — they could easily buy one from another team, and probably will. I asked Joe Lacob about how hungry he is to make the team better next season.
“I’m ready to go. Right now. Whatever it takes to improve this team. We’re going to work very hard in the offseason to see if we can’t make some adjustments and improve the team.”
But the core is already there, and three rookies who contributed all season long have learned from the Warriors’ 94-game season. I admit, I was on the fence about Barnes for the entire regular season. There’s an ebb and flow in basketball, almost like surfing at times. Barnes seemed content to lie on his board for most of the year, watching the waves and enjoying the scenery. Sometimes he’d catch a short wave, sometimes he’d thrash around and a wave would pass him by. In the playoffs, he started paddling with a purpose, quickly standing up, shredding cutbacks, catching air and getting barreled. If that’s too much surf lingo, here’s the gist — he became a true professional.
Curry’s confidence was never a problem, but now there’s an innate confidence everyone has when he shoots. He went from fancy and fragile to fantastic and fierce. His singular talents make him unlike any other player, but his ability to fight through the ups and downs with both ankles means he isn’t different in a bad way.
Klay Thompson vanished offensively after Game 2, but the Warriors have to be thrilled with his overall game. Even at the beginning of this season, Thompson was merely an average defender. By the end of the season he was a willing, versatile perimeter stopper. All he needs is an offseason of practice on finishing close to the rim, and remember: this was his second year in the NBA, and the first was a shortened season that ended with the Warriors tanking.
Andrew Bogut played heroically in Game 6 of the Warriors’ first round series, and as the second round series drew to a close it was clear he had given his all. “It got to a point, you know, probably, I don’t recall, but second or third quarter, where he basically told me he couldn’t move,” Jackson said. One could either find it unfair that Bogut never got fully healthy this season, or appreciate how well he played through pain and helped lift this team.
And while Lee didn’t have anywhere near the impact Bogut did in any of the postseason games, it’s fairly remarkable that he returned at all after Game 1 in Denver. Lee told me that next week he’ll decide whether or not to have surgery, but with a recovery time of about eight weeks either way he’d be back for training camp without a problem.
One of the questions facing this team is whether Jack, an unrestricted free agent, will join Lee and the rest of his teammates next season. He sure sounded like that would be his first choice. Jack is a great quote, so here’s a few videos from his session with myself and a few other reporters.
Here he talks about Jackson’s influence on the Warriors’ culture change, and how other players “want to come here, want to be a part of what we’re doing.” That’s still kind of strange to hear, isn’t it?
When asked whether he wanted to re-sign, Jack said he hadn’t thought about it at all because he’s been so focused on the present. But he took some time to reflect on how it has felt to be a Warrior.
“As soon as I walked in the locker room, I looked down at my jersey and it’s just a sense of pride that I have wearing it, that I haven’t had as a professional. Most of the time in college you go somewhere because you love it, and there’s a connection there that’s deeper than basketball. And I guess in the NBA, it’s such a business, you usually don’t get that,” he said.
“Even though I’ve only been here eight, ten months man, I’ve had the best time. Couldn’t say enough about my teammates, coaches, front office.” (That’s when Festus Ezeli yelled, “We love you, Jack.”)
I asked him about how much the image of the Warriors has changed since he was traded to Golden State for Dorell Wright, not even a year ago.
“Tremendously, man. Coming here, it was just outscore you. That was the motto,” Jack said. “I think that’s definitely changed. We’re a blue-collar basketball team, in my opinion, and did it without even close to being healthy.”
Jack was the one who started it, and so we’ll end with this video. After the postgame handshakes, both teams headed off to their respective locker rooms. All except Jack, who walked around the perimeter of the court, applauding the fans still left (and a lot were still there, cheering back). After a short period, the rest of the Warriors came back through the tunnel and onto the court to appreciative screams and applause. Curry grabbed a microphone and said some words. Compared to the kind of closure the Warriors and their fans usually experience — team plays final meaningless regular season game, fans yawn and wait for them to screw up the draft somehow — this was bliss. A great season, and dreams of greater seasons yet to come.
Future teams may win more games and get further in the playoffs, but this team had an unmistakable bond. Like the “We Believe” squad, it’s a group that will always be remembered. Now the challenge is to keep the egos out of the locker room, build on what they’ve done and, like the Spurs, trust the process. If they do that, they’ll always look back fondly at the 2012-13 season when everything changed … for the better.