At this point we don’t know if the Golden State Warriors will survive Game 7 in Houston on Monday and advance to the NBA Finals, but the show they put on in Game 6 was both thrilling in itself and reason to hope we get to watch them some more this year.
I turned the TV on at halftime, when the Dubs were 10 points down to the Rockets and the halftime crew, Charles Barkley in particular, thought the end of their season might be near. The third quarter, however, started with a sudden 8-0 run for Golden State, and when you next looked up, they were leading by 20. The final score was 115-86, which meant the Warriors had outscored the Rockets by almost 40 points in one half. It was, however, how they did it that was so exciting.
First, it was their defense. James Harden, the league and Rockets’ MVP, had to this point in the playoffs appeared unstoppable, much like LeBron James. The Warriors, however, guarded him tightly through screens out deep, and when he drove to the basket, three bodies collapsed on him – and he didn’t get the foul calls he expected (maybe this will change when the series shifts back to Houston). Clearly, this tight coverage and his inability to defeat it damaged his confidence, for he began shooting three-point shots that missed the basket completely, as did his teammates.
Energized by their defensive successes, the Warriors’ offense exploded. First was Klay Thompson, who couldn’t miss a three-pointer, including an exclamation point from five feet behind the arc. Kevin Durant, who had shot 3-for-11 in the first half and had been widely criticized the last two games for playing isolation ball, found his mid-range jumper and showed that he can’t be guarded. The coups de grace, as usual, came from Steph Curry, who alternated three-point shots that seemed to barely scrape the net (like a perfect dive that barely ripples the water surface) with impossible driving layups through and around defenders a half-foot taller. Curry plays with such evident pleasure that when he’s hot he lights up his entire team and the arena above him. Last night was such a night.
I should add a PS on the Timberwolves’ quick exit from the playoffs at the Rockets’ hands. While they have three legitimate potential stars – and Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns were just voted to the NBA All-Star Third Team – they show none of the cohesiveness of the Warriors. Once Anthony Wiggins, their other #1 draft choice, or Towns gets the ball, the play is usually over. There is no one on the team like Curry, who is constantly running with a purpose and will appear out of nowhere to take a quick three. Watching the T’Wolves play, even when they win, is drudgery. Watching the Warriors is magic.
By way of contrast, the Cavaliers’ win the next night in game 7 against the Celtics was a clunker. Cleveland’s offense consisted of LeBron James either driving or backing in to the basket for a layup or firing a pass to an open teammate in the corner who then missed a three-point shot. Boston, aside from some baby-hooks by Al Horford, was content to run a weave and pass around the arc until someone decided it was his turn to miss a three. Combined, the two teams were 16-for-74(!) from three-point range – hardly inspiring basketball and not much fun to watch.
When most people shoot a jump shot, they pause for a split second at the top of their jump before releasing the ball. By the time Steph Curry reaches his apogee, the ball is seemingly already well on its way. His motion slightly resembles that of a shot-putter, although the shot-putter is large and ungainly, while the Golden State Warrior is slight and smooth as proverbial silk. His shot arcs higher in the air than normal, and perhaps for this reason when it falls through the basket the entry looks different, like a high diver slicing into the water on a perfect dive. Or maybe his shots are more in the basket’s center.
Style is merely the start of what distinguishes Curry’s shot. They almost all are launched behind the three-point line (but you knew that), and often are well beyond. Even when Curry shoots from midcourt or beyond at the end of a quarter, the crowd holds its collective breath. And as we have just witnessed in the final two games of the Western Conference Championships against Oklahoma City, an inordinate number of his baskets are clutch. Curry has tied each game, put his team ahead and nailed the coffin with dagger three-pointers that are demoralizing to the opponent well beyond the points added to the score.
Curry is not just a sharpshooter; if that were all he would scarcely rise above his teammate Klay Thompson, who is also a top five three-point shooter. Curry is the best dribbler in the game and a magician on short shots. When he goes to the basket he is met by taller, longer, heftier defenders, yet he regularly gets his shot away – whether it be a floater, scoop, reverse layup or high bank – and it usually goes in. His dribbling skill and quick feet also enable him to free himself for three-point shots, something almost no one else in the NBA does – catch-and-shoot being the standard procedure.
A final point in Curry’s favor is his engaging demeanor. His supreme confidence doesn’t come off as cocky, partly because of his baby-face, partly because everyone around him is so much bigger. He holds his mouthguard between his teeth, draped outside his lips; he punctuates his threes, when appropriate, with a fist clench or even watches them from a crouch; he waves to the crowd to ramp up their enthusiasm. He is the cool customer, the cool assassin.
Games 6 and 7 were the first NBA games I watched this year, and I picked two good ones. The Warriors were seemingly overmatched in the first half each time, as the Thunder controlled the rebounds and had two unstoppable forces in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But once Thompson in the first game and Curry in the second started hitting implausible threes, you could see the Thunder spirits flag and their stars try to do too much. By the end of each game they had not just lost but were defeated. Analytically, a break here or there would seem to have been all they needed to change the outcome; but you got the feeling that somehow the Warriors, and above all Curry, wouldn’t let that happen.
I have no idea how the Warriors will do against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. For the sake of the city of Cleveland, I wouldn’t feel too bad should the Cavs prevail, and I worry that their more muscular play will be a challenge. But my rooting interest will remain with the Warriors, to reward both their record-setting season and the beauty of their game. When Shaquille O’Neal played I couldn’t wait for him to retire, I so disliked the brute force he brought to the game. The basketball played by Curry and Thompson represents the opposite end of the spectrum and is thrilling to watch.
My season of Timberwolves-viewing got off on the same bad foot previous ones have ended on, with the T-Wolves unable to get off a decent shot with a chance to win the game. Last night it was against Kevin Garnett and the undefeated Celtics, who played a very losable game with the particular help of new addition Rasheed Wallace, who insisted on clanking three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Thus, the Wolves found themselves down 92-90 with the ball and 13 seconds left.
My complaint in years past has been their tendency, at this point, to stop cutting-and-passing, the way they play best, and leave the ball in the hands of the point guard, who dribbles the clock down to three seconds, then finds that he can’t make a play all by himself – the familiar isolation dribble that works fine if you have Allen Iverson or Dwyane Wade or LeBron James on your team. My complaint last night was the equally familiar NBA move: the coach calls timeout to “draw up a play” or “make sure the team knows what to do.”
First of all, any basketball player who doesn’t know that in this situation you wait for the last shot doesn’t belong in a gym, let alone the NBA. Second, it shouldn’t take a coaching genius to tell you that, facing a much stronger team, you should try for a three-pointer and the win, not overtime. Therefore, what wisdom is there left for the coach to impart during the timeout. Yes, he can “draw up a play,” but what have practices been for? And how many such plays ever get effectively executed, given the unknown of the opponent’s defense?
On the other hand, by calling timeout, the coach a) gives the defense time to make situational substitutions and organize itself, a greater advantage to the generally harried defense than the offense; b) loses precious seconds and perhaps even the ball by requiring his offense to run an in-bounds play; and c) kills the momentum the offense often has when it has made a defensive stop and is coming downcourt with a chance to win.
Last year, the Wolves couldn’t even get the ball in-bounds in this situation. Last night, they did – barely – then had to repeat themselves after the Celtics used their “foul-to-give,” another weapon the defense often forgets or is unable to employ absent a time-out called by the offense. The ensuing “play” consisted of Corey Brewer, one of their most erratic offensive weapons, driving to the basket, which in itself basically removed the chance of a three-point shot and victory. Kevin Garnett tied him up after a mild foul – but what ref would call a foul on a defensive player of the year in that situation? – and there went the Wolves’ chance.
I won’t mind if the Wolves play all their games this close and it comes down to the last shot. I will continue to be bothered, though, if in those games the Wolves don’t get off that last shot.
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