Shooting at the Walls of Heartache

For Warriors fans, making the playoffs this year seemed like an afterthought at the beginning of March, but by the end of the month the prospect of not making it seemed downright unfair. Outside of a horrific loss in Portland, the team was playing as well as they had since Webber’s rookie year, utilizing small ball and swarming defense (one of the few times this term has actually been appropriate) to run teams out of the gym. The home win over Phoenix in the last game of March was the most obvious example of the Warriors’ newfound quality. Never mind that 45-point first quarter: two teams playing that fast can produce that kind of score if one of them shoots incredibly well. The most amazing part of that game was that Phoenix—the greatest running team in the history of mankind, if you are to believe some people (and you shouldn’t, that’s a ridiculous claim)—had to slow down to get back into the game. It’s rare that a fringe playoff team can beat the best running team in the league at their own game, but that’s probably because that version of the Warriors wasn’t a fringe playoff team.

And what was that team, anyway? A few personnel changes that got the Warriors to that point:

  • Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird had to appease their almost entirely white fanbase. The Indiana trade justifiably gets a lot of credit for improving the roster. Despite some inconsistency, Al Harrington is just a quality, versatile player, and Stephen Jackson wins games for you. As much as I hate Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy for their lackluster skills, they’re worse for being soft, something that Harrington and Jackson are definitely not. That change in attitude had a huge effect, and it can’t go unnoticed.

  • Monta Ellis decided to become one of the best young players in the NBA. He is absolutely my favorite player on the team, and I giggle whenever I imagine what he’ll do when (not if) he develops a consistent 18-20 foot jumper. The guy is one of the three fastest players around, shows no fear when driving, and will finish just about everything. People compare him to Gilbert because of the draft round/team and lack-of-positionness, but he’s really more like Tony Parker would be if Popovich hadn’t swallowed his soul.

  • The coaching staff let Andris Biedrins play to his strengths instead of forcing him into a classic back-to-the-basket big man model. Andris is a fast, lean, quick-jumping big man; he should not be block-to-block at this point in his career. Nelson saw what he had here, and letting him dart through the lane on a pick-and-roll is exactly what he’s made for. In this system, he’s one of the best five young big men in the league. (He still could become something approaching a classic big man—you do not control the boards in an NBA playoff game by accident.)

  • Baron Davis cut the bullshit to a minimum. Baron’s highlight reels are the best, but he usually makes five retarded behind-the-back passes in traffic per game. Watching him at the end of the season was a revelation: he would actually drive-and-kick like a normal person and finish with intelligent moves when they were open. The important thing here, though, is that he always played like himself, just with fewer silly plays. He still brought that stuff out when he had to, but he picked his spots.

Despite these and other improvements, some injuries (most notably the several suffered by Jason Richardson) and the growing pains of having a new coach/system gave the Warriors little more than an outside chance of making the playoffs. At that point, though, things like that didn’t matter much, and they won the last nine of their last ten game to finish two games ahead of the Clippers for the eighth spot. I won’t say that all those wins were classic—the majority of the opponents were in full-on tank mode—but they still counted, and the thrill of a playoff push was enough for me. More importantly, everyone on the team played like they were trying to make the playoffs (for themselves and the Bay Area), which was nice to see in comparison to the completely lifeless play from the Clips. If that wasn’t enough for me, the clinching win in Portland happened on my birthday. How adorable.

Going into the playoffs, I thought we had a 50/50 shot at beating the Mavs. I guess I believed that three regular wins (well, two real ones) counted for something. Plus, it was just clear that we matched up really well with that team. After winning Game 1 on the road without playing our best ball, I was confident we had the series.

I won’t rehash the specifics of those games; by this point I think everyone knows that the Mavs didn’t rebound well enough to make us pay for our lack of strength inside, Dirk shat himself in all but a few moments, Baron had an obvious advantage on Harris and Terry and realized it, Jax decided to make all shots, etc. This series was important, though, in that it validated the most loyal fans in the country and showed everyone what a real crowd looks like. In the long run, I don’t think this series will register as anything more than a footnote in the broad NBA landscape, but it will matter a hell of a lot to Warriors fans, and that’s enough for me.

Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, the letdown of the Utah series seemed inevitable in retrospect—it’s just too hard to maintain that kind of intensity and win four games with a glaring weakness on the boards. Those games exposed our massive hole at the four-spot this entire season, something that fans recognized months ago, and it should be the first roster situation that Mullin addresses after getting the Monta and Andris situations worked out.

I have no idea what will happen next year. I’m sure Clippers fans felt extremely confident after last year’s playoffs, and I’m not willing to buy my 07-08 playoff tickets yet when we have an injury-prone star and a coach who says he’s not sure he’ll come back. These are issues I will look at on other days and in other posts. For now, I’m willing to bask in the greatness of making the playoffs, pulling off the greatest upset in NBA history, and finally getting some national attention.

That said, fuck it, the Warriors need to make the playoffs again next year.


Ben Q. Rock said...

Like everyone else, I jumped on the Warriors bandwagon shortly after it became apparent that Dallas couldn't hang with them. I should hate them by all rights, because they swindled my second-favorite team out of two quality players in exchange for two mediocre ones, but they are just too exciting and fun-to-watch to be ignored.

What's your take on the rumored Darko-for-J. Rich trade? Darko Heads to Oakland sounds like a bizarre fanzine, so that's nice, but I don't like the idea of giving up a young big man who only missed one game this past season for a middle-of-his-prime swingman with injury problems.

Ty Keenan said...

A lot of what we do this summer depends on what Nellie decides. I'm assuming he'll come back in answering this, so keep that in mind. (I'll also write a longer post on the Warriors' summer soon that will tackle J-Rich a lot.)

I don't like the idea of giving up Richardson if only because he clearly loves playing for the Warriors and I think it would lose us karma points in the long run. That said, he's a good trading piece for us if we need to get a four, which I think we do, so I'm willing to part with him assuming we can get a real player.

I'm inconclusive on Darko. I know he has the talent and size, but part of me thinks Brown broke him forever in Detroit. From what I've seen of him in Orlando, it seems like he's put it together fairly well, but Richardson was our leading scorer last season and he has some clear talent.

Basically, we need a power forward, but I don't think Mullin and Nelson should be itching to trade Richardson just because we need size.

Ben Q. Rock said...

I'm wondering just what Nellie's potential replacement could do with this team. It's built exclusively for Nellieball, so if the coach is more philosophically traditional, I imagine J. Rich will have to be moved. It'd be a damn shame.

Honestly, apart from getting a reliable power forward, the only thing the Warriors need to do is ditch those orange uniforms. Other than that, I'm perfectly satisfied with them. They make me want to buy League Pass... until I remember I'm in college and can't afford gas, much less a premium cable package.