This is the game the Golden State Warriors needed to experience, apparently – the one they needed to endure to remind themselves that the job of a champion is to know the difference been how much and how, and the difference between how and what.
“How much” is what you worry about when you’re trying to dominate a team and break its will (see Games 2 and 4 of the Portland series). “How” is how well you adhere to your core philosophy (see Portland 1 and Utah 1 and 2). And “what” is what happens when the first two don’t work and you have to figure out how to win anyway (see Portland 3 and Utah 3).
And looking nothing like they have through the postseason to date, they still beat the Jazz in Game Almost The Last of this Western Conference semifinal, 102-91.
And trust us, they’ll secretly thank the Jazz for this game, and thank themselves for the reminder that elegance makes champions a lot less frequently than toughness of purpose.
And before we go any deeper with this, Kevin Durant. Simply Kevin Durant.
“You can search for answers,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said helplessly after the game. “But sometimes the answers are right in front of your bench.”
True, the Warriors know all these ball lessons because they have lived them for four consecutive springs, but it is a lesson even the best teams have to relearn now and then. The playoffs are different. They are a pyramid of difficult, and the further one advances, the harder it gets because the physics demand it.
So Saturday came, and Saturday was a huge kick in the nethers for those who have staked their fandom on a championship that becomes a coronation because the Warriors are supposed to be so many parsecs beyond every other team in the game.
But they won. They won despite horrible shooting from Stephen Curry (6-20/3-11) and Klay Thompson (1-9/0-4). They won despite a extended Draymond Green snit at official Bennie Adams that caused tongues to wag about his reputation (again). They won despite playing Utah’s game, Utah’s way.
In fairness, they also won because of some things – a high-defense, low turnover performance that prevented their possessions not to crush them, Durant’s absolute signature game as a Warrior (38/13/a thing with Rudy Gobert near game’s end), and because after losing the early initiative and chunking a substandard second quarter, dominated the fourth.
And therein is the real lesson here. They hadn’t had that game yet – not even Game 3 of the Portland series. And they will have more, even if they don’t end up looking exactly like this one.
Houston doesn’t win by holding the opponent to 100. San Antonio does, but they are more flexible with pace than Utah. Boston has the magic of Isaiah Thomas, but the burden of having to play a lot of games. And Cleveland has the Titan.
But Golden State has presented itself all along as a team whose secret skill is its defense, and while that showed itself again, this was a win that could be cheerfully claimed by Durant’s salvational performance and a team-wide level of stubborn, even crusty indomitability.
Durant will be Durant, but the Warriors need that second attribute to not only stamp this series as afterthought but to steel themselves for the next time this kind of game happens. They can take a lot of solace from knowing they still have that in the tool belt because they'll need it again.
Some time early in the next round, we’re betting.