Warriors

No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

Programming note: Warriors-Celtics coverage starts today at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area and streaming live right here

If it’s not already apparent the 2017 NBA Finals will not feature Warriors-Cavaliers IV, it should start coming into focus Thursday when the Warriors confront the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference.

That would be the Boston Celtics, who during their 13-game win streak are proving themselves ready to flip the script with which we’ve become so familiar.

With a single request to be traded out of Cleveland, Kyrie Irving changed all of that.

“It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “With their assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie is amazing. That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come.

“Whether their time is now or in the future, that’s to be determined. But they sure look like they want it to be right now.”

Irving and his All-Star act landed in Boston, joining forces with newly acquired free agent Gordon Hayward, also an All-Star. Those two moves, along with the physical realities invading LeBron James’ body, have changed the landscape and opened the door for the Celtics to reach The Finals for the first time since 2010.

And what a refreshing development that would be. Warriors-Celtics in June would have that new-car smell and also would be a closer series than one would think -- surely much, much, much more competitive than would be Warriors-Cavs IV.

Which is why Thursday night is so intriguing, even though Hayward is on the sideline, left ankle in a protective boot, with a likely season-ending injury.

Consider that no team in the league in recent seasons -- not the Cavs, the Spurs or the Grizzlies -- has played the Warriors tougher than Boston. They’ve split two games in each of the last two seasons, with the Celtics winning both games at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors routinely smash opponents.

And that was with Isaiah Thomas at the point instead of Irving, who has some Warriors skin on his wall.

Consider the work of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, particularly on defense. In eight games against Boston since Stevens arrived in 2013, the Warriors have yet to shoot 50 percent. Their high, 48.9, came last season when Al Horford and Jae Crowder were out of the lineup and it was the only time in the last four games the Warriors outshot the Celtics.

Boston, by the way, enters Thursday with the NBA’s top-rated defense, and with the four starters not named Irving wielding 7-foot wingspans. Horford has been spectacular at both ends, as have youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Consider that Horford, coming off an uneven first season in Boston, has been a beast at both ends -- by any metric, from real-plus minus to basic plus-minus to Player Efficiency Rating to 3-point shooting, where his 48.8 percent ranks 10th among all NBA players.

With Horford sidelined last Nov. 18, the Warriors dropped a 104-88 anvil on Boston. With him back for the rematch four months later -- and Kevin Durant out injured -- the Celtics came to Oakland and won by 13, holding the Warriors to 86 points.

Consider, finally, the presence of Irving. Though slightly hindered by wearing a plastic mask to protect his face as it heals from a fracture, he is coming into full bloom. He has the best handle in the league, All-Universe hubris and is discovering the benefits of playing actual defense. He has been fabulous even while shooting only 32.6 percent from deep, well below his career average.

The Cavaliers beat the Warriors twice last season and both times Irving was the difference. He went for 40 points, seven rebounds and four assists as Cleveland won Game 4 of the 2017 Finals to avoid a sweep. Last Christmas in Cleveland, he posted 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds -- and drilled the game-winning shot to punctuate a Cavs comeback.

Hmm, remember which Cavalier made the game-winning, series-ending shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals?

The Warriors respect the LeBron Monster, but they’ve never feared it. Even during the ’16 Finals, they knew they had answers for it. They have more answers now that LeBron’s NBA mileage is beyond every active player other than 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

It’s unreasonable to expect James, an incredible specimen, once again leading the NBA in minutes per game, to sustain greatness. And anything less leaves Cleveland vulnerable to Boston.

"They're really sound, and they're motivated," Kerr said of the Celtics. "It's a team that's been on the rise the last couple of years. They lost in the conference finals. They want to win a championship, and it looks like it. Even without Gordon Hayward and that awful injury, Boston is just crushing people. So, it's going to be really fun to go against them on Thursday. We know how tough it's going to be."

How anticlimactic would it be to have LeBron and the Cavs show up next June, gray at the temples and tender about the knees, trying to keep up with the Warriors?

So enjoy Warriors-Celtics. It’s the marquee game of the month, and quite probably your NBA Finals preview.

The lesson of this second-place Warriors team at the All-Star break

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AP

The lesson of this second-place Warriors team at the All-Star break

And so ends a thoroughly confusing half-season for the Golden State Warriors – doing all the things you love and hate them for in one fell swoop.
 
In losing, 123-117, at Portland, they showed their full game. Big game by one of the Gang Of Four (Kevin Durant this time)? Check. Lousy start? Check. Big rally after lousy start? Check. Defensive lapses? Check. Impassioned yet disgusted pregame soliloquy by Steve Kerr on the manifest inadequacies of modern American thought? Check, and mate.
 
Of those things, the Kerr attack on the Florida school shooting was the most meaningful development of an otherwise meh evening, but Kerr’s having to explain to us again what we should already know is almost a default position now – like everything else about this season.
 
The Warriors go into the All-Star Break in second place in the Western Conference, which is pretty much what they deserve. They have lost the standings initiative through the sin of boredom, and even if leading the conference at the All-Star Break is essentially meaningless (which it is), it is still fascinating to see so many people buying the argument that “they’ll get it together when they need to get it together.” Never has the argument that the regular season doesn’t matter been put so succinctly; not even Sam Hinkie and his Process fetish did it as well.

In other words, Kerr's latest attempt to re-focus the players lasted about as long as you figured it would.

Things can certainly change between now and June; most NBA observers are still banking on it. The notation “pulled attention span, questionable” does not enter their thoughts. They still see the Warriors as clearly superior in any series, and barring catastrophic injury regard them as essentially invulnerable over a seven-game series – which is an interesting analysis given that they’ve only played two, and lost one of those.
 
But unless the Warriors put on a game-by-game pyrospectacular from this point forward and wipe out all traces of this half-plus of the season, this year will be remembered as the oddest of their run. They seem to have given in to their own hype, believing as we all do that they are merely a toggle switch that only needs an educated thumb to start the engines churning again – which they might well be, no matter how occasionally dissatisfying that may seem to the proletariat.
 
If they win their third title in four years, they will meet expectations without exceeding them, and this season is the first of their four long and delightful seasons that actually seems to be providing more length than delight. This is not condemnation, but rather a reminder that not every plan goes according to plan, and winning gets harder each time it is accomplished. That is the lesson of 2018 – so far, anyway.

Is anybody listening? Steve Kerr and the sports world louder than our leaders

Is anybody listening? Steve Kerr and the sports world louder than our leaders

Steve Kerr is hurt and disillusioned and angry. He is completely fed up with government inertia in the face of epidemic gun violence that frequently manifests itself in mass shootings such as that which occurred Wednesday in Florida.

The Warriors coach is on this subject among the broadening chorus of voices, every one of them existing in a vacuum.

Everybody hears it, every time, but those within power structure never listen, for if they truly did they would take responsible preventive action.

In the wake of this latest tragedy it was evident Kerr, even as he prepared to coach the Warriors against the Trail Blazers in Portland, was particularly shaken.

His visage wore the news of another unhinged soul shooting up a school. At least 17 are dead, the vast majority of them students at Majory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. And the casualty count is likely to rise.

“Nothing has been done,” Kerr said with visible contempt. “It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death, day after day, in schools. It doesn’t matter that people are being shot at a concert, at a movie theater. It’s not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, the people who are running this country, to actually do anything. And that’s demoralizing.

“But we can do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people’s lives and not just bow down to the NRA because they’ve financed their campaign.”

Yes, he went there. Kerr urged American voters to seek out and support political candidates independent of the powerful National Rifle Association and, therefore, willing to generate momentum toward enacting responsible gun laws.

He barely bothered to address the current government, opting instead to plead with the voting public. Is anybody listening?

Anybody?

There is every indication that voices such as that of Kerr will not be silenced. He spoke passionately and from personal experience. His life was touched by gun violence in the most extreme fashion when his father, Malcolm, an educator, was assassinated at a school in Beirut 34 years ago last month.

Kerr is not alone in this quest for action. Many others joined in.

Former player Steve Nash, a Warriors consultant bound for the Hall of Fame, expressed his feelings on Twitter: “The rest of the world is having success prohibiting access to guns. I don’t see what the debate is about. It’s not working here. People are dying at alarming rates. If you value guns more than life and safety I don’t understand.”

Jared Dudley, a member of the Phoenix Suns and one of more respected veterans in the NBA, spoke up via Twitter: “So sad man! Gotta change theses Gun laws! I’m tired of the slogan guns don’t kill people only people kill people.. Change the Law!”

Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell kept his message to six words, printing “End gun violence” on his right shoe and “Pray for Parkland” on his left.

Mitchell’s mother is a teacher.

Here’s Tom Garfinkel, CEO of the Miami Dolphins: “How do we stop this? When will there be proactive change from our government leaders to address the complexity of why this keeps happening? Praying for those affected in Parkland. And Orlando, and Columbine, and Sandy Hook, and every other senseless and tragic shooting.”

And former NFL player Damien Woody: “I’m just over here thinking about how we as a society use the term ‘pro life’ . . . days like today doesn’t do it justice.”

And Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, quote tweeting the obligatory “prayers and condolences” tweet from President Trump: “Yea.. but the fact is that they AREN’T safe. Just more rhetoric and no action. WAKEUP!!!!”

Is anybody listening?

Anybody?

Wednesday was the 45th day of this calendar year -- and the 18th school shooting. Quick math tells us that equals two every five days, 10 every 25 and 20 every 50.

Many children of color grow up with violence. Studies have proved that the experience traumatizes them to varying degrees. There are neighborhoods all across these United States in which children are as afraid of law enforcement as they are of street gangs. It’s how they grow up.

The powerlessness and apprehension is growing each day. And each time our elected leaders choose to look the other way while holding open their duffle bags to accept NRA cash, the sense of despair gets deeper.

How many children will go to school today and tomorrow and all the days after that feeling anxieties they should not have to bear in a so-called civilized society?

They’ll be looking over their shoulders. They’ll be wondering about the student whose temper is a bit too quick and hot. They’ll be trying to avoid the student who is too much of a loner or makes threats. They’ll be wary of the bully and the bullied. They’ll be trying to escape those that pose with firearms on social media.

The despair is real, and if you look into the eyes of the young you can feel it.

“Hopefully, we’ll find enough people first of all to vote good put people in,” Kerr said. “But, hopefully, we can find enough people with courage to actually help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues, not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semiautomatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It’s disgusting.”

Kerr is among those willing to speak up and advocate for change. There are others. And they will be joined by many more who will make it their mission to follow the example of most every civilized society.

If the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, a single day, could persuade our government to take steps to make air travel safer, how many deadly events does it take to grow the principle and power to say no to the NRA and yes to the safety of children?

Is anybody listening?