Iron spine on full display in Game 3, Warriors on brink of historic finish

Iron spine on full display in Game 3, Warriors on brink of historic finish

You all remember the final 4:59 of Game Seven last year, don’t you? It’s been eating at your eyes, ears, tongues and souls all summer, fall, winter and spring. The Golden State Warriors missed every shot they took for five consecutive minutes, lost the NBA championship and ripped the crown from their own heads, of their own accord, by their own hand.

Well, life’s a funny old bastard sometimes, and now you can remember the last 3:13 of Game Three this year – when the Warriors did to the Cleveland Cavaliers what the Cavs did to them (and what they did to themselves) last June 18.

They are now, as a result of Wednesday’s 118-113 win in Game Three of these NBA Finals, on the verge of finishing one of the most frightfully impressive seasons in the history of the sport by rolling the team that wallet-lifted them a year ago.

And the difference – yes, yes, I know you know already – was the nonpareil Kevin Durant, whose 31/8/4 line was rendered nearly invisible by his work turning around a seeming Cavaliers victory by with a basket/rebound/26-footer in a 30-second span of the final 1:15 turned the game, the series, and a whole lot of narratives, flight plans and hotel cancellations.

In stopping the disintegration of their worst half of the series by seizing the final three minutes, the Warriors displayed the iron spine and the willful refusal to bow to the inevitable that they have rarely had to display this postseason.

Plus, unlike last year’s collapse, which was nearly matched by Cleveland’s own dreadful shooting, the Warriors did it by resuscitating themselves in crunch time, which is a refreshing change from their usual M.O. of stomping a team early and then staying safely ahead.

It was the win that fleshes out their very likely championship as one of the sport’s most well-rounded teams. They won Game 1 by preventing the Cavs form doing what they wanted, Game 2 by doing whatever they wanted, and Game 3 by showing their fullest understanding yet of the art of the gut-check.

“It was just an incredibly tough, resilient performance,” said incredibly tough and resilient head coach Steve Kerr. “It wasn’t the smartest game that we’ve played all year, but it was maybe our toughest in terms of our ability to just hang in there.”

It was also satisfying entertainment for all but the most strident of Cleveland fans. The best players on both sides – Durant, Klay Thompson (30 and six), Stephen Curry (26/13/6), LeBron James (39/11/9) and Kyrie Irving (38/6/3) – were brilliant, save Draymond Green, who was dogged throughout by paralyzing foul trouble, and Kevin Love, who couldn’t make a basket worthy of the memory.

But the final three minutes were the Warriors at their most incandescently obstinate. Having lost the initiative in a sub-optimal third quarter, they had to scramble from behind in the fourth, and did so as though they the outcome was exactly the one nobody had prepared for. In the immortal words of Kyrie Irving, “Diown the stretch they were just more poised.”

And bloodless. And supremely, defiantly arrogant in their certainty. And that’s arrogant as in utterly self-assured, not arrogant as in preening and dismissive. They needed the Curry 12-footer and the Green rebound the Durant rebound-and-run for the 26-footer, and the defense by Thompson ion Irving and the block by Andre Iguodala on James (another bit of turnabout from a year ago) . . . it was almost a tapestry of single mindedness and brilliance under the most difficult of circumstances.

But maybe they knew that the two most important Cavaliers, James and Irving, could not sustain themselves at their rate of play for an entire night.

“Those guys had to do so much for them and they were doing it tonight, and they got better contributions from their bench, but I think we have an advantage in our depth, they don't have as much depth as we do. But those guys can win you a game, and you almost saw it tonight in LeBron and Kyrie. It didn't seem like they got tired, and they might not show it, but it's hard to do that for 48 minutes.”

“We didn’t change anything,” Kerr said of the late-game adjustment that weren’t made. “We discussed making changes but didn’t want to change anything,. The way they play, LeBron and Kyrie had it going the whole game, but that’s pretty taxing, and we kept telling them they would get tired, and fatigue would play a role.”

For his part, James dismissed that as an excuse, as he would. But his voice would not be heard in the wake of the result of the best game of what is probably going to be a shamefully short series.

Warriors, Sharks have best odds to stop 'Boston Slam,' and here's why


Warriors, Sharks have best odds to stop 'Boston Slam,' and here's why

The Red Sox won the World Series title in October, and the Patriots claimed another Super Bowl championship in February. If Boston sports fans had their way — and they often do these days — they’ll roll out the duck boats for the Celtics and the Bruins in June.

They’re calling it the Boston Slam, since Boston would own all four major professional sports titles at once.

And only the Bay Area likely can stop it.

Boston has been on an incredible run since 2001, winning six Super Bowls, four World Series, one Stanley Cup and one NBA championship. Such dominance breeds contempt, although you’ll find none here. I lived in Boston for five years and loved every minute of it. Well, maybe I could’ve have gone without all the snow.

Dominance also breeds arrogance, and that too is on display in some corners of Boston. Winning championships went from a dream to a birthright in only one generation, and as haters began to, well, hate, Bostonians adopted this mantra: “Hate Us 'Cause You Ain’t Us.” The fighting revolutionary spirit is alive and well in New England.

While we don’t hate many folks in Northern California — we’re way too laid back for that — we do know something about winning titles, particularly with the Warriors. And that’s where the prospect of stopping this Boston Slam attempt begins.

The Warriors, who are one blown 3-1 NBA Finals lead away from chasing a fourth consecutive Larry O’Brien Trophy, could be considered the Patriots of the Association. Perennial champs accused of gaming the system. The game circled on every opponent’s calendar. The No. 1 topic on the morning sports scream-fests.

A Warriors-Celtics NBA Finals has been forecast for a few years, and while it could happen now, there are notable obstacles. First, the Warriors need to take care of business in their first-round playoff series after the Clippers forced a Game 6 by virtue of a 129-121 win Wednesday night. Then, the Rockets, who will challenge the Warriors in the next playoff round if the defending champs indeed advance, definitely will not be an easy out. They had Golden State on the ropes last season but couldn't deliver the knockout blow.

The Celtics, meanwhile, finished fourth in the Eastern Conference this season, and must beat the Milwaukee Bucks, then either the Toronto Raptors or the Philadelphia 76ers, to even make the Finals. All three of those teams had better regular-season records than Boston, but the Celtics often show flashes of greatness and might have unmatched top-tier depth, with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.

That lineup is fully capable of reaching the Finals and giving the Warriors all they can handle, as was the case in their two regular-season meetings. The 33-point loss last month at Oracle Arena was particularly brutal for the Dubs, but the playoffs typically are their time. They know what it takes to win, no matter the foe, their recent wobbles against the Clippers notwithstanding. The Celtics certainly won’t scare the Warriors when championship glory is on the line.

On the ice, the Bruins’ path to the Cup Final seems clear, with top Eastern Conference contenders such as the Lightning, Capitals and Penguins all falling in the first round. Possibly meeting the Bruins at the end are the Sharks, who similarly don’t have to worry about top contenders in the West, with the Flames, Predators and Jets already out, meaning San Jose could be the West’s best left standing.

A Sharks-Bruins Cup Final would be full of firepower (San Jose rolls out four 30-goal scorers, and Boston boasts three) and shaky goaltending (Boston fans feel the same way about Tuukka Rask as San Jose backers do Martin Jones).

And if you thought Ryan Reaves was annoying, you haven’t seen Brad Marchand, who led the Bruins in regular-season scoring (100 points) and penalty minutes (98), highlighting his balance of skill and ability to irritate his opponents. His run-ins with equally hot-tempered Evander Kane could be legendary.

The Sharks, riding high from their Game 7 miracle against Vegas, do possess the veteran savvy and attitude to challenge an Original Six power in their barn. Joe Thornton, the former Bruin, can tell his Sharks teammates all about that, as could Erik Karlsson, who faced Boston in the 2017 playoffs with the Ottawa Senators. The task isn’t easy, but it's doable.

The Boston Slam would be an incredible feat, but it’s also one that some sports fans don’t want to see. The root of that sentiment is the same childhood-type jealousy directed toward the kid who has too many toys, just that in this case, the toys are big, shiny trophies that grown men desire. You can see lots of that championship hardware at Fenway, Gillette and the Garden. To be fair, you also can see lots of them at Oracle Arena, Oracle Park, Levi's and the Coliseum, too.

No honest Bostonian could’ve imagined this possibility when Bucky Dent hammered that ball over the Green Monster. Or when Bill Buckner let that ground ball go through his legs. Or when Jim McMahon and The Fridge made a mockery of the Patriots’ defense in Super Bowl XX. Or when the Celtics lost out on Tim Duncan in the NBA lottery.

Or when, in June 2001, the city of Boston threw a Stanley Cup championship rally for Ray Bourque. He had lifted the storied trophy with the Colorado Avalanche, not the Bruins, who at that time hadn't won a title in 29 years.

On its face, throwing a championship celebration for another team's player sounds sad. But it wasn't. Sports is in Boston's blood, and Bourque, a beloved Bruin, had waited longer than any Cup-winning player -- 1,612 regular-season and 214 playoff games, to be exact. He had done right by the Bruins, who traded him to a Cup contender in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. The fans wanted Bourque to be a winner.

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Not that they were happy about it, though.

"The Red Sox will probably win a World Series before the Bruins win a Cup," fan Mike Moreira told the Hartford Courant during Bourque's rally. "That's how bad it is."

Those words were prophetic: The Red Sox actually won two World Series (in 2004 and 2007) before the Bruins claimed the Cup. They also reflected the time: No Boston team had won a championship since the Celtics did it in 1986.

A 15-year title drought? Seems impossible these days.

So, it hasn’t always been halcyon days for Boston sports fans. These days, though, to beat Boston is to innovate. And no ones does that better than the Bay.

Warriors' promised focus yet to arrive as bad habits linger in playoffs

Warriors' promised focus yet to arrive as bad habits linger in playoffs

OAKLAND -- They shrugged off those spasms of regular-season lethargy resulting in several puzzling losses, usually at Oracle Arena, with the same message, sometimes literally, other times implicitly.

We know what’s important to win, and it’s not the regular season. We’ll be fine.

The playoffs. Yes, the playoffs. That’s what matters, they said, vowing to be better.

The playoffs arrived 12 days ago. The Warriors, however, are still in transit.

And Oracle does not provide the shift into overdrive it once did.

That much was abundantly evident Wednesday night, when the defending NBA champs took the floor at Oracle for Game 5 with a chance to oust the Los Angeles Clippers and got precisely what their half-hearted effort earned, a 129-121 loss that extends the first-round series to Game 6 on Friday in LA.

This falls squarely on the defense, which all too often was a collective yawn. The Warriors gave up 37 points in the first quarter, 34 more in the second and spent the rest of the evening trying to use offense to catch up. They did, ever so briefly, though LA never really stopped scoring, shooting 56.0 percent in the first half and 51.4 in the second.

“It’s very disappointing, and that falls on me,” Draymond Green said. “If I bring the intensity from the start, everybody else usually falls in line on that side of the ball. That’s my fault. I’ve got to do better.”

Well, actually, there was plenty of fault to go around. Aside from Kevin Durant’s sizzling 45-point night, not much else went well for the Warriors.

Asked if he put some of the responsibility on himself, Stephen Curry said, “For sure.”

Klay Thompson also pointed at himself, conceding that he was looking past the Clippers to the next series, with the Warriors learning before tipoff that the Houston Rockets will be waiting.

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“Start with me. I was,” he said. “I thought we were going to come out and win tonight, but sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.”

That also applies to this postseason, in which the Warriors, hard as this is to believe, have stumbled into by losing two of three to the No. 8 seed in the building that has been such an advantage in recent postseasons. In their first four postseasons under coach Steve Kerr, they were 39-6 at Oracle.

They’re now 40-8, which still is impressive, but the losses have come in back-to-back games, the first with the Warriors blowing a 31-point third-quarter lead and the second with them watching a parade of Clippers blow by them to the basket.

“I just think we let our guard down,” Kerr said. “I didn’t have them ready to fight, obviously, because we didn’t fight.”

Only once before under Kerr have the Warriors lost back-to-back playoff games at home. That was in the 2016 Finals, which ended with LeBron James orchestrating a championship parade through the streets of Cleveland.

This is different, though. Those Warriors were hungry but hampered by the suspension of Green. These Warriors seem more, well, comfortable. They most certainly are not as hungry as the Clippers, who are driven as much by desire as talent.

“Everything we did in LA, we did not do tonight,” Kerr said, referring to victories in Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center. “We sort of seemed to take it for granted that we were going to be OK. But I said it before the game, that this Clippers team has been scrapping and clawing all year.”

There was a time when the Warriors scratched and clawed, when it was a part of their identity. It was visible last postseason, never more than in the Finals, when they swept the Cavaliers, with three of the four wins by double digits.

The Warriors say they still have that in them. They’re confident they’ll respond Friday. And maybe they will.

But after so many uneven performances, this one in the playoffs, nothing is certain anymore.