SAN FRANCISCO -- The minds at the top of the Golden State Warriors are gazing at tomorrows, specifically those coming after May 19.
The hearts of those who actually take the floor are on today, though, and there is no better example than what unfolded before the disbelieving eyes of the nation on Christmas Day.
The Warriors won a game they were supposed to lose on merit. A game for which some, with a certain agenda, would have gracefully accepted defeat. But no. They went for it, exploiting Houston’s psychological fragility, putting the NBA’s leading scorer, James Harden, in a straitjacket, constantly nudging Russell Westbrook toward his discomfort zone and taking down the Rockets.
With a 116-104 victory before an ecstatic sellout crowd at Chase Center, the Warriors posted, according to ABC, the biggest Christmas Day upset in 30 seasons of NBA play. It was their third consecutive win and easily the most impressive of the season.
“We were playing a great team on Christmas Day, and we’ve been through a tough first half of the season, or third of the season,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Mostly, I’m happy for the players. I’m happy for our fans. This is a Christmas present for them, because they are here every night cheering for us.
“The great thing about this season is that our fans can feel our players’ effort. Even though we are 8-24 and the results haven’t been what we have hoped, the fans can see how hard our guys are playing, how together they are, and I thought today was just an example of the hard work paying off and the perseverance.”
With the departures of accomplished veterans Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, along with a June injury to Klay Thompson and an October injury to Stephen Curry, the Warriors always knew the blueprint for this season had to begin with grit and sweat, followed by execution.
Two months after opening night, they implemented those factors to near perfection.
“We’re doing a better job of following the game plan,” said Draymond Green, who contributed 20 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. “It’s been a tough year. We had (assistant coach Jarron Collins) take over the defense, and under such tough circumstances ...
“Jarron’s been doing a great job, especially today, putting together a game plan that we can stick to and be great at. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit for this win, because that game plan was f-----g phenomenal. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Though Harden and Westbrook combined for 37 points in the first half, they managed just 17 in the second -- on 7-of-21 shooting.
Harden, notorious for inventing ways to shoot free throws, managed only one and scored 24 points, 14.6 below his average. Rarely did he see fewer than four arms and four hands. Westbrook, known for obstinance and an unreliable outside shot, committed four turnovers and shot 11 of 32 from the field, including 0 of 8 beyond the arc, where the Warriors repeatedly left him open, daring him to shoot.
“You can’t execute it much better than we did today,” Green said.
The Warriors weren’t perfect. They committed 16 turnovers, half of them reckless. They left the lane open in the first half, before closing it in the second. There were reasons they trailed by as much as 13 in the second quarter.
But the Warriors know the Rockets. Green knows them very well, and his teammates were prepped. Houston is more prone to collapse than most elite squads, which explains its five losses this season in games in which it built double-digit leads.
The Warriors pushed that number to six.
They did it with a measure of pluck and heart best personified by guard Damion Lee, who's still on a two-way contract and seeking to find a permanent place in the league, if not on the Warriors. He scored 22 points, one off his career high, and pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds.
Lee is focused on today because he knows not what tomorrow might bring. Most of the other Warriors are in the same situation.
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“We were just out there competing and trying to execute the scouting report that we had,” said D’Angelo Russell, who scored 20 points. “And we executed. We did everything in our power to try and contain them, and we got a win by executing.”
The braintrust might be occupied with evaluating prospects who could be available in the May 19 lottery and the June 25 draft. Let them. It’s their job.
The coaches and players are evaluating themselves daily, though, because it’s all they have.