Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

USA Today

Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

HOUSTON -- Steve Kerr benched his two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, in the biggest game of the Warriors’ three-peat quest, a Game 6 on the road against a Houston Rockets team starving for redemption.

Curry was not the least bit happy about Kerr’s decision and didn’t hide it during a timeout at the 7:12 mark in the first quarter after picking up his second foul.

Curry stormed into the coaches’ huddle and got in his coach’s face, pleading for him to reverse his decision to put backup Quinn Cook into the game.

“Come on, Coach,” Curry said. “It’s Game 6. I gotta be out there.”

Kerr looked him in the eye and didn’t hold back.

“Steph,” Kerr told him, as he relayed to NBCSports.com after the game. “You just fouled James Harden on a jump shot. You’re going to do it again. And you’re going to get your third foul, so you’re not going to play the rest of the quarter.”

It might have been hard to understand then, but this was all about respect -- for Curry and for his teammates. Since Kerr took over as head coach in 2014, the franchise’s motto became “Strength In Numbers” -- a rallying cry emphasizing the team above the individual. It’s a message that Kerr had come back to repeatedly after Durant got injured at the end of Game 5. Everyone on the roster had to stay ready.

But Kerr had seen the numbers, too, and kept thinking about this statistical fact: Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Warriors were 30-4 in games in which Durant sat but Curry played. He reminded himself of those numbers in that timeout. As long as they kept Curry available for the second half, they’d have a chance. Thirty and four.

“How can I trust you,” Curry recalled Kerr telling him, “to not get your third foul, when you know how big this game is right now and you put yourself in this predicament?”

Curry stood down and reluctantly took his seat on the bench. He respected it.

“He keeps it real,” Curry said after the game. “Obviously, I didn’t like [his decision]. But we have a strong relationship where I’m not going to lose confidence in that moment. That’s built over time.”

Respect is earned in this league, not given. The Warriors earned it across the league by winning the 2015 NBA Finals with homegrown talent, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the peak of his powers.

But that respect turned into something else over the last few years: Some parts jealousy, some parts bitterness, some parts contempt. In an April 2016 profile by New York Magazine, Warriors principal owner Joe Lacob declared, “We’re light years ahead of everybody.” When they lost the 2016 Finals, any sort of glee around the league was short-lived once Durant came to the rescue. They won back-to-back championships, and that was before DeMarcus Cousins hopped aboard. It’s not a stretch to say that the Warriors lost their initial identity and some respect along the way.

But when Curry sat in the first quarter Friday night, there was no Durant to step in. It was Quinn Cook, an undrafted free agent who was waived by four teams before he got to the Warriors in 2017.

Later in the quarter, when Andrew Bogut hit the bench, Cousins didn’t replace him. It was Kevon Looney, a player that every team passed on in the 2015 draft before the Warriors picked him 30th overall.

When 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala left the game at the 3:16 mark, another undrafted free agent stepped onto the floor in Alonzo McKinnie. Jordan Bell, a second-round pick in 2017, would later replace Draymond Green.

At the end of the first quarter, Klay Thompson wasn’t surrounded by four All-NBA players like he was at the start of the playoffs. Instead, it was two undrafted free agents, a second-rounder and the last pick of the first round—every one of them signed for the veteran’s minimum. This wasn’t the Warriors team that Cousins called the most hated team in all of sports. Suddenly, these were underdogs, heavy underdogs. Before the game, betting markets favored the Rockets over the Warriors by seven points.

To make matters worse, Curry had probably his worst half of playoff basketball. He had never gone scoreless for an entire half in a playoff game. But Kerr’s respect for Curry, his confidence in his point guard, never wavered.

“Every time something like this happens, we all look at each other and say, ‘He’s still going to get 30 and hit the biggest shot and win the game,’” Kerr said. “Like, that’s who he is. He makes some plays that you just can’t even believe … good and bad.”

Oh, yes, there was bad Steph in this game. The foul on Harden to pick up his second of the game was entirely avoidable, but Curry impeded Harden’s landing zone on a 3-point shot and got himself in foul trouble in a game he absolutely couldn’t get himself into foul trouble. Then, he carelessly bulldozed through P.J. Tucker in the lane and picked up his third foul with 5:44 left in the second quarter.

Curry hit the bench again, finishing the first half with 0-for-5 from the floor and more fouls (three) than combined points and assists (two).

“I was pretty, pretty terrible,” Curry said. “The only thing I did well was not turn the ball over in the 12 minutes I was out there.”

(He actually did. The charge.)

Instead of folding underneath the weight of Durant and Cousins’ injuries and early foul trouble that burdened Curry and Green, the Warriors’ unheralded supporting cast hung with the Rockets, earning a 57-57 tie at halftime. Kerr sat his stars longer than they wished and trusted the bench more than he had in weeks.

Once the second half started, the Warriors were unleashed. Curry made his first shot -- a 27-foot 3-pointer assisted by Green -- at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter. That started a Splash Brothers waterfall that seemed almost inevitable. Curry dazzled his way to 33 points after the break, while he and Thompson finished off the Rockets by scoring the Warriors’ final 19 points.

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” Dwyane Wade, a three-time champion himself, typed out these words to Twitter: “Y’all better stop disrespecting @StephenCurry30 just because he’s a team first guy and is willing to sacrifice in moments doesn’t mean he’s not still a beast.”

Underestimated. Disrespected. Did Curry feel that way coming into Game 6 without Durant?

“I’ve heard a lot of noise in this series for sure; I’ll leave it at that,” Curry said. “Obviously I appreciate those words (from James and Wade). Champions recognize champions and what it takes to win games like tonight and do what we’ve been able to do these last five years. Hopefully more of that to come.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. The Warriors didn’t win the title on Friday night, but there was no shortage of celebration after the game. When the buzzer sounded, Thompson ran around in a frenzy hugging everyone in sight. Some team executives, some random bystanders.

Lacob sprinted toward Kerr, grabbed his shoulders and screamed “Brilliant! Brilliant!” in his ear and then hugged him. Curry found his father Dell and hugged him. Then, Steph found his mother Sonya and noticeably hugged her for a few beats longer. Sunday was Mother’s Day, and he’d now have the opportunity to spend it with her and his wife rather than playing in a Game 7 on the same day as his brother Seth, who will face the Denver Nuggets.

There was something else in the air on Friday night. Relief, sure. But it felt more like respect had been refilled, like the Warriors had regained something they lost. One rival general manager who watched the game described the Warriors’ performance over text as “so, so good. Fun to watch them rely on movement when Durant is out.”

There’s no loss of respect for Durant in the Warriors’ locker room. After the game, Thompson called Durant “one of the greatest players to ever play, the best scorer in the world.” He went on, “If we want this three-peat, we desperately need him back. He’s our best player. We dearly miss him. We’ll hold it down without him. It’s not the same without him.” Curry, later on SportsCenter, echoed that sentiment, calling Durant “the best player in the league” unprompted.

While the Warriors wait for Durant to rejoin their three-peat quest, the Rockets, and their stars, search for answers yet again. Harden, for the fourth time in five years, exits the playoffs at the hands of the Warriors despite a potential second straight regular-season MVP season. Chris Paul, who so desperately sought validation after last year’s ill-timed hamstring injury, remained healthy for the entire postseason and finished Friday with his best game of the postseason: 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

He wanted this one badly. This is a guy who, before Game 6 last year at Oracle Arena, needed to leave the court because he was hyperventilating -- a revelation he made on a recent episode of The JJ Redick Podcast.

“I was close to throwing up or damn-near pass out,” Paul said. “I was so nervous and so anxious. And I never feel that when I play, but it was the simple fact that I had no control over what was about to happen.”

There were opportunities for Paul and the rest of the Rockets to take control of Friday’s game and turn the series. It’s hard to imagine them getting dealt a stronger set of cards. Curry sat for long stretches with foul trouble. So did Green. But Harden uncharacteristically missed five of his 12 free throws, the first time he missed that many at the line in a playoff game since 2013. Eric Gordon only took two 3-pointers and never got to the free-throw line.

Internally, there were some in the Rockets organization that felt that this was a better opportunity to take down the Warriors than last year, even though they were the No. 1 seed in 2018. This year’s Warriors team seemed disjointed after a first-round series with the L.A. Clippers and belabored with the cumulative fatigue that comes after four straight Finals runs. But still, the Rockets squandered that opportunity in Game 6.

Maybe Durant leaves the Warriors this summer and levels out the playing field out West a bit. But how can the Rockets feel any better about taking down the Warriors after losing to this Durant-less team in a must-win at home? Paul will be 35 years old this time next year, and Clint Capela didn’t take the step forward many expected this postseason. With a bloated payroll, it seems the Rockets have no choice but to run it back next season and hope they break through like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ swagger of old returned on Friday night. For the first time in a long time, it seemed respect was earned around the league again, a reminder of what this team is capable of -- with Durant and Cousins or without them. But to get respect from others, the Warriors first had to trust each other -- the coaching staff and players.

“It’s just a great vibe,” Curry said. “They bring the best out of us. That’s why we are who we are.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Habershow Episode 47: Marc Stein says NBA might not return this season

NBC Sports

Habershow Episode 47: Marc Stein says NBA might not return this season

The NBA might not return until at least September, New York Times NBA reporter Marc Stein predicted on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.
“It sounds like an extreme, extreme, extreme long shot to be able to make any of this happen by July or even August,” Stein said. “But at this point, at this juncture early April, there is still time. There’s no reason to rush, so let’s just see. But yeah I think people need to maintain a sense of realism here that as badly as NBA Twitter and hoops fans everywhere want the league to come back, it just may not be possible this season.”
But Giannis Antetokounmpo and the first-place Milwaukee Bucks shouldn’t schedule fittings for a championship ring quite yet.  
“I don’t think we are going to get to some point where they say, ‘the season is canceled, congratulations Milwaukee Bucks, you are the champions,’” Stein said. “I don’t see that happening.”
Stein has interviewed a number of NBA players about how they are keeping busy without basketball. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. told Stein “I feel like I lost two seasons” because he is not able to play basketball nor watch Premier League soccer. 
“This is the first time in our lives we don’t have sports as that outlet from the bad stuff,” Stein said.

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Stein:
7:30 -- The whirlwind of the season being shutdown
11:31 -- Biggest Premier League fan in the NBA
25:45 -- Options the NBA is exploring at this moment
34:06 -- Potential NBA calendar
47:01 -- How different the NBA Draft and evaluation will be this year
For more on the coronavirus, listen to Haberstroh’s podcast with former UCLA star Michael Roll, who is now under a total lockdown in Italy while playing for Olimpia Milano:

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

NBA's 'bubble' idea has major holes

NBC Sports

NBA's 'bubble' idea has major holes

Just over three weeks into the suspension of the NBA season, there’s still no official word from the league office on when it expects to reopen its doors and play basketball again. 

The coronavirus continues to keep the league in a holding pattern as the calendar flips to the month of April. Teams have anywhere from 15 to 19 games remaining on their regular season schedule and several teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans hope to make a late-season push into the playoffs. 

Whenever the NBA does come back, it might look drastically different. One possible scenario, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, being considered inside and outside the league is a quarantined bubble. Under this idea, according to Windhorst, the league would reassemble in one or a pair of cities and resume the season in a locked-down hotel and venue without fans in attendance. 

Plans are being drawn up to do just that in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which has been shut down since January, and NBA executives have suggested the league consider the same in possibly Las Vegas or the Bahamas, according to ESPN. The CBA hopes to restart in a bubble scenario in mid-May after several delays due to COVID-19. On a smaller scale, the BIG3 basketball league partnered with the production company of the hit TV show “Big Brother” to quarantine 16 basketball players in the same Los-Angeles-area home for three weeks with plans to play a 3-on-3 tournament and broadcast the reality show in early May. 

The bubble is an outside-the-box idea that actually does have some roots in the NBA ecosystem. 

Every December, the NBA hosts the MGM Resorts G League Winter Showcase, which convenes inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. Over the course of four days, all 28 G League teams play several games in front of NBA general managers and player personnel executives -- and, most importantly for this time, no fans. 

Of course, that’s just a four-day affair. Restarting the season would likely require several weeks of play and the league has to find a way to protect players and staff from a virus that’s been detected in over 200,000 individuals in the United States and nearly a million across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University tracking

To properly shield its teams and league personnel, the NBA would have to establish extensive precautions to ensure the health and safety of those inside the bubble. It’s not enough to think about the 450-or-so NBA players and the surrounding staffs of all 30 teams. According to Dr. Caroline Buckee, an associate professor of Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the NBA is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

“It sounds like potentially a bad idea,” Dr. Buckee said in a Zoom interview. “I don’t think it’s realistic to completely isolate and quarantine the players. For a start, there are people who will need to clean their rooms, feed them, wash their clothes, janitorial staff and so forth. And those people will not be protected and they will be interacting with their communities. 

“It is very difficult to truly self-isolate. Purposefully putting people at risk seems foolish.”

It’s not clear if the NBA is also considering hiring the necessary hospitality and support staff and housing them in the proposed quarantine facility. From an operations standpoint, the bubble could theoretically be staffed and run like a cruise ship on land where workers are prepared to feed, clean and operate for weeks at a time. The owner of the Miami Heat, Micky Arison, is also the chairman of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator. 

However, the cruise ship industry has been hit hard during the pandemic, a warning sign for the NBA as it tries to workshop plans for a closed-off community.

“I’m not sure the bubble scenario is wise,” said Dr. Charles Branas, professor and department chair of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “The chances of pulling that off for the entire NBA seems highly unlikely. All you need is one unintended case of COVID-19 and the whole thing goes bad, like a cruise ship.”

Safely staffing the entire facility is one obstacle that must be addressed if the NBA wants to seriously pursue a restart in a closed community. Another is convincing players to go for it. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James isn’t fond of the idea, saying on the Road Trippin’ podcast last week: “I ain’t going for that s***. I’m not going for that.”

James, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children and is observing California’s shelter-in-place order, is far from alone in his thinking. Dr. Neel Gandhi doesn’t call himself a die-hard sports fan, but as an infectious disease expert and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, he has found himself monitoring the coronavirus response of the sports world and worries about the practicality of a quarantined restart.

“It’s an interesting idea,” Dr. Gandhi says. “In theory, it can be done. But the question ends up being the details of what it means to quarantine these individuals. The key for me would be to truly create a closed community that they’re in.”

For Dr. Gandhi, who has been assisting at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Fulton County, Ga., several protocols would need to be in place for an NBA bubble to work. 

First, anyone who planned to be inside the bubble would need to be self-isolated offsite for 14 days to ensure they are free of the virus. Dr. Gandhi also recommends testing five to seven days into the self-isolation period and a second test at 14 days for all isolated individuals. This way, doctors could ensure, as much as possible, that an individual is not infected, and that there isn’t a false negative test before they enter the bubble and potentially transmit the virus throughout the community.

In an ideal scenario, Dr. Ghandi says, pre-bubble isolation would require extremely strict measures that go beyond the typical shelter-at-home protocol. If a player was self-isolating with family at their home, for example, no one could leave the property or enter during that two-week period. No grocery runs, no accepting deliveries from restaurants or the postal service, no trips to the pharmacy or doctor’s office. No interactions with the outside world. It’s a different world from most shelter-in-place protocols. 

Columbia’s Dr. Branas agrees with that self-isolation timeline, suggesting a strict quarantine for two to three weeks before anyone entered the bubble. 

And that’s just the beginning of the precautions. According to ESPN, the Chinese Basketball Association is considering doing daily temperature checks for its athletes. To Dr. Gandhi, that’s not enough. 

While it’s good news that players on the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are no longer showing symptoms after several tested positive last month, more needs to be done before they could re-enter society or participate in a quarantined bubble.

“Part of why it’s become so difficult to get a handle on the novel coronavirus in cities and communities is this idea that people can transmit it before you’re symptomatic,” Dr. Gandhi says. “Simply checking temperatures on a daily basis would not be enough. There’s a possibility that a person can become infectious before they have manifested a fever. You have to be very meticulous and strict about it.”

Dr. Zachary Binney, adjunct professor of Epidemiology at Emory University Oxford School and sports injury analytics consultant, is fascinated by the proposed solution, dubbing it the “the National Bio-dome Association,” a reference to the 1996 comedy film featuring Pauly Shore about a biological experiment inside a closed ecological system.

But Dr. Binney wonders whether it’s worth the trouble and risk of infection.

“The National Bio-dome Association is an intriguing idea in theory but there are a lot of details to be worked out,” Dr. Binney said, reiterating the concern for the non-basketball staffers. “Are they staying there or do they go home to their families? Because now you’ve opened the closed loop. And you risk opening someone with COVID-19 going back into the system. It’s a really difficult question.”

Dr. Binney also worries about the finite resources it would take to protect hundreds of people under one metaphorical roof. He agrees with Dr. Gandhi’s estimate that thousands of tests would need to be set aside for an NBA bubble restart. And while new coronavirus test systems, like the Abbott Labs’ test that produces results within minutes, could be promising, epidemiologists that spoke to NBC Sports were skeptical that quick and accurate tests could be  to be available at the volume the NBA would need.

“We need to think about the fact that we can’t even staff our hospitals properly right now,” Dr. Binney says. “We don’t have enough tests and personal protective equipment for the folks who are on the frontlines of the epidemic and the people who are showing symptoms, they can’t even all get tested.

“To divert the resources to the NBA to allow them to do something like this right now, that strikes me as a question worth asking whether that’s actually something we want to be doing right now.”

To be fair, the NBA isn’t considering any sort of bubble plan to go into place in the short term. Timetables are fluid. Last week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban expressed optimism that the NBA could return to the court as early as mid-May, but on Wednesday, he backed off those estimates.

“I have no idea,” Cuban told ESPN. “I mean, the only thing I know is that we’re going to put safety first and we’re not going to take any chances. We’re not going to do anything that risks the health of our players, our fans, our staff, the whole organization.”

Those words are powerful. For epidemiologists, the NBA has played a central role in sending the message to Americans about the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just by shutting the league down, but also in community outreach. Dr. Binney applauded Stephen Curry for his Instagram Live interview of prominent infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Sports leagues and athletes have a really big role in society. They can really get the public health message out there,” Dr. Binney said.

It’s something that troubles Harvard’s Dr. Buckee when she thinks about resuming the league even under a quarantined state.

“NBA players and the NBA are important role models for a lot of the country,” Dr. Buckee said. “And as people stop playing basketball themselves and parks and courts close around the country, I think it’s important that the NBA sets an example to show people that saving lives is more important than money right now.”

So if it’s untenable to restart the season in a bubble, what alternative options does the NBA have? 

From an epidemiological standpoint, the most prudent plan may be to wait this out and not risk a closed-community outbreak. In the short-term, the NBA has set up a 2K league that will be broadcast on national television. Those types of esports might be the closest we get to real competition for a while.

It’s still too early to think about organized basketball being played any time soon -- bubble or not. Dr. Gandhi points to China and South Korea as examples of countries that have taken months to return to any sort of normalcy even after their COVID-19 infection curve has flattened. 

“It’s going to be a few months before we can even really consider an athletic team taking the field or taking the court,” Dr. Gandhi says. “To think April, May or June, from my point of view, would be quite optimistic and to the point of potentially not being realistic, to think that the NBA could resume any type of normal game structure until this summer, at the earliest.”

In other words, there’s plenty of time to watch Bio-Dome before a possible NBA version of it reaches our screens.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.