LOS ANGELES -- Only 24 miles separate True Love Worship Center International, the church in Reseda where Mark Jackson serves as pastor, from Staples Center, the arena in downtown L.A. where he is fighting to remain a coach. Jackson delivered an early Easter sermon Saturday afternoon, less than five minutes into Game 1 of the playoffs, with his center out, his stopper in foul trouble, and his team shaken after missing its first eight shots to fall behind 12-1.
He gathered the Warriors and reviewed their missteps, encouraged them to relax, and reminded them how they traditionally embrace the bright lights even if momentarily blinded.
"It will go our way," Jackson told the Warriors. "Keep believing."
Jackson admitted that if he were still sitting on press row, broadcasting games with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, he'd have picked the Clippers in the first round like virtually everybody else. Despite 51 wins, the Warriors struggled this season with their rotation and their chemistry. They dropped home games to the Knicks, Cavaliers and Bobcats, plus the Nuggets twice. Two assistant coaches were let go. Home-court expectations went unmet.
"You could tell there was tension on the court through the year," said small forward Andre Iguodala. "You ask, 'When will it end?'...You wonder, 'When will we grow up?'"
Iguodala should remember, from being on the other side of the Golden State-Denver series last April, the Warriors only blossom in the spring. The endearing sniper unit that upset the Nuggets and prodded the Spurs is back again after swiping Game 1 from the Clippers at Staples, 109-105. They did it, not with Steph Curry moonbeams, but David Lee lay-ups and Jermaine O'Neal jams. The Clippers opted to trap Curry, but instead of forcing three-pointers over two defenders, he swung the ball to teammates who found cutters for easier baskets.
"We grew up tonight," Iguodala said. "We matured tonight."
According to Iguodala, this win was born nearly two weeks ago, when the Warriors faced the Nuggets and a D-League call-up named Hilton Armstrong made a thoughtful observation at the end of the bench.
"Next time they trap Steph, we need the big to step up and be his release guy, and it's two-on-one," Armstrong said. Then Armstrong entered the game and showed what he was talking about. The Warriors, down to three assistant coaches, paid rapt attention.
"We've had problems finding a release guy to step up to help Steph when he's getting trapped," Iguodala said. "Other guys (saw Armstrong) and were like, 'Oh, man, that's wide open.'" Armstrong, O'Neal and Lee took turns as outlet receivers for Curry on Saturday, helping the offense hum without his usual step-back threes.
Iguodala marveled from the bench, where he languished with foul trouble, same as Blake Griffin. Referees, who spent the week hearing about bad blood boiling between the Clippers and Warriors, called the game as if was cotillion. Griffin and Iguodala both fouled out; Chris Paul finished with five fouls, Klay Thompson, Lee and O'Neal four apiece.
"I thought all the hype definitely had an impact," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. While Rivers was cautious with Griffin, using him for only four minutes in the first half, Jackson was bold with Iguodala. If the pastor is truly coaching for his job in this series, as many believe, he couldn't have scripted a better start. Even without injured center Andrew Bogut, the best answer to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down low, Golden State out-rebounded the bigger Clippers and out-scored them in the paint. Thompson celebrated by spiking the ball high off the Staples floor. Griffin vented by tossing a cup of water on a Warriors fan, inadvertently or not.
Jackson likes to use the phrase "generational curses" when describing what the Clippers and Warriors have overcome in recent years, but the Clips turned back the clock a bit Saturday. In the last minute, with the Warriors handing over every opportunity to retake the lead or force overtime, Griffin missed two gimmes. Collison and Paul both lost balls out of bounds. Every possession was squandered. The Clippers looked so discombobulated you'd have thought Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol had made special playoff appearances.
As a result, a match-up that initially favored L.A. became instantaneously competitive.
"Trials and tribulations is transportation for where you're going," Jackson said, in what sounded like a preview of his Easter sermon.
"And we are here."