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OAKLAND — Before Stephen Curry sauntered through the Spurs defense for a succession of easy baskets, before Gregg Popovich called a timeout less than a minute into the game to berate Danny Green, and before the Warriors finished off the Spurs 112–101 and turned their attention to the quest for 73, it was a night for dubious claims.
“What happens tonight really doesn’t matter that much,” claimed Steve Kerr prior to the game, wearing a shirt that read “Make Par Not War.”
“Has nothing to do with who we’re playing,” Pop claimed about his decision to play his starters, citing the logic of schedules and rest and rhythm and a bunch of other stuff as he faced a halo of reporters outside the visitor’s locker room. Pop said that same logic dictates that he’ll rest his starters against Denver and then play them at home Sunday, against the Warriors. But only, you know, because of the schedule. The chance for an undefeated home season? “Who cares?” said Pop.
Then again, knowing Pop’s love of the long game, one has to wonder if the advance notice for Sunday isn’t just part of some larger strategy. Indeed, it was tempting to watch last night’s game and wonder if an element of Popovich–ian rope-a-dope was involved. Sure, the victory secured 70 wins and home–court advantage for the Warriors, but those outcomes were likely regardless. And if Golden State continues to focus on a regular season mark, rather than preparing for the playoffs, well, that’s probably to San Antonio’s advantage.
Then again, none of that may matter, as impressive as the Warriors looked. For the first time in weeks, the team appeared truly engaged. Andrew Bogut protecting the rim and setting his patented sorta–illegal–but–not–quite screens. Draymond Green leading the break and roaring. The team shooting 54% from the field and 48% on threes.
Afterward, 73 was on the their minds. Curry made it clear he wants it. Draymond does, too. “Let’s face it, we’ll probably never get to this point again,” he said postgame “That’s why it’s only been done one time.” Harrison Barnes is in. “I’m 23, so I got no problem playing the rest of these games,” he said. Kerr didn’t sound so sure. “I’m kind of confused about how we should approach it,” he said after the game. But he also said he made a pact with the players that if they were healthy and wanted to do it, he had to consider that. It is, he pointed out, “a very unique situation.”
So it is. As we were reminded leading up to the game, last night was the first time two teams with 65 wins have met in the regular season. So large was the media crowd—the biggest of the year, according to Warriors staff, besting the pre-Super-Bowl Thunder game—that the team had to open an auxiliary section of media seating. The vibe led to bizarre scenes like Rick Barry, a Warriors Hall of Famer, lurking around the Spurs locker room, taking selfies with Kawhi Leonard—who looked a bit puzzled by the request—and Popovich (Rick then asked if maybe Tim Duncan could come out of the locker room for a photo too; Tim did not emerge).
As for the game, it wasn’t as close as the score indicates. Still, a few things stood out, especially with future Warriors-Spurs matchups in mind:
• Harrison Barnes. Warriors fans tend to grumble about Barnes, but he’s crucial to the team’s success. Last night he did an admirable job of guarding LaMarcus Aldridge in the post when necessary– teaming with Draymond Green to hold Aldridge to 5–of–16 shooting. He also spaced the floor, sinking three 3-pointers (Barnes has now hit more from deep in four April games than he did all of March). A smart, self-aware player, Barnes is occasionally prone to overthinking (he told me after the game that he recently read “The Mindful Athlete”, by George Mumford). The looser he plays, the better for the team, and last night he looked very loose.
• Tim Duncan looked all of his 39 years. As someone in the same general age range as Duncan, it pains me to write that. But I can’t recall seeing a less-effective game from Duncan. Nearing 40, with two thick plastic knee braces, he looked lost at times in a fast-paced game. Though he defended the paint, he was a non–factor on offense and, in one unfortunate possession, had to switch onto Curry on the perimeter, something the Spurs should make sure never happens again. One imagines that if these two teams meet in the playoffs we might not see much of Timmy.
• The most noticeable performance might have come on the sideline. After a trying season, Steve Kerr had the old fire back. The first sign came at morning shootaround, when Kerr and Curry held a free throw shooting contest for the first time in ages (Kerr’s form looked good). During the game, he was his old, sorta-ornery self. Pop lite, basically. He yelled at refs. He stalked the sideline, arms up in a What-the-hell-was-that pose? He got so pissed during one timeout that he broke a clipboard. As usual, his after time out plays were on target, including a lob pass to Bogut that was beautiful to watch unfold.
The end result was, from the Warriors' perspective, optimal. The final week of the season just got more interesting. Sunday night is shaping up as a potentially historic night, with two records possibly on the line (72 wins and 41–0). Next Wednesday could give us both Kobe’s final game and a Warriors shot at 73. “Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself to appreciate it all in the moment,” Barnes said in the tunnel after the game, the sound of celebrating fans in the distance. “This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”