The tattered shreds of the Warriors took the floor last night against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic, and almost created a little magic of their own. Alas, for the second game in a row, after a rousing third quarter comeback, the Warriors hit a significant dry spell in the fourth quarter and fell apart against a veteran playoff team. Fatigue from once again gutting it out with a 6 player rotation? The inexperience of the rookie Curry, who made a couple of horrible turnovers in crunch time? Or the overall inexperience of the Warriors team, who due to a ridiculous set of circumstances have been forced to play jury-rigged and improvisational lineups ever since the start of the season? I’m having a tough time deciding, and really don’t care. I truly enjoyed this game, because of what I saw in two kids and a coach. And rather than bore you with another game recap, that’s what I’m going to write about.
Chris Hunter: The Cinderella story of the Warriors’ season added another chapter tonight. Chris Hunter, the undrafted rookie journeyman freshly called up from Bakersfield, was thrown into the fire in the first quarter against Dwight Howard. And once again the rookie — coolly, calmly, miraculously — delivered. The first thing he did was knock Howard on his can with a flick of his right arm. Wow. Have I mentioned that this kid is strong? When I saw that, I literally fell in love. The Warriors have a player that can knock Dwight Howard down! And wants to!
My mouth was hanging open after that play, and I never got the chance to shut it while Hunter was in the game. He tortured Dwight Howard. Literally tortured him. He blocked Howard’s shot on the low post, and forced him to miss another. He drew a huge offensive foul. And he pulled Howard out of the lane on the offensive end by calmly draining 20 footers in his mug. Have I mentioned that this kid is ice?
By the time Stan Van Gundy cried uncle and went to Marcin Gortat off the bench, Hunter had earned a Warriors leading +6 for his 5 minute stint. And he had successfully softened Howard up for what was to come next.
When Hunter was brought into this game, Jim Barnett humorously said that Dwight Howard probably didn’t know his name. Well, he knows it now. The eyes of GMs around the league must be bugging out at this performance. Something changed forever in the life of Chris Hunter last night. He will never set foot in the D-League again.
Mr. Anthony Randolph: What came next was Anthony Randolph. Don Nelson brought him into the game to play against Gortat, Orlando’s immobile back-up monster. (Actually, he’s far from immobile. Except when playing against Anthony Randolph.) Randolph destroyed Gortat. He out-rebounded him, out-ran him, and out-shot him. Gortat picked up 5 fouls in 12 minutes trying to keep Randolph in front of him. Couldn’t do it.
Randolph was so good against Gortat, that Nellie decided to give him a chance against Dwight Howard. And Randolph carried over his great performance in his matchup with the all-star. Like Hunter, he drew Howard away from the basket with his outside shot. He also got Howard out of the lane by running the point for large stretches of the game. Point-center! Randolph brought the ball up and distributed it to his teammates flawlessly and with aplomb.
His performance on the defensive end was no less good. He battled Howard on the post, doing his work early against him to gain position, and he held his ground. He was rewarded for this work with a couple of offensive foul calls on Howard that got him into foul trouble, and sent him to the bench. The second of these was a silly thrown elbow, a foul that Randolph goaded Howard into with his pesky defense. Randolph picked up his third Melted Brain of the season, and with it gave the Warriors a glimmer of hope in this game.
Randolph finished the game with an incredible line of 28 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists (against 0 turnovers). By far the greatest performance of his young career. But what was truly great about it is that he achieved it by playing the right way. As Nellie put it: “He understood the game plan better than my veterans.”
Don Nelson: I’m pretty sure that Nellie won’t get blamed for this loss. That’s because Nellie actually played a big lineup for most of the fourth quarter, going with Randolph, Vlad Rad and Maggette on the front line. It’s somewhat amusing that one game after the Warriors ran out of fresh bigs, in this game they ran out of fresh smalls. You know Nellie is out of small players when he’s forced to play Maggette at the small forward!
Nellie did a couple of things in this game that I really enjoyed. The first was to improvise his second-half starting lineup on the fly. I’m sure that when he drew up his game plan, Nellie planned to go with Mikki Moore or Chris Hunter to start the second half. And the way that Hunter played Howard in the first half, it would have been no surprise if he had gotten the call. I even expected it. But Nellie opened the second half with Randolph at center. Why?
Why did Nellie make this move? One reason, of course, was that Randolph was simply playing great. But the more important reason, I feel sure, was that the Warriors had Howard in foul trouble. He opened the half with four fouls, and one more would get him out of the game, and give the Warriors a chance to win. And sure enough, Randolph melted Howard’s brain, and got him out of the game. How many coaches are capable of this kind of mid-game improvisation? Nellie had an instinct that Randolph could get Howard out of the game, and his instinct was dead-on.
The second thing Nellie did in this game that I loved was to play Randolph at point-center. This was part of Nellie’s overall game plan to pull Dwight Howard away from the basket, and give the Warriors room to operate. In the second half, Randolph frequently brought the ball up court. This got him to the top of the key with the ball in his hands with a full shot clock. Howard was forced to come out to guard him. And this led to some very effective offense. Two plays in particular stood out for me (shout-out to Gary St. Jean):
- Randolph initiates to Monta Ellis at the elbow. Howard decides to help trap Ellis (following his own team’s game plan). Randolph slides to the basket, where Monta finds him for the easy jump hook.
- Randolph fakes to Monta Ellis on the elbow, and when Monta goes back-door against the overplay, Randolph hits him perfectly on the alley-oop.
Point-center. In order for a team to run this, it needs two things. A very special player at center. And a very special coach, who has the brilliance to bring out every ounce of his players’ creativity and talent. The Warriors have both. After the game, Nellie stated that he was very excited by Randolph’s game, and that he thought Randolph played a “perfect game.” He went on to say, “This is what I envisioned when I drafted him,” and ”These are the kinds of things I thought I could do with him.” In other words, point-center. Thank you, Don Nelson. I’m glad I got to watch that.
The Warriors lost this game. But I took away from it an immense enjoyment, and the growing conviction that the Warriors now have all of the pieces, and the coach, to become a very special basketball team in the near future. There is an art to watching an immensely talented but immature basketball team suffer growing pains against the best teams in the league. An art very similar to the art of living well.
You have to be able to enjoy a hard-fought, but ultimately losing battle. And never lose hope in the future.