…Uh huh, Uh huh, I like it. — KC & The Sunshine Band
This was the best win of the Warriors’ season. I say that first of all because it came against a very tough team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Don’t scoff. This isn’t your Daddy’s Clippers team. This is the Clippers team of Blake Griffin, who only needs continued health to erase all memory of Karl Malone. (Yes, I said that.) This is a Clippers team with Eric Gordon, who is rapidly becoming a bonafide star. And with Baron Davis. A healthier, slimmed down, motivated, gleam-in-his-eye Baron Davis, who has finally been freed from the half-court swamp of The Kamanosaurus by the emergence of DeAndre Jordan at center.
This is a Clippers team that ended San Antonio’s 8 game winning streak to start the season in BDiddy’s first game back from injury, and ended the Miami Heat’s 13 game road winning streak 2 days ago. You can toss out their early season record. Injuries, youth and inexperience, Kamanistry problems. Whatever. This Clippers team is coming on. They’re for real.
It was also a great win because it came against a team that could very well be in the hunt with the Warriors for that 8th seed by the end of the season.
But for me, it was the best win of the season because it resulted directly from the Warriors finally playing the game on their own terms. Playing their style. With Keith Smart dictating the matchups to the other coach, rather than the other way around.
With running. With early offense. With three pointers. With unleashing the guards. With pick and roll. With “gimmick” defense.
With Reggie Williams finally appearing at his best position: small forward. Point forward.
With Vlad Rad outplaying Blake Griffin in crunch time. Head to head.
With the Warriors playing the style of basketball they were built for, slowly and painstakingly over two agonizing years, piece after perfect piece, by the greatest GM in NBA history.
That’s the way I like it.
KEITH SMART: A lot of Warriors players stepped up tonight, but for me Keith Smart was the star of the game. I have never believed the mantra that games in the NBA are won by players, not coaches. If that were true, Don Nelson would have wound up back on the pig farm. Coaches make a huge difference in the NBA, and this game is Exhibit A for this season.
Let’s start with something simple: the guard matchups. In LA, Smart made the same mistake he has been making all season long: putting Curry on the quick guard, and Monta on the big guard. In this game, Smart finally got it right, and put Curry on Baron Davis.
In my comment on the last Clipper game, I wrote that Curry is very clever guarding bigger players. I saw it last year, when he was asked by Nellie to guard Baron Davis and Tyreke Evans. And I saw it again on the first play of this game, when Vinny Del Negro immediately attacked Curry with a Baron Davis post-up. What happened? Baron was DENIED. The Clippers retained the ball, set it up again, and Curry DENIED it again.
Go back and watch this play again if you can. This is how the Warriors backcourt should be deployed when the opposing team’s most dangerous scorer is their small guard. This is how a great coach should deploy a slow but clever defender: on bigger players.
Smart paid the price for this move with Monta’s foul trouble. But it was worth it.
What else did Smart get right in this game? Let’s run down the list:
The running game: The Warriors have got it in 5th gear now. Finally. They are looking to push not only after turnovers, but after every rebound. Most telling for me is that the guards are no longer walking back for handoffs from the bigs. They are leaking out, and receiving outlet passes. This is a huge difference from how the Warriors were transitioning earlier in the season. In Biedrins, Lee, Vlad Rad and DWright, the Warriors have forwards that can not only see, but also deliver a perfect outlet pass. In this game, they finally began using that talent.
That 122-112 score? It will be hard for Keith Smart to build a resume as a defensive coach with those kind of scores. But those are precisely the kind of scores that this Warriors team should be aiming for.
Astute fans noticed the defense that the Warriors played in this game. Defense can be played in the context of high octane running games, as the Miami Heat, the OKC Thunder and the Orlando Magic — and the Warriors — are in the process of proving. What results is point-differential. That is the stat that matters. That is the stat that predicts NBA champions. And that is the stat that Keith Smart should be looking to put on his resume.
Andris Biedrins: If you were to say that Beans heard the long knives being sharpened for him after the last game, you would be right. Marcus Thompson and Matt Steinmetz both interviewed Biedrins on his poor play, and wrote feature articles critical of him. Beans responded with a terrific effort, on both sides of the ball.
His improved offense was of course the most intriguing. And Keith Smart deserves a lot of credit for it. He obviously demanded that Beans assert himself more, and also that the guards look for him more. But he also finally gave up trying to post Beans up — which is so not his game — and instead got him the ball the way Nellie always got him the ball: on the move. That is the way you use a light and mobile center.
Take a look at that early offense, high pick and roll between Monta and Beans at 10:50 of the 4th quarter. Yes, yes, yes.
David Lee: Lee did a little posting up against Blake Griffin, and wasn’t half bad at it. That righty jump hook is money. But Lee belongs on the wings, in pick and roll. And in the key, running the high post.
I can only imagine what Don Nelson is thinking, watching Lee run the high post from his couch in Maui. David Lee is the apotheosis of the acme of what Don Nelson dreamed of in a big man. He is the best passing big man Nellie would have had since… the name that must not be spoken.
David Lee is an absolutely extraordinary passer. A great deal of the Warriors’ half-court efficiency is due directly to his instant and decisive passing decisions, and his perfect deliveries. Dorell Wright should buy him an Escalade after this season.
(By the way, did someone know this about David Lee before the season started? It wasn’t anyone employed by our wonderful local papers, I can assure you of that.)
I digress. Keith Smart has started to uncover the best ways to use David Lee. Started. When he figures it out completely, he will realize that he is a lucky, lucky man.
By the way, are you tempted to tell me that Lee is a poor defender because of Blake Griffin’s 28 and 13 performance? Well, Blake Griffin gave Tim Duncan 31 and 13. OK, now go right ahead.
Vlad Rad: Tell the truth, when Vlad got the ball after that Clipper turnover at 3:30 of the 4th Q, and began steaming full speed up the court, did you suffer heart palpitations? You can admit it. I did too. Such are the joys of watching our Vladdy. But lo and behold, he found a safe area to stop, look around and hand off the ball without incident.
And regardless of his propensity for malodorous brain emissions, there can be no denying anymore that properly deployed — at power forward — Vlad Rad is an extremely valuable player. Right?
Take another look at that huge corner three that Vlad hit at 3:12 of the 4th Q. Where was Blake Griffin on that play? Lost, under the basket, waiting to help his guards. THAT is how you beat dominant size in the NBA.
And those driving lanes that suddenly appeared for Monta Ellis after that? It wasn’t a miracle that made them appear. It wasn’t motion offense, or a terrific play call. It was Vlad Rad, 43% from three on the season and 3-5 in this game, stationed at the arc. THAT is how you beat dominant size in the NBA.
I wonder, where was this strategy against the Lakers? What made the light bulb suddenly go on for Keith Smart?
It did go on though, finally, in the 39th game of the season. And hopefully the switch will get stuck. In the WIN position.
By the way, which Warriors big man was most effective at guarding Blake Griffin? It wasn’t Lee, nor Biedrins, nor Udoh, nor Mr. Lacob Quotient. It was Vlad Rad. Take another look at his crunch time defense on Griffin at 2:40 of the 4th. He actually got Griffin moving backwards at the end of his move. Setting him up for the DWright capping.
As Don Nelson taught us, sometimes quickness and cleverness is the best defense against size. That +19? It doesn’t lie. As I have argued before, Lee at 5 and Vlad Rad at 4 is the Warriors’ BEST lineup. The one they should be looking to get to in crunch time.
Reggie Williams: The release of Rodney Carney had one great effect on the Warriors. It forced Keith Smart to play Reggie Williams, and to play him at his best position: small forward. You saw the results. Reggie had no problem getting his offense started, as he had a quickness advantage that left him open both behind the line and on his drives.
In fact, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, I do believe I saw a 2nd Q lineup of Udoh at center, Vlad Rad at 4, and Reggie at 3. Wow. How far we’ve come.
Yes, Reggie’s terrific crunch time play came with him playing point guard in Curry’s stead. But by that time he was fully into the game, with his confidence up, and no fear of being yanked for Carney after a defensive lapse.
As for Reggie at point guard: I have been agitating loudly for it in these pages since the beginning of the season, and suffering not a little push back for it from loyal readers. To these friends I say: rewind the tape and watch Reggie play the point in crunch time in this game. Two plays in particular: The drive and dish to Vlad Rad in the corner for three at 3:12. And the spectacular pick and roll with Lee at 2:20. The touch on that on-the-move, perfectly thrown lob was something special. There are not a lot of players — nor even a lot of point guards — in this league who possess that kind of passing ability.
Post-game, Keith Smart stated that he has been trying to get Reggie to play like this from the start of the season. I think I saw the ghost of Rodney Carney fall of my couch at that news.
Whatever. Reggie did it in this game, and Keith Smart deserves a lot of credit for having the guts to put him in position to excel in crunch time.
Which brings me to…
Stephen Curry: I have insinuated frequently this season that Keith Smart has perhaps been less than courageous in resisting the influence of Joe Lacob on the Warriors’ style of play.
I have to say this, though: Smart is damn courageous in his dealings with Stephen Curry this season. It takes balls to yank the face of the franchise in close games, and to keep him yanked and steaming on the bench in crunch time.
There is a war brewing between Curry and Smart. I’m not entirely sure where I stand on it. I want Curry to be free to create. I want him to be free to throw up any shot, at any time. I want him to be the phenomenal player he was as a rookie last year. And in Smart’s shoes I would be willing to overlook a few silly turnovers and blown defensive assignments, to keep his leadership on the floor.
But Keith Smart — the former point guard — has a greater vision for Stephen Curry. He wants Curry to become not just a point guard, but a playoff point guard. A point guard who can manage the game in crunch time. A point guard who values possessions. A championship point guard.
And Smart is willing to go all the way with Curry in order to make his point. He is willing to infuriate the face of the franchise, something that has gotten not a few coaches fired in the past. I admire the balls it takes to do that.
I’m just not sure I want him to win this battle. Not completely.
Comic Relief: Smart also had the balls to yank Joe Lacob’s prize offseason acquisition after 5 miserable minutes in this game. Among other things, Amundson went 0-2 from the free throw line, dropping him to 29% on the year.
It is a feltbot maxim that free throws should never be missed long. But after watching sweet Lou airball his first, I think I need to add an exception to this maxim.
I’m calling it the Amundson exception.