I snarked pre-game on Twitter that the Warriors were finally playing a team that Mark Jackson knew how to match up against. I was referring of course, to Jackson’s penchant for playing big in crunchtime. And for using Andrew Bogut to close games. Even in the most obviously wrong situations, as against Toronto’s closing smallball frontline of Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson. Jackson literally gave that game away.
So against the Pacers, I figured that Jackson for once could do no wrong. I expected him to stick to his tried and untrue formula, but for it not to be such an egregious error this time, against one of the biggest and slowest frontcourts in the league.
Imagine my surprise when Jackson won this game with 4th quarter Nellieball. Jackson stuck with his reserve frontline of O’Neal and Green throughout the fourth quarter, leaving Bogut and Lee on the bench. Even after Hibbert and West returned. He also left Iggy on the bench, playing Harrison Barnes in his place.
The results were spectacular. Instead of playing 3 on 5 on offense, as they did for absolutely no conceivable reason against Toronto, the Warriors in this game played with 5 shooters on the floor in crunchtime. And got wide open shots for everyone. Green, Barnes, and in particular, Klay Thompson.
Without giving up a damn thing on defense. In fact, this Warriors Nellieball unit, with Bogut and Iguodala on the bench, played better on the defensive end than did the Warriors starters.
A lot of that had to with Draymond Green, of course. Green is not big enough to start and play 36 minutes against fronline power forwards. But when reserved for crunchtime, he can be a force against much bigger players. Green harassed West’s dribble, making it difficult for him to get to his spots. And he had an extraordinary game on the boards, pulling down 7 in 21 minutes, and keeping many more alive.
But Thompson and Barnes played great games on the defensive end as well. Barnes was surprisingly good defending Paul George in this game. A flashback to that extraordinary defensive performance he gave against Kevin Durant. That is no doubt what gave Jackson the confidence to leave Iggy on the bench.
But the Warriors won this game not just because they defended well, but because they SCORED. That has been the missing ingredient for them this season in crunchtime. And it was something I predicted before the season would be difficult for them, with Bogut healthy, and Iggy replacing Jack. The Warriors simply cannot win in crunchtime playing 3 on 5 on the offensive end.
Mark Jackson, to my utter shock, found an answer in this game. He made an adjustment, added some dynamism to his rotations. Realized the value of offense. Realized that the name of the game is point differential, not defense alone. Utilized the extraordinary roster versatility that has been at his fingertips all season long. Is this a sign of a lightbulb clicking on in his head?
That’s not a safe bet with Jackson. It’s more likely that the “flow coach” simply decided to go with what was working.
But one can dream.
Three more points about Jackson’s coaching in this game:
1) The Good: The Warriors got killed by the Pacers on the boards in Oakland, because while the Warriors bigs were engaged in death struggles, Stephenson, Granger and George swept in for numerous uncontested rebounds. I made a note of it in my recap, and prescribed determined gang rebounding by the Warriors guards.
Mark Jackson apparently agreed: Curry 8, Thompson 5, Barnes 5.
2) The Bad: The Warriors fell apart when Curry returned to finish the game. Part of the blame goes of course to Curry, who made a couple of careless turnovers.
But part of the blame goes to Mark Jackson. The Pacers switched all-world defender Paul George onto Curry, and Jackson was slow to react. Why in the world would you ask Curry to isolate against Scottie Pippen at the top of the key, when you have the option to set a high pick? Particularly when you can set that pick with Jermaine O’Neal, who unlike Bogut can finish a pick and roll? And particularly when O’Neal’s man was Roy Hibbert, who is not only incapable of blitzing Curry, but incapable of guarding him after the switch?
Curry’s last turnover was fed to him by bad coaching.
3) The Good and the Bad: The final play call was a great one. With Curry being guarded by Paul George, and Iggy’s shooting hand fingers taped together, going to Thompson iso’d on George Hill was perfect. Hill can’t guard him. And Thompson, unlike Harrison Barnes, can make that turnaround.
One has to think, however, that Jackson was greatly abetted in the success of this play by the decision of his counterpart, Frank Vogel, to use Lance Stephenson to guard Iggy. What was he thinking? Iggy can’t shoot even when his right index finger isn’t dislocated and taped back into place. Despite Iggy’s two freak makes this season, opposing NBA coaches have salivated for years at the thought of leaving Iggy open to take the final shot of the game. Hill should have been hidden on Iggy, and Stephenson should have been on Thompson.
Which leads me to Jackson’s final mistake, which was masked by Vogel’s. Why was Iggy in the game for that final offensive possession? Where would the Warriors have gone if Vogel had gotten it right?
KLAY THOMPSON ARRIVES
I can hear the snickers already. “One good game and Felty goes off!” “Small sample size!” “(TS%/Pace)*(Lacob Quotient)/(Assists + Offensive Rebounds) = Mediocrity!”
Yes, Thompson’s shot fell in this game, and yes, that has not been at all a regular occurrence lately. But that’s not the point that I’m interested in making. The point I want to make has to do with Thompson’s mindset.
The mindset that he needs to have is one of a superstar. Stephen Curry desperately needs a reliable sidekick if the Warriors are to contend for a championship. That sidekick is going to be Klay Thompson.
As soon as he makes up his mind to become it.
Too often this season, Klay Thompson has settled for a poor shooting game. He has continued to fire jumpers, and shaken his head in frustration when he shoots poorly. That is NOT what superstars do.
Superstars win. That’s what they think about. When their shot is not falling, they become determined to find another way to help their team win. They put their heads down and drive to the basket. They launch themselves into the chests of bigger players, willing to take the punishment, willing to get knocked to the floor. Anything to get to the line, to get some points for their team, to get themselves going.
Superstars make an adjustment. Like winning poker players. When a poker player’s shots are not falling, he changes his game. Tightens it up, screws it down. Gets the mindset that he’s not going to leak a penny. And if he feels that an opponent is trying to pick on him, he doesn’t accept that meekly. He plays back, and makes that opponent look at his stack.
I get that Thompson feels that he’s part of a talented team. That he knows the other Warriors are more veteran than he is, and great players in their own right. I get that he’s patient and unselfish and determined to play his role.
But if the Warriors are going to win a championship, that has to end. It’s time for Thompson to assert himself. To take his rightful place on this team. As this game against the toughest defense in the league showed, Thompson is capable — capable — of becoming an offensive superstar. But it will only happen if he wants it. If he decides not to be content with simply playing, but becomes determined to lead his team.
I am writing this now, because there have been signs since the All Star break that Thompson is starting to get it. That he’s starting to drive more, that he’s trying to get to the line more, that he’s become more willing to take contact. In this game in particular, I felt that Klay was determined to get to the bucket, and that he got his game back on track in the fourth quarter with those two free throws.
That is a winning mindset. That is seizing the game by the throat.
It’s probable that Klay took over the fourth quarter of this game because Curry and Lee were sitting, and he was the number one option on the floor. But I am sensing that something has clicked in Klay’s mind, that he’s about to make a move.
The moment Klay decides that he needs to put his body on the line and play this way every single game, will be the moment Klay Thompson arrives as a superstar in the NBA.
And the moment the Warriors become a true contender.
I stated before the season that the Warriors might have the best starting five in basketball. There are some stats now that provide some support for that view. Like the fact that Iggy, Curry and Lee are all in the top five in plus/minus in the league.
I stated before the season that the Warriors have a good enough team to win the West and contend for a title. A lot of things have conspired this season to make that look like a poor prediction. My top three, in order of importance: Mark Jackson, key injuries, and one of the toughest early schedules in the league.
And yet, thoughout the Warriors’ struggles this season, I have steadfastly maintained my belief in this team’s talent. My belief that this team could win, and win big, if only Mark Jackson could get his stuff together.
There are signs. In the midst of struggle, of Jackson misplaying his bench, and repeatedly giving away games in the fourth quarter, there are signs. Like beating the Heat in Miami, twice in two seasons. Like beating the Pacers in Indiana.
I believe, still, that in the hands of a great tactical coach, this Warriors team has the potential to make magic.
Is Mark Jackson that coach?