"Oh, God," said Monte Cristo, "your vengeance may sometimes be slow in coming, but I think that then it is all the more complete."
--The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844
The phone call was from Steve Kerr and Bob Myers, and that got Zaza Pachulia’s attention.
“That tells you, already, something, that they’re serious,” Pachulia recalled Sunday. “Steve was very open. He said I was their first option. That gives you trust, that gives you confidence, and belief, right? I don’t think you can succeed if you’re not doing things right. And throughout the years, they’ve been proving that. That phone call meant a lot, even though I had a couple of other options.”
All the attention last July was on the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit, and ultimate signing of Kevin Durant, and rightly so. But the Warriors have created this oasis, this tribute to basketball played with Joie de vivre, by making everyone associated with the operation feel that they’re part of it, and an integral part at that. The physical therapists, the ushers, the DJ (D-Sharp) who spins the pregame vinyl at Oracle -- and Pachulia, who’d enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career for 12 years for four teams before the Warriors came calling last summer.
They needed a center to replace Andrew Bogut, who’d been an important part of the championship team in 2015 and the 73-win team in 2016. Even as the Warriors have rained 3-pointers on the world, and Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have changed the geography and geometry of the basketball court, Golden State still needed a guy who could set screens, grab rebounds and defend the post. It was a job that still mattered.
A win from re-establishing themselves as the gold standard of the NBA, Pachulia -- and forward David West, and assistant coach Mike Brown, and so many others -- know that they matter as much as the franchise’s stars. It’s what Kerr has insisted upon since he took over as coach, and it remains the logical extension of a franchise built not only around Curry -- a competitor, someone who wants desperately to win, but one who still makes time for the Jones BBQ and Foot Massage pregame dance with the team’s security detail -- but also by Myers, the GM, and Kerr, all close friends who bring a certain humanity to their respective gigs.
That’s been clear as the team waited patiently for Kerr to return to the bench after suffering another physical setback related to the botched back surgery he had two years, which has often left him racked in pain. Yes, they never lost a game while Brown piloted the team. But it’s a testament to Kerr that there was no substitute teacher backsliding while he was away.
“Over the years, you learn about each other,” Myers said just before Kerr came back in Game 2. “You build relationships. If you don’t have that, and you’re operating in isolation, then making decisions is a lot harder. It’s like how we all make decisions with friends, family members, spouses. There’s equity in the relationship. You factor all that in. You allow them the respect to make that decision. Although it looks like it’s going to be made in a singular moment, these things and these processes take years to build.”
But beating the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight and finishing these Finals is crucial for these Warriors, the way it was necessary for the San Antonio Spurs’ soul to redeem themselves against the Miami Heat in The 2014 Finals after blowing a 3-2 lead to the Heat in 2016. Golden State has done so much in Kerr’s three seasons, but losing that 3-1 Finals lead over Cleveland last year was a deep, deep cut, the culmination of an unfortunate series of events that gave LeBron James a chance to catch his breath and get his second wind.
That the Warriors were comfortable enough in their own skin, coming off a 73-win regular season, to be able to approach Durant as a group in the Hamptons last July and ask for his help was a big reason Durant ultimately decided to go to the Bay.
“It’s understanding where you are. It’s being confident enough to be able to say, we can use this,” Green said of Durant. “And not too cocky to say, ‘nah, we’re good.’ Most people, your ego’s going to say, nah, we’re good. We won a championship. Lost in Game 7, 3-1 lead. We’re good. But the reality of it is, yeah, we may have been good. But if we get KD, we’re really good.”
These Finals, rightly or wrongly, are less about the defending champs than they are a referendum on the NBA’s latest superteam, and on Durant’s decision to join it -- the same group that defeated him in the Western Conference finals last year, when he was on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There have been gallons of ink spilled and years of carpal tunnel syndrome that will come from all the clickbait generated by KD’s decision. Yet his team is 30-2 in its last 32 games, and was one loss from becoming the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in the playoffs. If Durant seems a little cautious about letting his emotions bubble to the surface, it’s understandable. There’s a lot running through his head. But he’s the odds-on favorite to be Finals MVP, which will give him the ultimate retort to the boos and insults.
“It’s a lot, it’s joy, to not wanting to be satisfied with where we are right now,” Durant said last week. “It’s kind of weird. Because I want to enjoy every single moment, but I don’t want to enjoy it too much where I’m taking myself out of the game plan, and the focus level I have to be at in order to compete in every game as best you can.”
There were fits and starts -- recall Thompson saying “I’m not sacrificing (bleep) because my game isn’t changing” soon after Durant’s signing. But, ultimately, he did. They all did.
Green averaged 10.1 shots per game in 2015-16. His presence as a playmaker and pressure release at the top of the key was an integral part of the Warriors’ offense. And, he’s an NBA player. Every NBA player thinks they need more shots.
Yet Green said publicly -- and early, before the Warriors really knew how everything would work this season -- that he’d sacrifice shots and concentrate almost exclusively on defense. Did he do that to be a good teammate, or to announce to the world his candidacy for Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year? Probably a little bit of both. But he did it, dropping to 8.6 shots this season. The symbolism was as important as the actual reduction.
“There’s only such and such shots to go around,” Green said. “Do we want Steph taking less shots? Probably not; he hits a lot of them. Do we want Klay taking less shots? Probably not; he hits a lot of them. Do we want to get Kevin Durant a lot of shots? Probably; that’s why he’s here. He can go get a bucket anytime and anyway, and we need that. So, who’s next up on the shot list? Me. I also hit less than all three of them.”
But Curry and Thompson had to make room for Durant, too -- figuratively if not literally. You know what you don’t hear anymore when people talk about the Warriors? You don’t hear “Splash Brothers” -- the cool nickname for the Curry-Thompson backcourt, whose arrival as starters together beginning in 2012 began the seismic change in the NBA landscape.
Curry and Thompson were the catalysts, the ridiculously prodigious accelerants that made the Warriors go. But when Durant arrived, they had to sacrifice some of that acclaim -- not that either is tripping off of getting public and media attention.
“Klay cares what his dog thinks,” Green said, “and Steph cares what his family thinks.”
Sixteen (playoff wins) is really the only number we’re looking for ... It’s really easy to stay hungry, in that sense -- until we reach our final goal, we haven’t done anything, really.”
Still: see: “he’s an NBA player. Every NBA player thinks they need more shots.”
Curry shot 42.7 percent overall and 37.5 percent on 3-pointers in December -- red-line numbers for the league’s premier shooter. But he found his footing the second half of the season -- which may or may not have coincided with Durant’s knee injury Feb. 28 that kept him out most of the rest of the regular season. Whatever the reason, Curry looks like himself again and his playoff statistics entering The Finals were the highest of his career across the board.
“Sixteen (playoff wins) is really the only number we’re looking for,” Curry said. “That’s the hanging fruit that you’re chasing. It’s really easy to stay hungry, in that sense -- until we reach our final goal, we haven’t done anything, really.”
The Warriors never were headed for the top spot in the Western Conference after ripping off 12 straight wins early in the regular season. But blowing a fourth-quarter lead in Cleveland on Christmas Day rankled. Three straight losses in March to end a brutal stretch of games, coinciding with some mandated rest for starters, had some knickers in a twist. But internally, the Warriors handled occasional blowups without much rancor.
Much was made of Durant and Green fussing at each other late in a January loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, but Green says there were other confrontations during the season.
“I think it was some game where we weren’t playing that well,” Green recalled. “He was frustrated that we weren’t playing well. Everybody was frustrated. And when you’re frustrated, you nitpick. And so he started to nitpick on something, and obviously I’m the one he talks to about everything.
"And I said ‘K, honestly, it’s cool. You’re a great player. But the regular season don’t really matter. We’ll win games in the regular season whether you’re here or not. Winning in The Finals whether you’re here or not, not so much. That’s not necessarily the case. We’re going to need you in these NBA Finals. That’s when we’re going to need you at your best.’ And he was like, ‘all right, I hear you.’ And it’s like one of them ones where it’s like, okay, he hears me, but he’s not really trying to hear me -- but he do understand what I’m saying.”
But ultimately, the Warriors did what just about everyone thought they’d do: they steamrolled just about everybody.
West, who suffers nary a fool, and who’s given up big loot the last couple of years in search of a title run, found his own niche as a backup center. It wasn’t the position he’s played through most of his career, but he got used to it. And he has been impressed by the work ethic of his younger teammates.
“Klay’s like, in year six,” West said. “There’s a whole bunch of basketball left. They could easily sort of rest on what they’ve done, even though they’re young, but they don’t. KD’s the same way -- just a humble dude, constantly working, constantly at the gym. But I think part of this culture allows it to be that way. Guys want to come in. Guys want to be in the building because of the culture. The atmosphere is very inviting. Steve has it that way.”
No, there’s no sign the party’s breaking up in the Bay any time soon.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Pittsburgh Penguins (2-1): Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups after their 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday -- which included a goal by the Predators that should have counted, but was discounted by a referee’s error. If the equivalent had happened in an NBA Finals game, the cries of “fix,” and “Tim Donaghy” would have drowned out the boos that NHL fans still rain on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman every year, when the poor fellow just wants to hand out the Cup and MVP trophies and get the hell out of Dodge.
TEAM OF THE WEAK
Game 4 Referees, NBA Finals: Hey, everyone has a bad night at the office. I don’t write a Pulitzer-worthy Tip every week, either.
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