The NBA Finals are not going as Warrior fans planned.
The team’s overheated offense is only seen in spurts. Wide open shots (including an uncontested breakaway dunk) are missed. Lebron pushes his way to the basket without facing a double team. The Cavs control the tempo.
The Warriors do not look like the team we saw all year. They do resemble the team that was down 2-1 to Memphis, and Warrior fans hope that tonight’s game is the start of a similar three game winning streak.
Are the Warriors in trouble? Let’s look at NBA history for guidance.
The Bad Precedent
In the 2004 NBA Finals, the Lakers were everyone’s choice to beat the Pistons. LA had Kobe, Shaq, Gary Payton and a past his prime Karl Malone in a career-ending effort to win a title. Detroit was led by blue collar Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace (the J.R. Smith of his time, though better), Ben Wallace (see Tristan Thompson) and Richard Hamilton.
After Detroit won the opening game on the Lakers court, most attributed it to one of those odd first game of a finals series outcomes. But after losing to the Lakers in overtime in game two, the Pistons won the next three and the title.
What concerns me about this 2004 precedent is that every game began with fans expecting the Lakers to take control of the series. But it never happened. The most blue-collar Pistons team of them all beat the high-flying Lakers by controlling the tempo and simply outworking their opponents.
Chauncey Billups is no Lebron James, but he was unstoppable in that series.
The lesson from 2004 is that match ups matter. For example, Cleveland is not a better team without Kyrie Irving, but Tristan Thompson is a better fit against the Warriors than Kevin Love. Timofey Mozgov has looked like an all-star against Andrew Bogut, who does not resemble the player who performed so well against the Rockets.
Warriors’ fans concerned about the Grizzlies physical play left that series feeling the team could handle opponents who play tough defense and slow down tempo. It was assumed prior to this series that, like Memphis, Cleveland lacked the scoring punch to keep up with the Warriors.
But Cleveland only lacks sufficient scoring if the Warriors are making shots. And just as Laker fans in 2004 waited in vain for the team’s high powered offense to show up, the Warriors shooting prowess is not assured of returning in time.
The Good Precedent
In 1977, a heavily favored Philadelphia 76ers team with Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George McGinnis and Doug Collins easily defeated a young and untested Portland Trailblazers team in the first two games of the series. The Blazers were led by Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, and they were not expected to reach the finals that year.
Many of the stereotypes now being assigned to the Warriors— a “soft” West Coast team that can’t bang with the blue-collar East—were ascribed to the Blazers. And after the 76ers won game two going away, those stereotypes spread.
But Portland went on to win the next four games and the series. The West Coasters figured out how to control the tempo and move the ball around for open shots. Walton and Lucas were the Warriors equivalent of Steph Curry and Draymond Green. While the 1977 Blazers are now legendary for their teamwork and style of basketball, most picked Dr. J and the 76ers to beat them.
The lesson of 1977 is that teams can change early series patterns. The Warriors did this against Memphis, and can do so starting tonight. By the end of the 1977 series nobody was talking about how blue-collar, East Coast basketball inevitably wins (a stereotype that also had the Baltimore Bullets beating the Warriors in 1975 before they got swept).
The Warriors shooting slump will also be forgotten if they start hitting shots as they have done all year. And key to this might be getting more shots in transition, rather than operating too often in a half-court offense.
The 1977 Blazers and 2004 Pistons were led by two of the greatest coaches in NBA history, Dr. Jack Ramsey and Larry Brown. They figured out how to win the matchup game. Can Steve Kerr do the same?
Until the Warriors lost game three, Kerr was beyond criticism. Now fans claim that he is failing to motivate the Warriors, acting too much like a corporate CEO. They want him to scream at Curry and others like Spurs coach Greg Popovich yells at Tim Duncan.
Screaming is not the answer, but Kerr and his crack team of assistants are being out coached. This point is missed because David Blatt has been disparaged since admitting he tried to call a time out when his team had none left in an earlier playoff round. Fans forget that only a coach truly secure in his skill set would make such an admission.
Check Blatt’s winning history. Some really believe that Lebron coaches the team, but it is Blatt and associate head coach Tyronn Lue that are making all the right moves.
Tonight’s game and the balance of the series is not only a crucial test for the Warriors players, but also for Coach Kerr.
I picked the W’s in 6 and still think they will get it done.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.Bay Area / California, Sports