So on Thursday night, there was a Warriors game on, and I watched it. Big surprise, right? But here's the thing: this time, something was off. Something was wrong.
Now, most Warriors games are carbon copies of the game that previously happened. Obviously, it's not a true carbon copy of the game that preceded it, but there are certain themes that are repeated, game after game, to the point where there's a strange familiarity to the entire proceeding. If I'm at home in California, I turn on CSNBayArea. Up here in Seattle, I crank up League Pass (steady employment [at least for the moment] has allowed me to upgrade from Atdhe.tv). In the olden days, I used to hear this. Now I hear this. It doesn't matter, they both suck. Then Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett come on, and I am treated to two hours of Warriors basketball, grotesque entertainment at its finest.
You see, the Warriors, for as long as I can remember, have had the distinction of being the most entertaining bad team to watch. It was a hallmark of the Cohan era to construct teams that would (perhaps incidentally, because I'm pretty sure there never was a plan in the Cohan era) put fans into the seats, but fail to put numbers in the win column. Primarily under Don Nelson, but also under guys like Keith Smart, Mike Montgomery, Eric Musselman, Dave Cowens and even Brian Winters, the Warriors trotted out teams that played high octane offense, constantly pushing the ball and creating fast break situations. However, these teams rarely played defense, consistently relied on players to play out of position due to injuries or the whimsical musings of a mad scientist coach, and lost. Just lost a lot of ball games. And, when something happens a lot, well, you get used to it.
So Warriors games are a familiar thing. Fitz and Barnett offer a syrupy sweet assessment of the Warriors recent losses (usually there had been a few), and some pathetically optimistic outlooks for the result of the impending contest. The Warriors take the court against another team, and play Warriors basketball. Yellow-tressed players charge up and down the court, the ball whipping back and forth, defense nowhere to be seen. The crowd cheers rabidly for their lovably entertaining team, despite the fact defensive rotations are missed en masse, and rebounds go overwhelmingly to the other team. It's a great time out for the first three quarters, and Fitz and Barnett heap praise upon a team that has lost far more than its has won over the last twenty years. But then the fourth quarter arrives. If it's still close (and it often is, as the Warriors are a fairly decent three-quarter team), the other team seemingly remembers, "oh right, we're playing the Warriors!" and turns it on. Suddenly, the rebounds are all going the other way, and the Warriors, suddenly laden with the responsibility of playing professional basketball, forget their craft. Defense disappears. Rebounding stops. The other team asserts themselves. Fitz and Barnett lament that the Warriors are the back end of a back-to-back, or that injuries have beset their beloved club. But everyone knows what's up. It's the Warriors, after all. And then the Warriors lose by about nine. I cuss at the TV, rage quit, and go on about my night. Clockwork.
So last night, when the Warriors played the Magic, I wasn't expecting too much different. And if you look at the box score, you wouldn't think I got anything that different. Magic 117, Warriors 109. A score that tells an oft-repeated tale. High octane offense. Little defense. Surefire mistakes. Carbon copy. Familiar, comfortable.
But Thursday night. About Thursday night.
Last Thursday night I watched a Warriors game that was unlike any other I had seen before. I didn't go to my League Pass or ESPN 3 this time. No, I was back on an illegal streaming site, trying to find a decent feed. You see, tonight, the Warriors were playing on TNT, and I don't have cable. The Warriors were getting the national television treatment. The team's sale to Joe Lacob in 2010, and Mark Jackson's 2011 hire has provided the team with increased visibility, and this marked our third time on national TV since the season started on Christmas day. So, instead of Fitz and Barnett selling us a bag of magic beans, we got some of the greats in all of NBA television analysis: Ernie Johnson, Kenny "the Jet" Smith, and Charles "Weight Watchers" Barkley (Shaq is nowhere near being a "great pundit" yet, and I doubt he ever will be) in the studio, with Kevin Harlan and Steve Kerr calling the game at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
National telecasts are a much different affair than local telecasts. Local telecasters are usually on the franchise's payroll, so they are often contractually obligated to minimize their critical assessments of the team. On the other hand, broadcasters on the ESPN and Turner networks are only obligated to their companies (and the NBA), and can say whatever they want about the teams participating in the game that they're calling. And, since national broadcasters and analysts draw from a more prominent, distinguished pool, the commentary that is offered tends to be on a slightly higher level. And with the trade rumors surrounding Dwight Howard, the commentators were content to spend nearly two hours discussing the present state and future prospects of the Golden State Warriors.
Their thoughts -- especially Kerr's -- were fascinating to hear. Clearly, unbeknownst to me, the current Warriors present a compelling story to discuss among informed basketball minds. To Kerr, the Golden State Warriors are a "gold mine." He mused openly and intelligently about all the major story lines concerning the Dubs, including our new high profile owners, our new inexperienced, yet universally beloved coach, and our young, talented, injured, and most off all, transactionally compelling roster. To my surprise (or was it my chagrin?) both Kerr and Harlan offered favorable assessments about the Warriors prospects as a major market franchise down the road. Both obviously recognized and respected what they viewed as a definite change in culture, attitude and atmosphere in and around the Golden State Warriors franchise over the course of a last few months. They applauded the efforts of majority owner Joe Lacob, who has emerged as a consistent player in every potential blockbuster trade that's leaked to the media. While the Warriors have yet to land that dynamic star, national media pundits recognize their attempts, and credit their efforts in creating a higher profile for a young, struggling team. And, surprisingly, I agree with them.
As the game progressed, and as I heard these two immediately recognizable guys call the game, the Warriors transformed. Yes, in front of my eyes, the Warriors transmogrified from a low-profile team in a forgotten market, and into a major market team consistently featured on national television. Hearing Harlan scream "RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES!", his signature line, after Monta drilled a three midway through the fourth quarter, sent chills down my spine, and allowed me to fantasize about a Warriors club that everyone would see, and not just the pathetically loyal faithful who had tuned into this mess year after year after year after year. It wouldn't just be the Warriors against the Magic, a team that can hope for a middle-of-the-pack finish out East, and perhaps a first round victory against a similarly seeded team. One could see the Warriors competing against inter-conference contenders, like the Thunder, or the Blazers or Lakers. What a future; one that, except for a painfully brief period of time from Spring 2007 to Spring 2008, had seemed entirely impossible for the Golden State Warriors.
And on the court, well, we weren't seeing Warriors basketball. Not one bit. A lot of that had to do with injuries and the personell available to Mark Jackson -- Steph "Damaged Goods" Curry wasn't playing for the fourth game in a row, and defensive anchor Kwame Brown had just been lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle -- but we weren't seeing the fast paced, defenseless brand of Warriors basketball that had garnered a pathetic .406 winning percentage average over the last twenty seasons. Instead, we were seeing a team that seemingly had a defensive philosophy, and a larger plan for the future. Gone were the days of Don Nelson helter-skelter defense, with Al Harrington or Corey Maggette attempting to guard guys like Dwight, Amar'e, or even Tim Duncan or KG. Instead, we had players playing in their intended positions, trying to slow the pace of the game, closing out on their shooters, and most prominently, employing a Hack-a-Dwight strategy (purposely fouling Howard, a poor free throw shooter as a way to keep him from getting easy buckets in the post) as a way to mitigate the size differential between the two teams. Jackson had the guys playing some gutsy, gritty defense, and for awhile, it kept the much shorter, far more shorthanded Warriors in the game.
Offensively, we were looking dynamic as well. While elements of the Warriors traditional run-'n'-gun offense remained true to form, we were frustrating the Magic with a number of different offensive sets. The first quarter saw the Warriors establish a fairly competent looking half-court offense, with Monta Ellis and David Lee running a fairly effective pick-and-roll set from the top of the key. The second quarter featured the dynamic play of newcomer Nate Robinson, our new sixth man, and an undeniable spark plug off the bench. By the end of the third, and into the fourth, the Warriors were pushing the ball, employing a small ball lineup while playing somewhat small up front. Gone, seemingly, were the days of "any-damn-shot-in-5-seconds-or-less" basketball. We looked like a team. Unbelievable.
But the script is always the same, regardless of the channel the game is on, or the folks calling the plays and providing color commentary. By the fourth quarter, the Warriors had gone totally cold, and the Magic, a team laden with great outside shooters, had largely silenced the Warriors crowd. Furthermore, Coach Jackson's "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy had backfired, as the Warriors had run out of big men, and hence fouls to use on the dominant Magic center. Soon, it was looking an awful lot like Warriors basketball. After David Lee fouled out with about a minute left in the quarter, and the Warriors down 111-109, Jackson put in journeyman Dominic McGuire (6'9'') to play center, and shifted guard Brandon Rush (6'6'') to the power forward spot. Now, this is the Warriors basketball I know. This is the Warriors basketball I wake up next to, and wonder how the hell we got to this point. You know the rest. Magic win by 8. Dwight Howard has an historic night, recording 45 points, 23 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks. 21 of those 45 points came from the free throw line, where Mark Jackson's "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy had sent the big man to the line for 39 attempts. And, yet again, the Warriors were on the wrong side of history.
When the game ended, I decided not to watch Ernie and the guys on Inside the NBA break down the game. I wasn't that interested in any of the guys' opinions on the contest, and was pretty sure Shaq's lack of attention to detail and lazy commentary would put me in a funk for the next day. Furthermore, the illegally downloaded stream had been occasionally choppy, and I needed to get to bed so I could get up for a very early shift the next morning. But the game remained with me even after I turned off the light.
The result was familiar. Too familiar. But the lead up to that result? That had been different. The defense. The offense. The analysis and discussion. And that was unsettling to me. It still sort of is.
I'm writing this up on Saturday. Tonight, there's a Warriors game on. The 3-7 Warriors will travel to Charlotte to take on the hapless 2-10 Bobcats. Indeed, the Dubs have a good shot of winning the game, but we all know how these things go. A loss would leave me unperturbed. A win would put a smile on my face.
But tonight, while Fitz and Barnett sell me on the positives of 3-7 and the ruination of injuries, and while the team invariably struggles on the road against a team that will be hungry for a win at home against another struggling ball club, I'll think about Thursday night. It was a loss, but in many ways, unlike any of the losses I've seen in my fifteen-or-so seasons of conscious Warriors fanhood.
Perhaps that was a loss suffered by a truly, finally, rebuilding club.