OAKLAND – The Warriors have heard and read all about it. They’re too small, they rely too heavily on jumpers, their coach is a rookie. While they play a beautiful, selfless game, painting the court with colorful passes, graceful movements and crafty playmaking, they lack a consistent presence to provide cover on the interior.
Well, blah, blah, blah.
Charles Barkley and his fellow skeptics are panning the wrong team. Golden State is not a mirage. Who is going to beat the Warriors? The franchise that won 67 games during the regular season, lost only twice inside Oracle Arena, and is choreographed by MVP candidate Stephen Curry, began the postseason Saturday with a 106-99 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that was interesting only for a brief stretch in the final minutes.
And make that the ailing Pelicans. The team that can never seem to stay healthy – every club has its Achilles, right? – lost starting point guard Tyreke Evans with a sore left knee early in the second period. The former Kings star was taken to an area hospital for an MRI, and his status is uncertain for Game 2.
The Warriors won’t be sending any sympathy cards, but they feel the Pelicans’ pain. A year ago, 7-foot center Andrew Bogut missed the postseason with a rib injury, the latest in a long list of physical issues that have hampered the talented Aussie throughout his NBA career. Knees. Feet. Hip. Elbow. One limb or another. He feels the pain, still.
After Saturday’s win, Bogut sat in the locker room with his feet soaking in a bucket of ice and with ice bags wrapped around both knees. But the important thing – and this is what Barkley and some of his buddies seem to forget – is that a healthy Bogut completes the Warriors picture. They have shooters, passers, rebounders, a roster of defenders, and when their massive center is available for 30 or so minutes, they are much more than a band of scrappy small-ballers doomed for an early postseason exit. These days they can go small, they can play big, and they are the only NBA team that can match the San Antonio Spurs pass for pass.
“It’s tough,” admitted Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who managed 35 points and seven rebounds despite being tag-teamed. “You see Draymond (Green) there, and Bogut just waiting for me to come. It was tough to figure out ways, to read and get the ball out of my hands quicker. They were just loading up defensively.”
The Warriors are the blueprint for the future Kings, defensively and offensively. Most of their players are long and athletic, which enables them to switch everything. Even the 6-foot-3 Curry is a quality defender – an impressive piece of the MVP puzzle given his spectacular offensive abilities and responsibilities. He manipulates his dribble like a yo-yo, pulls up and shoots in the same motion, feigns a move to his right, then changes direction before opponents catch onto his act.
Don Nelson not so long ago was mocked for describing his then-rookie as this generation’s Steve Nash. He was right. He might receive an argument someday from Kyrie Irving fans, but for now, the ball belongs to Curry. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that his backcourt partner, the lanky Klay Thompson, is a pure shooter, active defender and versatile scorer; that Green is a multi-dimensional, if undersized, power forward; that Harrison Barnes fills in the gaps, fills the lanes, is flourishing since his return to the starting lineup; that the bench is deeper than in previous years, with Andre Iguodala, a healthy Festus Ezeli and the additions of Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights.
And the big Aussie? The one whose body appears taped together by boxes of Band-Aids?
Bogut changes everything, and, most importantly, significantly enhances the Warriors prospects for a championship. His 30 minutes against the Pelicans offered a bittersweet reminder of what so often has been missed. Before the fans had settled into their seats, he slid behind Davis and poked the ball loose, lumbered downcourt and scored on a lead lob from Thompson, tipped in a rebound. Later, he found Curry on a back-cut, flipped in a jump hook, slammed in a put-back, and swiped another pass as the Warriors’ lead grew to 25.
But the NBA is a game of runs, and when the Pels trimmed the deficit while Bogut was on the bench, the 10-year veteran went back in the game and went at it again, deflecting a Davis dunk, finding Curry for a three, motioning Thompson toward the left wing and then delivering another perfect pass for yet another three-pointer.
“He (Bogut) is one of the most valuable players on the court, offensively and defensively,” Green said later. “Some of his assists today were incredible. The blocks, the rebounds. He scored the ball. He brings a different dimension to this game. He played, what, 65-66 games this year, and he’s been healthy. We know we’re more than what some people say we are, just a three-point shooting team. There’s another level this team can reach.”
Thus, beware of the Warriors. They are balanced, experienced, healthy and committed. That’s a dangerous combination in any postseason.