Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Expectations don't matter until playoffs

To hear fans of the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics in the past week, President Trump ought to declare a national emergency. Except no wall can contain the fans’ expectations invading reality.
When the Dubs, two-time defending NBA World Champions and current darlings of the dynasty, lost back-to-back games to inferior teams such as Miami and Orlando in the Sunshine State, Warriors fans loathing rain in the Bay Area feared the sky was falling as well. This takes me back to the Super Bowl teams of the 49ers of the late 80s and early 90s I covered when it wasn’t satisfying enough for the 49ers to simply win. They had to win regular season games with style points.
“It starts with passion and an anger and an intensity and it wasn’t there for us tonight,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr following a 33-point loss Tuesday night -- their worst home defeat in almost a decade -- against the reeling Celtics, a game the Warriors were expected to win. “I can’t explain it. If I could explain it I would explain it to my team.”
The Warriors have lost five of their last seven games but, lest we remind you, they still have the best record in the toughest conference in the NBA. Minus some nagging minor injuries, they are as healthy as they have been at this point in any season since they lost to the Clippers without Andrew Bogut (fractured ribs) in the 2014 playoffs.
Bogut was a star back then. Now he is an insurance policy to back-up DeMarcus Cousins, who, though foul-prone and challenged defensively, is the Warriors best low-post scoring threat at center since, well, Ralph Sampson. Remember him? They will be more Boogie Nights than Bogut Nights in the playoffs when Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant et al will be locked in.
Forget the fracas between K.D. and Draymond Green months ago. Speculation of Durant opting out of his contract is more about his brand (possibly in New York City?) than a desire to take his basketball ability elsewhere or any upset he may have with his teammates. He can choose to open the new Chase Center in San Francisco or align himself with a new super team or new challenge with fewer expectations than when he arrived in Oracle Arena. None of those are bad choices so what’s the rush to make one.
Everything else is conjecture. If you listen to Warriors TV broadcaster and team statistician Bob Fitzgerald, the Warriors are incapable of losing unless their opponent plays the game of its life or the shooting gods hand the Warriors bricks. Heck, a few weeks ago, Durant actually said the Warriors were “struggling,” this during the stretch when his team WON 16 of 17 games.
Does this really sound like a team in trouble? The Warriors believe their problems – slow starts, turnovers, inconsistent bench play, complacency – are all fixable.
The reality is the Warriors merely need to hold off the Coming-Back-to-Earth Denver Nuggets (5-6 in their last 11 games) to gain the top seed in the West then, come playoff time, they will flip the switch and turn up the intensity on defense and defend their title.
The Warriors should advance to the NBA Finals. When this season started they were expected to meet the Celtics there since Boston’s No. 1 nemesis, LeBron James, went all SpaceJam on Cleveland and left for Hollywood, Pulled Groinville, and Playoff Activation Mode.
The Celtics’ season, however, is more complicated to explain than the Warriors’. In terms of expectations, trying to win the Eastern Conference pales when you’re trying to keep up with the Jones and your neighbors are the Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins; two recent world champions and a team playing like Stanley Cup contenders.
Whereas Steve Kerr had to answer as to why Kevin Durant stopped talking to the media for a few days, Brad Stevens has had to endure weeks of responding to his players refusing to shut up. Kyrie Irving’s leadership, odd comments, and future aspirations have come into question and calling LeBron James for basketball advice is like calling a Kardashian for dating advice.
Pretty much every Celtics players has expressed concern about the lack of cohesiveness. Then, at the start of a four-game road trip after a 1-5 record following the All-Star Game break, Jaylen Brown said the Celtics’ situation has become Britney Spears “toxic.”
Let’s just say you know things are going bad when ESPN’s Mark Schwarz suddenly shows up at your press conferences.
Stevens is expressing mild optimism in the face of negativity which includes poor shot selection, blowing big leads, and a sudden inability to defend the perimeter.
“Our vibe has been good the last couple of days,” the Celtics coach said last night before the Warriors’ game. “The guys seem to have taken to heart what they need to take to heart.”
Of course, the Celtics, to a man, claim they can’t put a thumb on what’s wrong with their team. On the positive side, no one has specifically or publicly extended a middle finger to a teammate or their plight.
The reality is the Celtics, though having no chance of catching Milwaukee or Toronto for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, are not in bad shape. They are the No. 5 seed right now, yet no team beneath them in the standings has a winning record. It is likely the Celtics will play either Indiana without Victor Oladipo or Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs. They have the Sixers figured out. Boston has won 10 of their last 12 games against Philly including a five-game playoff series last year when the Celtics played without, for better or worse, Irving and Gordon Hayward who last night played like the Cleveland version of Irving (19 points, 11 assists) and Utah version of Hayward (30 points on 12-of-16 shooting) vs. the Warriors.
“We’ve known how talented the Celtics are,” Kerr said. “There is plenty of season left and plenty of time for them to turn it around.”
The Celtics, like the Warriors, seem to be biding time until playoff time. Beating the Sixers or Pacers in the playoffs would certainly get the Celtics out of their funk and get its players on the same page again.
“When we play well we have been really good at staying in the moment in games and moved on afterward,” Stevens says, “All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”
The Warriors would expect the same.


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