OAKLAND, Calif. -- Given that his team almost always wins, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is usually measured in his praise. After beating the Atlanta Hawks 109-105 in overtime Tuesday, sans Stephen Curry (ankle) and Andre Iguodala (hamstring), Kerr was more effusively complimentary.
“Terrific victory,” he summarized. “How hard our guys played was so evident throughout the game.”
If Curry is indeed a “cheat code,” there’s a rough adjustment to suddenly playing fair. It’s the reverse of the shift from swinging with the batting doughnut to whipping pure timber. The Warriors had to manufacture points in spots where they’d usually just reap them. They had to worry about the shot clock beyond 2-for-1 situations. In short, they had to grind like their perfectly decent Eastern Conference foe.
And they looked exactly like what you’d expect. Without Curry, the defense did not suffer, but the offense was bereft. Klay Thompson, who eventually hit two clutch baskets, was 8-of-27. Gone was the spacing Curry affords him, gone were the passes Curry delivers to him. He was at the mercy of a top defense that made him their top priority.
“I’m so proud of everyone in this room who competed and contributed,” Thompson said after the game. On center Andrew Bogut, who exploded for 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting, Thompson said, “He was just a monster tonight."
Bogut played stout defense while capitalizing on lobs thrown by Thompson and Draymond Green. Bogut mostly deflected questions about his offensive performance, shifting the conversation to, “Our defense was our staple.”
That defensive effort was spearheaded by Green, who, as the cliché goes, willed his team to victory. When the scheme broke, Green was their salvation. Specifically, his blitzing help defense scared Hawks guard Jeff Teague into two turnovers. Green's most incredible defensive play came with the score tied and 4:16 left in the fourth quarter. Tim Hardaway Jr. was in the process of trying a transition layup when Green wrenched the ball from him with one hand before instantly saving it to Bogut. That description doesn’t sound like much, but here’s the context: Green’s back was to Hardaway the whole time. It was a no-look, behind-the-back steal, on a dead sprint, where the ball never hit the ground.
Ask Warriors coaches about Green and you’ll hear something that sounds, oddly enough, like a competition. They present the challenge: “Find a better competitor.” There’s certainly something that burns within him, a quality that separates him in an arena where people are predisposed to be competitive. Occasionally that quality seizes his better senses and becomes the locker room blow-up at halftime of Saturday’s win against Oklahoma City. When properly channeled, though, it’s a force that devastates pragmatically.
“I’ve always been a competitor, been an intense player, because when you love something you’re intense about it,” Green said after Tuesday's game. “I hate losing, so I’m [going to] try and give everything I possibly can not to lose. And I love playing basketball.”
That might sound like a platitude if uttered by another player, but it’s so evident in Green’s actions. To help force overtime against the Thunder on Saturday, he saved a loose pass after initially stumbling as it bounced toward the end line.
“My weight kind of went the other way when the ball went past me,” Green said, “so I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I knew I was going to give everything I had left to get my hand on the ball.”
Such plays define Green. As a joke, he described his wild, off-balance, shot clock-beating 3-pointer as though it were one. “I had struggled the whole game, but I knew that one was going in,” Green started. “I teed it up right, I lined it up and locked it down.” Finally, he broke character and conceded his big shot with 40 seconds remaining in overtime was “just a desperation heave.” Just a desperation heave, but perhaps a reward for a man who’d played with such desperation.
The Warriors as a whole played that way on Tuesday night, which has much to do with why their coach looked so serene in victory. A reporter asked Kerr, “Is there anything you didn’t like about your team tonight?”
“Nope,” he said bluntly. When asked after why he was so happy, Kerr reveled in simplicity: “I like winning. Winning is good.”