February 14, 2018, 12:22 pm
OPPONENT: Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 44-13 (22-6 on road, 7-3 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 113.8 offensive rating (first), 103.4 defensive rating (fifth), +10.4 net rating (first)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30 EST, Moda Center (Portland), ESPN
Steve Kerr didn’t coach the Golden State Warriors in their 129-83 thrashing of the Phoenix Suns on Monday. Instead, the fastest-winning coach in NBA history left the all-day duties normally undertaken by he and his staff to the players.
“It had to do with me trying to reach my team and I have not reached them the last month,” Kerr said of his justification for letting Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and others run the team from shootaround on Monday morning until the final buzzer sounded later that night. “They’re tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice. I wasn’t reaching them so we figured this was a good night to pull something out of the hat and do something different.”
“Just having to count on each other and not having to hear my voice – and this sort of sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, parents, whoever’s voice that is – at this point, that’s what I sound like to them,” he continued. “They needed a different voice.”
It’s indicative of Golden State’s ironclad place atop the NBA that Kerr felt the need to think so far outside the box with his team on a 63-win pace. But even a former player who understands the unique mental rigors of competing for a championship on a season-by-season basis better than most was clearly fed up with the Warriors’ midseason malaise, and perhaps rightfully so.
Golden State is 8-4 since January 13, when Steph Curry returned from a two-game absence to get his balky right ankle some much-needed rest, with road losses to the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, plus a loss at Oracle Arena to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those teams are very good, obviously, and only getting better. The Warriors’ recent losses, in a vacuum, aren’t anything to be concerned about. Process matters to every team in the NBA, though, and especially one hoping to reach its fourth straight NBA Finals, fighting the lethargy of another 82-game grind before their real season begins in April.
Losing 129-99 to Utah matters more than a regular loss, then, just like the 125-105 defeat at hand of Oklahoma City does. Golden State’s defensive rating since Curry came back for good is 105.4, per NBA.com/stats, comfortably above its fifth-ranked season-long mark, but hardly cause for alarm. What could be, and certainly seems to register as such for Kerr, is his team’s 115.4 defensive rating in losses over the same stretch of play. The Phoenix Suns have the league’s worst defensive rating, at 110.6.
The Warriors, at full-strength, know they can count on outscoring the opposition to win games, a reality that’s reared its ugly head more over the past month of play than perhaps any other time since Kerr took the reins in 2014. Will taking a step back and allowing the players to coach themselves squash that tendency before it becomes an actual problem? Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, they’re the ones tasked with finding out first.
If Golden State has a weakness Portland doesn’t, it’s bench play. The Warriors are famously last in 3-pointers made by reserves this season, and haven’t received the type of nightly contributions they’ve come to expect from Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, nor the development they wanted from Patrick McCaw. Kerr recently hasn’t been able to rely on dynamic rookie big man Jordan Bell, who suffered a nasty sprained ankle last month, to give his team a jolt when needed, either. Terry Stotts’ bench is more volatile, but needs to be at its best on Wednesday for the Blazers to defend home court.
The scheduling circumstances could benefit Portland. Golden State is sending four players to Los Angeles for this weekend’s All-Star festivities, while not even Zach Collins, eligible for the Rising Stars Challenge as a rookie, is joining Damian Lillard in Southern California. The Blazers need this game, too, while the Warriors are virtually assured of finishing with one of the league’s two best records. Might those contrasts play in Portland’s on the court? It’s possible, but Kerr’s gambit is likely to have his team focused before it resumes the chase for a third championship in four years after the All-Star break.
These teams know each other well. The Warriors will readily switch to prevent Lillard, scorching hot of late, and C.J. McCollum from getting space, and cheat an extra step off inconsistent shooters as the game’s intensity increases. The Blazers will use a similar strategy to keep Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant in check, walling off the paint and sprinting to the arc to goad mid-range jumpers. Golden State will try to push the pace, and Portland will try to slow it down.
This would be a massive win for the Blazers – the kind that could reignite any momentum still lingering from their impressive span of seven wins in eight games to finish January. But the Warriors aren’t the Suns, Dallas Mavericks or even Minnesota Timberwolves. They’re a different animal than any team in basketball, and Kerr very well might have them inspired heading into Wednesday night.
For Portland’s sake, let’s hope not.