By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES — This is what it felt like a year ago, opening on the road against an opponent that rarely loses at home, unnerved by anxious moments, in the underdog role, Mark Jackson appearing firmly in control of the mood, major health concerns a rallying point.
The start of these Warriors playoffs seemed a lot like the last one, and good luck finding a bigger compliment. Yes, they cut to the chase in 2014 and lost Andrew Bogut to injury before the first round, as opposed to David Lee going down during Game 1 in 2013. And, sure, they won the opener at Staples Center this time, unlike Andre Miller cutting their heart out with a slow-speed driving layup in Denver to give the Nuggets the victory before eventually earning a split at Pepsi Center, but same difference.
Adversity? Bring it on.
A hole blown through the big-man rotation? Take your best shot.
Playing as No. 6 in the West against No. 3? Might as well.
For all the drama the Warriors would have preferred to avoid with a more-consistent regular season, for all the doubt that has built over Jackson’s future as coach, they bask in the underdog role. They don’t want it, but they respond to it.
A choppy end to the regular season — nothing more than a two-game win streak in nearly a month, home losses to the Nuggets, Knicks and Spurs minus Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili since March 22 — led right into the playoffs Saturday and the waiting Clippers.
And then a 109-105 Golden State victory.
As if it was that straightforward. The Warriors were DOA, falling behind 12-1, needing 4:22 for their first field goal and generally looking like they could not stand up to the challenge, then won in a building where the Clippers tied for the second-best home record in the league. Lee was enduring an individual meltdown, getting shots blocked, being sloppy with the ball, then in the second half was one of the keys to the comeback. Jermaine O’Neal, Bogut’s replacement as the starting center, made six of eight shots in the final two quarters.
The Warriors committed six turnovers in the fourth period, and 23 in all, while shooting 34.8 percent the final 12 minutes, and still won a playoff game on the road, with an obvious assist from Chris Paul being out of sync all day and Blake Griffin fouling out after 19 minutes. Golden State, the regular season of high expectations widely viewed as a disappointment and quickly arranging an exit from the playoffs, was transported back to needing to prove it belonged. It was like the old days.
“A lot, a lot,” forward Draymond Green said when asked if the 2014 start in L.A. reminded him of the 2013 start in Denver. “Coming in, we were the underdog. It was a 3-6 matchup. The only thing different is we let that game go in Denver and (the Nuggets) got Game 1. But at the end of the day, we come here to take care of business. We’re not coming in with the underdog mindset or with that mindset that we have nothing to lose. We feel like we’re just as good or better a basketball team as them and we’re going to continue to play like that and let the cards fall how they may.”
When the 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series was secured, ahead of Game 2 here Monday night, Klay Thompson spiked the ball into the court with a hard swing of his right arm. But mostly the Warriors exchanged high fives and walked calmly into the tunnel at one of the corners and down the hallway to the visitor’s locker room, showing no great emotion.
They acted like a team that still had everything to prove, not one that had done any proving. Perfect.
“I won’t say (we embraced the underdog role),” Jackson countered. “I will say that the lights are brightest. We won on the road last year in both rounds against two very good basketball teams (Denver and San Antonio). We know what we’re capable of doing. When you look at the makeup of this basketball team, individually and collectively they’re fighters. Top to bottom, we’ve got a bunch of guys that, the survey says, were not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be coaching. Got no experience. Stephen Curry’s supposed to be retired because of his ankle. David Lee was a loser. Jermaine O’Neal’s supposed to be finished. Harrison Barnes dropped in the draft. Klay Thompson, how can he be sitting with that talent at No. 11 in the draft? And then you look at Draymond Green. A gamer. A gamer. An absolute gamer. I thought Andre Iguodala again gave us great minutes and unfortunately fouled out. But it’s the makeup of this basketball team and I can continue to go on and on throughout my roster. It’s just a bunch of guys that just compete and fight.”
Jackson only oversold it by a multiple of 1,000. There was never talk Curry would retire, Lee was an All-Star before coming to Oakland and Barnes didn’t have a draft freefall. But point taken. The Warriors can reach a special emotional place and deliver in long-shot situations. They can still make it feel like last April in that way.