The testimonials in the pre- and post-game press conferences by Warriors coach Mark Jackson are not merely his way of telling the world about his team. Jackson talks to his players in the same exact manner throughout the course of a game, as he did Friday night. Undaunted by the kind of mistakes that are supposed to spell certain doom, the Warriors emerged from Oracle Arena with a 110-108 win and a 2 games to 1 lead in their best-of-seven series with the favored Denver Nuggets.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Warriors 110, Nuggets 108]
Few believe that the sixth-seeded Warriors are truly capable of knocking off the third-seeded Nuggets. Jackson believes in nothing less. He is careful not to say he expects it. He simply is steadfast in saying that it can be done. It has been his mantra all season long and his players have come to believe because, as he would say, they’ve earned that right.
They were sub-par for the better part of the night and certainly for most of the first half. Jackson told them exactly that, but he did it in a way that also said: It doesn’t have to be this way.
“If you did it in Denver, you can do it here!” he told them as they trailed by four late in the first quarter Friday night.
“Make them beat us on our terms, not theirs!” he said, down by six early in the second quarter.
“We’ve got another notch!” he said, pointing his thumb upward midway through the same period amid a run that trimmed Denver’s lead to one. “I’ve seen it. We’re going to win this game. You know how I know? Because we’ve played really bad and we’re only down by five.”
And when the Nuggets’ lead ballooned back toward double-digits he told them: “That’s not who we are right now. We know it. We own it.”
All that wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t backed up by his actions. Whether it’s second-year shooting guard Klay Thompson or rookie center Festus Ezeli or Steph Curry, he will tell them directly that they are playing badly. But it’s always conveyed not as if they are bad players, but rather that they aren’t playing up to their standard. Not his standard. Their standard. Where he is truly different from many NBA head coaches is that, rather than bench them or reduce their role, he gives them a chance to redeem themselves. The players know how rare that is, which is why they’ll put in added effort to reward his faith in them.
[RATTO: Warriors ahead in series by winning the battle down low]
“Coach,” said veteran Richard Jefferson, “does a good job of instilling confidence.”
Even in the face of failure. Rookie Draymond Green shot 20 percent from three-point range during the regular season. Some coaches would forbid him from taking threes for that alone. Jackson expects Green to shoot if he’s open. Insists upon it. Green has made two of four treys in the postseason, including a monstrous one in the fourth quarter Friday night.
Nuggets coach George Karl has a similar touch (see Brewer, Corey or Randolph, Anthony), but Jackson has found a way to reach almost each and every player on the team. The Warriors turned the ball over 23 times, the miscues leading to a whopping 30 points for the Nuggets and yet the Warriors never became tentative. Jarrett Jack, his steadying hand for most of the season, was dealing with an injured right thumb and had as many turnovers as assists (7). He missed a defensive rotation that allowed Wilson Chandler to nail a corner 3 that put the Nuggets back within one point with 16.5 seconds left. He drew a five-second call not getting the ball inbounded with 9.4 seconds left that gave the Nuggets a last chance to win.
But Jack never stopped being aggressive, collecting 23 points on 10 for 14 shooting. He had three fourth-quarter turnovers. He also had three points, three rebounds and made what proved to be the game-winning free throw. He nearly cost them the game. Then again, they wouldn’t have been in position to win the game without him. His confidence never wavered in the face of the mistakes, in part because Jackson wouldn’t let it.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re a good team,” said Jefferson, vexed by the relentless external doubts about the team’s capabilities. “What else do people want to see from us? We’re not the We Believe Team. We lost one of our top players at the start of the season. Then we lost our best player in the first game of the playoffs. And yet we keep going.”
They do. And, no, comparing them to the We Believe team is not quite right. The He Believes Team might be more like it.