The Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks play-acted their way through the NBA Finals preview people wanted Wednesday’s game to be. Play-acted being code for “The time for that is June, and this is March, so everyone hold their water.”
Both teams knew better than to think the customers would indeed hold their water because, by damn, the product must be sold, and that means creating narratives out of Styrofoam in hopes that they can become re-bar and dry-wall in a couple of months. Yes, there are too many miles to go before either team can even schedule sleep, so they needed to create a reason to make this game special to themselves.
They needed a tone-setting game to break up the monotony that comes from owning top playoff seeds a month before season’s end, and to let the nation know that the Finals are theirs to miss.
For what little that matters.
So they did. The Warriors owned Atlanta, 114-95, just as Atlanta owned them 40 days earlier, 124-116. They did it with Stephen Curry enriching Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green rather than the absent Klay Thompson, by eradicating all the Hawks, save Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, by making 15 more field goals and holding Atlanta under 36 percent shooting. You know –- being the home team.
There. They’re still even.
In addition to all that, though, they needed to escape this game no worse off health-wise than they have been, because the one thing nobody has mentioned about either Atlanta or Golden State is, “Damn, they get guys hurt all the time.”
The most intriguing/undertold truth about the Warriors (and for that matter, the Hawks) is that, of all the potential playoff teams, theirs is the one that has been most stable. Other than some early games without center Andrew Bogut, and depending on how you count David Lee’s lost November, the Warriors have sent out the starting lineup they wanted to send out nearly every night. Klay Thompson’s wonky ankle is the only new item on the Blue Cross menu, but for the most part Steve Kerr has coached with a full deck, which cannot be said of . . .
. . . well, everybody else.
It is one of the many advantages Kerr has been blessed with this year, and it is one of the reasons they have 54 wins, their third-highest total in franchise history. In a year of significant carnage around the NBA, it is instructive that the Warriors are 29th in the arcane stat of TMITT -– Time Missed Impact to Team (courtesy Man Games Lost) . It measures the amount of time lost by players of importance, and the playoff team closest to the Warriors in the statistic is . . .
. . . yes, you guessed it. Atlanta.
Does this mean the Warriors and Hawks are lucky to be where they are? As is typical, the definitive answer is yes and no. Games missed matter if you have a good team; they don’t if your team stinks to begin with.
But the Hawks and Warriors haven’t walked this rarefied path in decades, and their roster and coaching improvements have been aided by the their cohesion, something only health can provide. They both play styles that are heavy on interaction and short on isolation (okay, Stephen Curry’s occasional ad-libbed forays into the ionosphere are the exception that polishes the rule), and having the same folks in the same roles and adhering to the same general rotation night in and out is of considerable import.
What you saw Wednesday night was slightly truncated version of the Warriors and Hawks. Golden State missed Thompson, though shooting 53 percent eased that pain considerably. Atlanta didn’t have its Thompson, Kyle Korver, nor its underrated forward Mike Scott, so the Hawks couldn’t take fullest advantage of Golden State’s first-half turnover problems.
And what you also saw was the home team doing what home teams do –- handle its business. Just as Atlanta did when it beat Golden State in February, the Warriors shot better, defended better, moved the ball more crisply, and looked in general as they have much of the season. Atlanta was, ultimately, a slightly lesser version of same.
And the game was a fascinating kaleidoscope of speed and creativity in keeping with both teams’ season-long MOs as tribute bands to The World That Pop Built. It is, to ESPN/ABC’s likely horror, the most desirable NBA Finals matchup -– two teams who have gone a combined 98 years without a championship while the marquee franchises in Chicago, New York, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles were just watching.
The only thing that could be worse for the network is Memphis-Atlanta -– a Finals whose best players are Al Horford and Marc Gasol, with a delightful side of Z-Bo.
But let’s not dwell on negatives only felt by suits in Connecticut. Let us consider the alternative -– the modern aesthetic game played at its zenith by two teams that learned from the intellectual might of the best coach in any sport over the last 20 years.
If both teams can only be healthy if and when it happens. It is one of the several things that has separated them from the field so far.