“Did you see the Warriors game last night?”
Used to be, if someone asked you that at work in the morning, it was followed by something like “Tracy McGrady dunked on six Warriors at once”, or “some of the fans ran onto the court and beat the Warriors in a pickup game”. But no more! Finally, regular-season Warriors games are now events for all the right reasons- most importantly, the team wins most of them. And they’re winning in style now, stealing the close games against good teams that they used to squander, and running teams in the bottom half of the standings right out of the gym.After years of polluting an otherwise untarnished Bay Area sports scene, the Warriors are now consistently playing good, exciting basketball, and you almost expect them to beat anyone they play. That doesn’t happen, of course, but there are no longer teams that show up on the schedule as an automatic Warriors forfeit. The season is just over a month old, and the W’s have already played great games with Dallas, Phoenix, Miami, Orlando, Houston, Sacramento, and Washington. And the beatdown they put on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last month was one of those games you never thought you’d see as a Warriors fan: getting cheered on the road, with the opposing team’s fans openly rooting for a blowout so that their coach would get the axe.
The Warriors are a big-league team now, finally called up from the basement to eat at the big people table. And being a big-league team manifests itself in a million different ways, all of which make the games more fun to watch. For instance, the Warriors should be able to afford to pay some luxury tax money now that they can charge higher prices for their seats every night, meaning half the team won’t be lost to free agency this summer. And the team should also be able to spring for a decent earpiece for FSN’s Matt Steinmetz, so that he actually hear himself talk and won’t have to inadvertently yell at Bob and Jim every time he tries to tell them something. A win-win, I believe that’s called.
One of the better perks that comes with being a big-time team is a good rivalry or two. Take the Dallas Mavericks, for instance. We own them. We know it, they know it, you know it. Nellie is in Avery Johnson’s head, to the point where he calls him in the middle of the afternoon like he’s Jason Bourne to say “I wouldn’t open that file if I were you” and hangs up, just to mess with him. We’ve got a patent on sucking the life out of Dallas Mavericks basketball.
Unfortunately, there are also some rivals who own you. And right now, the Warriors are fully and completely owned by the Lakers. The Lakers have no more payments to make, they own us outright. They are the rich heiress, and we are their lapdog….. though it might even be worse than that. We’re probably closer to being those dogs whose owners force them to wear sweaters and pants. Phil & Kobe dress us up in our cute little throwbacks and parade us around the Staples Center just so they can be seen with us, like we’re their hip new accessory. If that’s not the most frustrating thing in the world, it’s definitely right up there, only behind BART not running past midnight on the weekends. And the worst part is, it’s not just Kobe who does it to us, it’s always some scrubtastic bench player like Ronnie Turiaf or Smush Parker or the ghost of Kurt Rambis. When my head hits the pillow every night, I pray & thank the gods for 2 things:
- That “Cheaters” still airs reruns during the writers’ strike
- That Mark Madsen isn’t still a Laker. I just don’t think I could handle watching someone that goofy put up 20 and 10 on us
But even when they’re losing to the Lakers, or missing 100 three-pointers in a row, it’s nearly impossible to stay mad at this Warriors team. They’re like a trouble-making kid that you want to punish, but just can’t. They’ll do something wrong more often than you’d like, and they know it’s wrong when they do it- heck, they almost enjoy it. But just when you’re about to get upset with them, they win you back over. That 0-6 start to the season doesn’t even seem like it really happened anymore, and the team seemed to jump straight from winless to picking up where they left off last year. A big part of that seems to be how cohesive this team is, which is really just an excuse for me to use the word “cohesive” – it’s fun to say, so I’m working on adding it to my “repertoire” (also fun). These guys seem to genuinely enjoy being around one another, and as group, they’re collectively very feisty. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only teams in history who could beat these Warriors in a team fight are the ’94 Knicks and the ’96 X-Men.
This team seems almost like a family, and by all accounts, they do most everything together as a group. When Matt Barnes’ mom died a few weeks ago, everyone in the organization went to the funeral. That doesn’t happen in any company, let alone a sports team. It was only a few years ago that Antawn Jamison of all people compared leaving the Warriors to being released from prison, and earlier in 2007 we were all still booing Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy at home games. There’s probably not one single reason for this franchise’s dramatic turnaround, but there is a single face- and it belongs to Stephen Jackson.
Stephen Jackson becoming the most popular Warrior in a matter of months seems about as likely as Will Smith taking a cab all the way from West Philly to Bel Air, but somehow, here we are. Jack has reached the point where Warriors fans love him so much, we’d support just about anything he did. If he missed ten shots in a row, then hit a 3-pointer from half court with 22 seconds left on the shot clock, we’d love him for having the stones to take the shot and for not getting down on himself. His popularity has grown to the point that it’s almost strange if you meet a Warriors fan whose favorite player isn’t Jack, like those kids who pick someone other than Michaelangelo as their favorite Ninja Turtle. Off the top of my head, Jack is one of the most interesting people I can think of right now, and yet somehow no one has commissioned a camera crew to follow him around for a documentary. As a society, we can greenlight a sequel to “National Treasure”, but we can’t find an audience interested in Jack? This is why the terrorists hate America. And as Jim Barnett would say, “quite frankly Bob, they have a valid point on this one.”
Ever since he arrived in Oakland, Jack has been pure excitement. Whether it’s draining 3’s, or making a great pass out of the post in traffic, or just generally causing mischief- like trying to deflect the ball back into play from the scorer’s table in Seattle, or approaching a ref after a disputed call and walking away with both men laughing, when everyone in the building was expecting a minimum of at least one technical foul. His shots are great to watch not just because he always seems to hit them in big moments, but because he also has one of the most awkward-looking jumpers in the league. When he shoots, Jack looks half like a geriatric old man, half like a lazy SOB. He doesn’t bend his legs much, jumps maybe 2 inches off the ground, and launches an overhand heave that’s almost Hardaway-esque. And yet, he gets such great arc on his shot that when it hits, it’s all net; against all odds and rational explanation, Stephen Jackson’s jump shot is the most beautiful thing you’ll see on a basketball court.
All of this represents what amounts to a big Fordham University (FU, for short) for Pacers fans, who reached their tipping point with Jack and had to let him go, only to watch him immediately thrive with a Cinderella playoff team, becoming everyone’s new darling in the process. Warriors fans can sympathize, having gone through the exact same thing with Latrell Sprewell during his run to the Finals with the Knicks in the late 90’s. The entire nation (or what seemed like the entire nation, given how often that Knicks team was on TV) got caught up in Sprewell-mania, and the Warriors and their fans were forgotten, along with the actions that got Spree kicked off our team in the first place. At the same time, the Sprewell experience is also what allows us to enjoy Jack that much more- we’re never the team that new players embrace.
Even at the time of last year’s big trade with the Pacers, Al Harrington was the unquestioned prize, while Jack was really more of a throw-in. We had to take Jack if we wanted Al, and there were whispers that Jackson’s contract might be bought out at some point. Now, Jack is the unquestioned glue of the team, the Warriors’ second-best player, and Baron’s lieutenant and second-in-command. And while he seems to fits the roles perfectly, it’s actually not hard at all to see how he wore out his welcome in Indy. Those early 3-pointers are a killer in a halfcourt system, and if Jack had played for the Warriors under Mike Montgomery, we might have run him out of town, too.
But with this coach, in this system, on this team, Stephen Jackson is a perfect fit- somehow, the rules change when you’re playing for a coach who has to be told by the league that he can no longer bring cans of beer to his post-game press conferences. Nowadays, Jack can’t take enough 3’s- I’m always a little disappointed when he passes up opportunities on the perimeter, like he’s depriving us of something. Try finding a single Warriors fan who ever felt that way about Mike Dunleavy. It’s a double-standard, to be sure, but it’s understandable- you love the guys on your team when you’re winning, and ever since Jack became a Warrior, we’ve won. After all, Warriors fans are the same people who still give Barry Bonds standing ovations I don’t even think Barry Bonds likes Barry Bonds at this point, but we do (for being an area that prides itself on being smarter than everyone else, we sure have a funny way of showing it).
But it’s not just Stephen Jackson – the whole team is playing well right now, and most of them have actually gotten better since last season, something I used to think was impossible if your name wasn’t Jason Richardson. Monta’s jumper is Cash Money Records from absolutely anywhere inside the 3-point line, Barnes couldn’t miss a 3 from the corner if he tried, and Biedrins’ shots hit the center of the hoop so fast it looks like he’s throwing magnets. When Adonal Foyle returned to the Oracle with Orlando last week, it occurred to me that in the entire 15 years I’ve been a Warriors fan, the team hadn’t had a single good center prior to Biedrins. Biedrins is our first big man who’s ever been able to do things like “catch tough passes” or “score in traffic” or “do absolutely anything athletic” or “not make the home fans want to cry”. And yes, I’m making little quotations with my fingers as I write this.
Every day during Foyle’s reign of very polite terror, I used to wish we had a center like Biedrins, and now we almost take him for granted. When Biedrins’ agent goes to talk contract extension with Chris Mullin this summer, he really only needs to follow two steps:
- Slide an 8×10 photo across the table of Foyle wearing a huge full-body 1930’s swimsuit, diving headfirst into his giant vault filled with cash and coin à la Scrooge McDuck, courtesy of the insane contract extension Mullin gave him 2 years ago;
- Wait for Mullin to turn beet-red and sheepishly hand over a blank check
And speaking of players fighting for a contract extension, Baron Davis has been playing possessed this season – a triple-double threat every night, Baron’s in best shape he’s ever been in as a Warrior, though you’d never know it because his beard will always make him look like a chubby little walrus. And he even argues less with the refs this year, which seems to be a team-wide effort to make the other team pay for bad calls rather than whining and collecting T’s. Of course, there are still a few times each night when you can catch Baron or Al or Jack snap their head around after a no-call and give the refs a Reverse Care Bear Stare before they sprint down to the other end and immediately foul their man as soon as he touches the ball. But the ref-fighting is nowhere near the level of last year’s playoffs (we were in last year’s playoffs! Hooray for surpassing low expectations!), and Jack even has fun with it now, defending his T’s as part of the 5 technicals he promised he’d receive this year. The man has given himself a strict quota, and he’s adhering to it. That’s growth, holmes.
The W’s also have a nice garbage-time lineup this year, a highly underrated quality in a good team that makes the team’s wins that much more enjoyable. In particular, I like having Patrick O’Bryant & Brandan Wright out there at the same time, mostly because they’re so similar- Nelson hates both of them and wishes he could trade them for a 6’7″ point forward like Paul Pressey (even now), so they’re always out there busting their butts, running point center and trying touch the ball at all costs. In fact, they’ll usually both chase the ball around like little kids playing bumblebee soccer, and it’s pretty entertaining since they’re both 6’10”, 105 pounds. I also kinda like the fact that I can’t immediately tell them apart on the court, like we have twin rookie big men or something. It’s the one Stanford legacy I’m grateful Monty left behind.
There’s also a newcomer this year named Mbenga, who looks like the hunchback Leonidas wouldn’t allow in his army in 300. I keep waiting for Charlie Villanueva to show up dressed as Xerxes and lure him into turning on the Warriors, teaching NellieBall to the Bucks in exchange for an unlimited supply of Milwaukee’s finest pasty 400-pound women. Mbenga was probably given a first name at some point, but he’s way more fun as a one-name mystery man, like someone out of Street Fighter II. In my head, Nelson ends each practice by lining Mbenga up against other guys on the team and yelling, “Mbenga! Buke! Fiiiiight!” Or if Utah’s in town, Paul Millsapp just stops by and pretends he’s Balrog.
Of course, there are times when you’re reminded that this Warriors team isn’t exactly chock-full of interesting personalities. For instance, every time Monta or Azubuike give a post-game interview, you begin to appreciate Jack just a little more. In fact, during Buke’s interviews, you start to wonder things like “I wonder which celebrity starlet’s boyfriend Baron is making uncomfortable right now” or “is Andris’ girlfriend the same girl in those commercials telling me to text WIN A or WIN B to win 15 thoushand dollarsh?” But then again, when Buke talks, I also think about things like folding my socks and cleaning my bathroom. He’s a boring guy, is what I’m trying to say. But he has been a great find for the Warriors on the court, and if Austin Croshere somehow isn’t invited to the Dunk Contest this year, there’s a chance that Buke may be the team’s only All-Star Weekend representative. Not bad for a D-League rookie pickup from last year; he’s definitely Exhibit A in the argument that shooting guard is the deepest (and therefore easiest to replace) and most talented position in the league.
Sadly, Exhibit A against that argument is Mickael Pietrus. MP is now in his 20th consecutive year with the Warriors without making any forward progress, and minutes after a game is over now, you have no memory of whether he even played or not. In fact, if he hadn’t broken his face and been forced to wear a mask for the 10th time in his career, I would have forgotten he was even on the team. He really has no impact on a game at this point, other than to reduce Jim Barnett’s life span every night by continuing to take a backwards step out of bounds before he starts his drives from the perimeter. This habit has gone on way too long, and at this point I’m in favor of stationing all manners of poisonous, easy to provoke animals along the sidelines just to scare Pietrus into staying in-bounds, sort of like an old WWF lumberjack match.
Pietrus doesn’t even want to be a Warrior anymore, and the Warriors don’t want him to be a Warrior anymore, yet neither side seems too concerned about it. I’m convinced we kept him around this year just because Nellie needed an extra European presence on the court when he gets bored and decides to play Risk during games. With Biedrins, Azubuike, Belinelli, Perovic, and Pietrus on the floor, Nellie can dream of being able to fend off attacks from Russia while simultaneously invading Northern Africa without losing too many troops. It’s why he’s a Hall-of-Famer, people- the man is a master strategist.
Other than Pietrus, about the only thing that isn’t perfect this year is the absence of Jason Richardson. Azubuike’s ascent has kept the team from missing Richardson’s production too much, but the team does miss him. J-Rich will probably end up being remembered with the old Murphy-Dunleavy-Jamison-Foyle teams, but he was the best we had for a long time, and you can’t help but cringe every time he shows up on TV in a Bobcats uni. The Warriors made most of their run last season without J-Rich, and they’re in position for another second-half run this year. The W’s play only 10 games in the month of February, 9 of which are in Oakland. The first of those February games is at home against J-Rich and the Bobcats, and he should get a pretty good look at a team that hasn’t missed a beat since last year’s run through the postseason. But now that we live in a world where every regular-season home game has become an event, there’s a chance he may not recognize what he sees.