Warriors ready to convert new skeptics

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Monday, June 13, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Golden State Warriors are right back where they started. They began the season by raising a banner and responding to critics. And after a record-setting 88 victories brought them to the brink of another championship, they're marinating in a fresh set of grievances.

They feel disrespected once more. Put upon. Agitated.

In the Warriors' worldview, LeBron James baited Draymond Green by stepping over him in Game 4. That prompted the retaliatory strike from Green which struck James in the groin area and drew a flagrant foul 1 penalty from the NBA in a review that was announced Sunday. James all but dared the NBA to do it after Game 4, and now Golden State feels the league capitulated to one of its biggest stars. The flagrant foul ruling put Green above the playoff limit of three flagrant foul points and brought an automatic suspension for Game 5 on Monday. It also brought up some fiery talk from the Warriors, who got an early start on making up for the absence of their emotional leader.

"We're going to go out there and do it as a team and win for him," Klay Thompson said.

Alrighty, then.

Other Warriors players and coaches said they noticed a ramped-up intensity after coach Steve Kerr informed the team of Green's suspension during Sunday's practice and they feel it will give them the necessary edge in what could have otherwise been seen as a mere coronation process after taking a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals following their victory in Game 4.

They do best when doubted, as they were when they fell behind 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. They also respond well to perceived slights. Example A would be their 24-0 start after having their championship credentials called into question for everything from lack of injuries to playoff strength of schedule.

Now that they have fresh motivation, the question is whether they have the means to prove their point without the versatile Green, the defensive anchor of their small-ball "Death Lineup" and an offensive facilitator prone to the occasional scoring outburst (such as his 28 points in Game 2).

Much depends on how the Cavaliers choose to prey on his absence: by going big with the likes of Kevin Love or even Timofey Mozgov, or by trying to lure the Warriors into a diminished smaller lineup by extending the minutes of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. It also could be an opportunity for LeBron to break through now that he doesn't have to worry about one of the Warriors' most effective defenders.

The Warriors could keep Andrew Bogutin longer. Kerr has come to play the center in only five-minute stints at the start of each half before turning to Andre Iguodala, but Bogut has had moments of rim protection that the Warriors' coach thinks pay later dividends even after he's gone by not allowing the Cavaliers to establish an inside game.

Kerr already showed a willingness to pluck James Michael McAdoo from the end of the bench, and the Warriors did positive things with him on the court at the start of the fourth quarter of Game 4. Marreese Speights could get more minutes as well.

So could Anderson Varejao. Varejao got off to a shaky start in Game 4, committing two fouls in his first 22 seconds on the court when Kerr sent him in in the third quarter. But he hung in there and hustled for two offensive rebounds in one sequence that allowed the Warriors to maintain possession for nearly a minute and ultimately take a three-point lead on a Stephen Curry layup.

Varejao made a good point that it's particularly hard for non-rotation players to stay sharp in the playoffs because there aren't the extra half-court games for the reserves that take place after practices during the regular season. (When Kevin Love required participation in a 5-on-5 scrimmage to clear the NBA's concussion protocol this series the Cavaliers had to hold one just for him.)

"You have to try your best and hope that when you get a chance, you can help the team," Varejao said. "There's a 50-50 chance anything could happen."

The Warriors are confident in their bench players, especially playing at home. Backup guard Shaun Livingston ran down a number of guys on the roster, then felt compelled to bring up the reminder: "We also have the MVP."

Ah yes,Stephen Curry.

This is actually a golden opportunity, a chance for him to shed the notion that he's not at his best on the game's biggest stage. He took a big step in Game 4 with his 38-point performance on the road. Carrying the Warriors to victory without Green might even get Curry the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award that eluded him last year.

Maybe it will be about Klay Thompson. Thompson already took over Green's old role as screen-setter for Curry, a Warriors staple that became less effective when Green lost confidence in his 3-point shot in Cleveland and the Cavaliers could abandon him. The Warriors took to running it with Thompson for a few plays in the second half of Game 4 and Thompson found himself wide open for 3s that he drilled.

Thompson excelled when Curry was out with injuries earlier in the playoffs and he outshined him with 41 points in the season-saving sixth game of the Western Conference finals. Thompson also provided the best line at the podium this series, when he interjected Green's falsely modest assessment of this Warriors team's ranking among the all-time greatest by saying "We're better than the Showtime Lakers."

It was clearly a playful swipe at all of the times his father, Mychal, recounted his days with the Lakers to Klay. But it was also a bold time to stake a claim to family supremacy, in a room packed full of media in addition to a television audience.

Thompson was just as adamant on Sunday. He called LeBron James overly sensitive for his reaction to Green's trash talk and he sounded defiant about Green's suspension.

"It's another challenge for us," Thompson said. "But we're going to embrace it and we're going to accomplish it."

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