OAKLAND, Calif. — It’s a thin distinction that Steve Kerr is trying to impress upon his Golden State Warriors: getting them to realize how hard the playoffs can be, without them actually proving it by adding to the degree of difficulty.
There’s also a narrow line between regret and remorse. In the case of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, the distinction was as fine as a single point.
The Warriors coughed up 17 turnovers, lost a 17-point lead at home, stumbled to the finish with only three points in the final 2:24 — and still came out ahead 99-98.
Even as the numerical countdown to a championship ticked to six more victories, the Warriors showed the gulf that remains from championship aspirants to a championship team. It’s a reminder that no player is truly worthy of a ring until he actually earns it.
“We’re learning how to win games, how to figure teams out,” Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston said. “It helps to have Steve. He’s been on championship-caliber teams, so he has that knowledge — just as far as the poise, and then the way that we have to figure teams out. It’s a seven-game series. You don’t win a series in one game, but you can figure out your advantages in one game.”
The thing is, the Warriors thought they’d found their edge in Game 1 with a smaller lineup that launched a comeback from a 16-point second-quarter deficit and won in the latter minutes of the fourth quarter. But when Kerr went to the group that features Draymond Green at center and Harrison Barnes at power forward in the second quarter on Thursday, Golden State saw the Rockets chop their 17-point lead down to eight.
Green was sloppy with the ball, with two turnovers during that stretch and four overall. And this was a night when the Rockets literally stood tall, thanks to Dwight Howard going 40 productive minutes despite a sprained knee that had his playing status in doubt before the game.
The Warriors showed their versatility with center Andrew Bogut‘s best playoff game since the opener against New Orleans (which feels like eight months ago now). They needed the combined 16 points and 14 rebounds from Bogut and Festus Ezeli because Howard gave the Rockets 19 points and 17 rebounds. James Harden answered everything Stephen Curry (33 points, six assists) threw at Houston with a near-triple double of 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
The Warriors also showed their vulnerability. They can slip up. They can’t always ride the sound waves from their raucous crowd all the way to the shore. Curry can be neutralized if teams are willing to trap him far from the basket. The Rockets used their trap to cause an eight-second violation in the backcourt and also forced Curry to use a timeout when jammed up near the sideline.
Yet amid the Warriors’ weak moments, they also found the wherewithal to make the big play with a defensive stand on the final sequence. Down by a point, Harden brought the ball upcourt, seemingly ready to cap his 12-point fourth quarter with the game-winning play. But Curry and Klay Thompson sprung a double-team of their own, forcing Harden to first pass the ball, then lose control of it when he got it back. The buzzer sounded and Harden remained doubled over on the floor, as if it were an NCAA tournament game.
“Thank God for Steph,” Thompson said. “He made a great play.”
The Warriors exulted and then expressed relief, knowing they escaped with a victory they might not have necessarily deserved, but aware that there’s still time to address their flaws, even if they had lost.
“We’ve built up seven, eight-point leads in the last two games and made it a little too drama-filled for us,” Curry said. “So we want to figure that out as we go to Houston.”
The Warriors are all figuring it out on the move because they haven’t been here before, playing into Memorial Day weekend in the Western Conference finals. They don’t even know what they don’t know.
Livingston tried to soak up what he could from playoff veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett when he was with them in Brooklyn last year, gathering their advice to own the moment. And so he played as calm a game as any Warrior Thursday night, making all four of his shots without committing a turnover.
“I believe in myself,” Livingston said. “Even though it’s my first time, I believe I’m supposed to be here. I want everyone else to have that feeling, too.”
Thompson needs a confidence boost. He’s 12-for-33 from the field, 2-for-14 on 3-pointers and can’t find a way to slow down Harden amid a defensive scheme that is reluctant to send him a help defender. Even Curry, for his shot-making wizardry, had six turnovers in Game 2. The team takes so many cues from him that it can lead them in the wrong direction when he gets loose with the ball.
“I think sometimes our group competes so hard that the distinction between making the simple play and playing as hard as you can gets blurred,” Kerr said. “You have to be able to separate those two things. You’ve got to compete like crazy, and then you have to take a breath and just make the simple play.”
See, even making the simple play isn’t always a simple task in the highest levels of pro ball. The Warriors are getting so close.
They still have so much to learn.