SAN FRANCISCO -- Be quick, but don't hurry.
For Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, the words of the great John Wooden were the perfect message to his team prior to what amounted to a must-win Game 3 against the Sacramento Kings. The Warriors love to play fast, but they were rushing.
"I think the first two games, our guys have been in a hurry," Kerr said prior to Game 3. "They're trying so hard to make plays, we're either taking shots too quickly or trying to make plays that aren't there and turning it over. We've got to be more patient."
The Warriors, of course, had other problems to contend with on Thursday night. Their defensive lynchpin and playmaker extraordinaire, Draymond Green, was suspended for the game due to the "Stomp Heard 'Round the World." If that weren't enough, Gary Payton II, arguably their second-best defender who played 26 crucial minutes in Game 2, was scratched shortly before tipoff due to an illness.
Throughout the two days between the Warriors falling behind 0-2 for the first time in 28 playoffs series and Thursday night's game, many rushed to write the obituary of the league's marquee dynasty over the past decade, assuming they were all but certain to fall into an 0-3 hole due to the absences. The chatter was loud and incessant. Should they trade Draymond? Should they extend Klay? Are they wasting the end of Steph Curry's prime?
"You bottle up all that noise and the potential distractions of Draymond being out, what the narrative is or whatever," Curry said. "You bottle it up and all it is a sense of pride of who we are capable of being, and coming in with the right energy to kind of prove that we can create some life for ourselves."
Indeed, the reports of Golden State's demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Not so fast.
Be quick, but don't hurry.
The Warriors stormed to a dominant, wire-to-wire 114-97 Game 3 win over the Kings at Chase Center to capture their first postseason win since walking off the court in Boston as NBA champions last June. Steph Curry did what we've, perhaps unfairly, come to expect in these situations, willing Golden State with 36 points on 6 for 12 3-point shooting while committing just a single turnover. Kevon Looney, ever reliable, admirably picked up Green's slack on both ends, pulling down 20 rebounds (nine offensive) and dishing out nine assists.
"His focus level was insane tonight," Looney said of Curry. "He did everything for us, getting us in our spots, knowing when to push the pace and knowing when to slow us down, knowing when to get guys shots. They threw a lot of different defenses at him and he was able to manipulate all of them and get us in our spots and get us good shots."
The Warriors bench -- a significant disadvantage in the first two games of the series, put up 25 points -- including 13 huge ones from sporadically-used wing Moses Moody, who had played just eight minutes in Game 2 after a DNP in Game 1. They also received key contributions from Jonathan Kuminga, JaMychal Green and Anthony Lamb, who have seen very few minutes in the postseason thus far.
Kerr elected to start Jordan Poole in Green's spot, going smaller and more offense-oriented. Logic would dictate that inserting Poole was a sign that the Warriors were, in essence, waving a white flag on defense and attempting to turn the game into a high-scoring shootout -- which Golden State is more than capable of winning in its home arena.
But when the ball was tipped, the opposite happened. The Warriors played better defense than they have all series, preventing De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis from getting easy shots at the rim while holding Sacramento to 20 first-quarter points. They maintained the lead despite the offense not quite clicking, as Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole shot a combined 4 for 13 from the field in the first half. Though they committed just six first-half turnovers as a team, Kerr still saw room for improvement.
"It wasn't so much about the pace as it was about the decision-making," Kerr said after the game. "We had some early crazy ones that we kind of got away with, and as the game went on, I think the guys understood just what that decision-making was doing -- forcing Sacramento to play in the halfcourt where we have been making it tough on them throughout the series."
Be quick, but don't hurry.
Finally, in the second half, it all came together. If the first 10 quarters of Warriors offense in these playoffs was like trying to cut down a redwood with a butter knife, the last two featured a Paul Bunyan-sized gold-clad juggernaut, clearing the forest with a flick of a finger, a hearty laugh echoing throughout the Bay Area. They put up 61 points in the second half, committing just five turnovers.
All told, the Warriors hit all the notes Kerr had been preaching over the past week. They outscored the Kings in the paint. They only had 11 turnovers, compared to Sacramento's 15. They doubled the Kings' second-chance points, 24 to 12. They've known what they needed to do all series, and they were finally able to execute.
"I felt like we played fast, but we were moving the ball, playing together and not playing as fast as before," said Andrew Wiggins, who had 20 points and seven rebounds on Thursday. "We were just taking our time, getting good shots and, you know, going from good to great."
The performance was simultaneously vintage and novel. The Warriors, as a brand, are known for rising to the occasion in the most trying settings. But these Warriors, the ones who seemingly couldn't find a way to win a road game during an underwhelming regular season and looked slow, old and ineffective in the first two games of the series, had yet to muster the fight and focus we saw in Game 3.
They didn't panic, and never seemed to view themselves as underdogs despite being undermanned. They know it's a long series and were encouraged that they were within reach of wins in the first two games even with their poor performance. It's a long series, and you can't win four games in one night.
Be quick, but don't hurry.
With Golden State's Game 3 barrage, the dynamic of the series has shifted. This was a game that Sacramento was supposed to win. They should have taken the opportunity with Green and Payton out to deliver a knockout blow. Instead, it looks like the champs have found their swagger, and reinforcements are coming for Sunday's Game 4.
It's rare that a team feels pressure when leading a series 2-1, but the Kings have been pushed into the corner, forced to punch their way out. If Golden State ties the series on Sunday, they'll have all the momentum heading into a Game 5 in Sacramento that the Kings will have to win to avoid an elimination game on the Warriors' devastating home floor. The Kings still have the advantage, but they'll need to resist the turning tide.
"Just understanding what the moment is, again, of how bad of a decision I think the league made on suspending [Green] first and foremost. You're frustrated with that," Curry said after the Game 3 win. "When your back is up against the wall, you have a night like tonight, it definitely gave us a lot of life, and it was a nice way to respond to these last 48 hours."