The Golden State Warriors opened the season looking unbeatable, then nearly lost to two lackluster teams because they appeared to believe it. They've been warned.
Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Maybe the Warriors have been reading their own glowing press, because Saturday's match-up against the hapless Brooklyn Nets marked the second game in a row that Golden State opened as if it had already won, and nearly lost as a result. Last Thursday, the Warriors yawned out of the gate with all the defensive intensity of a preseason scrimmage against the embryonic Timberwolves, but were saved by their offense. Over the weekend, though, their outside shots weren't falling, and the 1-8 Nets were able to take advantage of some more passive and pliant Golden State defense. This is how a 17-point favorite finds itself down 17 in the second quarter.
The Warriors did not deserve to win the game and stay undefeated, to borrow from the vocabulary we often use to discuss the moral structure of the universe—when we talk as if our actions have ramifications that go beyond mere causality. There are varying views on how this cosmic ledger is kept. Some attribute it to karma; others to God or to some deep geometry of the natural world. Even those who believe that the universe is indifferent, or that nobody deserves anything, can fall back on this language. When this arithmetic isn't borne out in the real world—as is often the case—we consign the reckoning to a next life. We balance "You reap what you sow" against "Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike." We say that life isn't fair, but we long for it to be.
Metaphysics are a heavy weight to hang on a game in which players try to throw a bouncy ball into a hoop, but part of the appeal of sports is that the ideal of fairness seems attainable there. There is little that happens on the court that isn't determined by the actions of the players in one way or another. Poor play is punished with defeat, good play rewarded with victory; as the philosopher said, ball don't lie. That's why fans are so upset at the appearance of biased or inconsistent officiating: not only because it has a material effect on the outcome of the game, but because it disrupts the illusion of fairness.
We don't just want the rules enforced. We want a deeper justice. We want well-conceived strategies to succeed, unforced bad shots to miss, the unselfish pass to be rewarded with an assist, the team that plays with skill and effort to win. We want the team that plays "the right way," however we define that, to be looked upon with favor by luck and chance, the twin deities sports fans reference when they half-jokingly speak of the "sports gods." And when a team plays the wrong way—playing sloppy offense or indifferent defense—we want them to lose, because we believe they deserve it. Even when it's our team on the wrong side of a loss, we hope that losing will serve as a chastening lesson, steering them back on to the straight and narrow.
It was obvious that the Warriors didn't take the Nets seriously from the outset, and that they'd allowed themselves to cross the line from confidence to arrogance. They let Thaddeus Young get to wherever he wanted on the floor, bullying on the block or taking wide open short jumpers, and in the process let a guy who averages 13 points a game drop 22 in the first half. They didn't pressure the ball, allowing Jarrett Jack and the Nets to carve them apart to the tune of 13 first quarter assists. This is how the league's best defense allows one of the league's worst offenses to put up 36 points in the first quarter. The Nets shot an implausible 74 percent from the field over that stretch.
Even after the Warriors woke up in the second quarter, the Nets refused to roll over, their confidence waxing with each Warriors run they warded off. This is how the Warriors, 44-2 in Oracle Arena since the start of last season, found themselves down three with 10 seconds to go, trailing a 1-8 team playing its second away game in as many nights. The Warriors had the ball at half-court with only one timeout left; the Nets just needed to foul the first person to catch the ball, especially if he was below the three-point line, to preserve the lead and get their second win of the season. After the game, Nets coach Lionel Hollins revealed that this is exactly what he told his players to do.
Those sports gods, though, are capricious and fickle. How else can we explain the Nets' failure to foul Draymond Green, who got the ball below the three-point line, and then Andre Iguodala and his collapsing free-throw shooting? How else can we explain Iguodala, who was 7 for 24 on contested three pointers last season, absolutely drilling the tying three over two defenders? How else can we explain the Nets' Brook Lopez, whose 9'5'' standing reach puts his fingers a scant seven inches beneath the basket, missing a point blank tip on the ensuing possession that should have ensured the Warriors' defeat?
Once Lopez' shot rimmed out, overtime felt like almost a foregone conclusion. The gods didn't punish the Warriors, and they outscored the Nets 10-2 in the bonus period to win the game and remain undefeated.
To preserve their perfect record, the Warriors will have to beat Toronto at home before facing a difficult back-to-back. First they fly to Los Angeles on Thursday to face the arch-rival Clippers, who will be thirsty to avenge their loss earlier this season. Then they'll return home to face the Bulls, who were one of only two teams to defeat the Warriors at Oracle during the regular season last year. It would behoove the Warriors to play in a way that does not risk the wrath of the sports gods. They have their warning.