Warriors coach Mark Jackson placed a prominent poem by an unknown author in every player’s locker before Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday that had a simple title: Don’t Quit.
Jackson’s gritty Golden State team never has this season. Neither have the four-time champion Spurs, led by a group of veterans who have stood the test of time.
Young or old, it might not matter at this point.
Both teams are writing a new script in the playoffs, giving each other all they can handle in a thrilling Western Conference semifinal that has had more twists and turns than anybody ever predicted. The Warriors and Spurs head into a critical Game 5 tilt in San Antonio tonight tied at two apiece.
What started as a best-of-seven series is suddenly a best of three.
“It’s a great place to be,” Jackson said at Golden State’s practice facility in Oakland on Monday before the team boarded a flight to San Antonio. “It’s a great story.”
Differing in style and experience, the Warriors and Spurs share at least one common thread: each has reason to be confident and concerned before the next ball is tossed.
Both have blown late leads and lost a game in overtime that they felt they shouldn’t. Each has won once on the other’s home floor, and neither has won consecutive games.
“They’ve already won one here, so there is no reason to be comfortable here,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said back at team headquarters in San Antonio. “We’re happy we have home court and we’re happy to have a game [in Oakland], but there is no comfort level. We’re 2-2. This next game is a huge game for both teams.”
Home court seemed so huge at the start of the series.
Maybe not anymore.
The Warriors hadn’t won two games beyond the first round since 1977, when they pulled even with the Lakers in the conference semifinals through four games. Los Angeles won in seven.
Even with sharp-shooting Stephen Curry limping around on a gimpy left ankle, the upstart Warriors are beaming with confidence. Golden State’s Game 2 win was its first in San Antonio since Feb. 14, 1997, ending a streak of 30 straight losses in the Alamo City, where the Spurs are tough for anybody to beat.
Game 6 will be in Oakland on Thursday night. If necessary, a decisive Game 7 would be back in San Antonio on Sunday. That means the Warriors have to do twice in two weeks what took them 16 years to do: win in San Antonio, which doesn’t seem nearly the advantage it did days ago.
“It’s almost like we played better there, and they played better here,” said Curry, who scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range as a mostly stationary guard in Golden State’s 97-87 comeback win in overtime Sunday. “I don’t know what to read into that, but I think the way that the game flowed (Sunday), kind of a low-scoring versus high-scoring early in the series, you just don’t know what to expect.”
The Warriors wasted a 16-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation in Game 1, which the Spurs won in double overtime on Manu Ginobili’s 3-pointer in the final seconds. After Golden State’s nearly start-to-finish win in Game 2, San Antonio followed with a similar performance in its Game 3 victory. Then the Spurs blew an eight-point lead with five minutes to play in regulation in Game 4 when it seemed like the Warriors would wilt.
“There’s not really any momentum in the playoffs,” said Warriors rookie Harrison Barnes, who scored a career-high 26 points to go with 10 rebounds in the game. “Maybe it is youth. Maybe we just don’t know any better.”
The Warriors will be on a stage far more familiar to the Spurs now.
This is the 11th time San Antonio will play a Game 5 of a best-of-seven series tied under coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs are 7-3 in those series but have lost the last two, including a year ago to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.
Golden State has outrebounded the Spurs in every game and outshot San Antonio in all but Game 3. But both teams are coming off a sloppy slugfest where both sides shot below 40 percent and nobody quite felt good about the way they played.
The Spurs, in particular, have struggled to consistently make shots most of the series. San Antonio also made only 14 of 25 free throws and was 7 for 27 on 3-pointers in Game 4.
“We’ve never shot this poorly for this many games in a stretch,” Popovich said. “Hopefully it’s an aberration to be that bad.”
Injuries remain a concern for both sides.
Tony Parker is still bothered by a bruised left calf, but he considers the injury more of an annoyance than a major hindrance. Curry has been far more hampered by what the Warriors have called a sprained left ankle, which he needed an anti-inflammatory injection for before Game 3 for the third time in these playoffs.
The Warriors have been resilient all season. They’ve already overcome forward Brandon Rush’s season-ending left knee injury in the home opener this season, center Andrew Bogut’s sore left ankle throughout the year and All-Star forward David Lee’s hip injury in the first round against Denver.
This also is a franchise that had made the playoffs just twice since 1994 and went 23-43 last season and never expected to be in this position so soon. Even Jackson and general manager Bob Myers reminisced Monday about how the two were preparing for predraft workouts in Chicago at this time a year ago.
“It seemed crazy to think this day could really happen,” Jackson said. “And we’re not done.”