Mariotti: After ugly performance in Game 2 loss, Warriors face dilemma in Memphis 

click to enlarge Ben Margot/AP - Stephen Curry and the Warriors will face their first challenge of the playoffs after losing Tuesday at home to the Grizzlies. It was the Warriors’ first home loss since January. - BEN MARGOT/AP
  • Ben Margot/AP
  • Ben Margot/APStephen Curry and the Warriors will face their first challenge of the playoffs after losing Tuesday at home to the Grizzlies. It was the Warriors’ first home loss since January.

OAKLAND — This is what they needed, really, a legitimate kick in the ass. There was too much Stephmania in the air, too many projections about a victory parade site, even some yammering that the Warriors could become the first NBA champion to sweep the postseason. It was all too easy, too simplistic, too ignorant of playoff realities.

Wake up from your sweet dream, Dubville.

An actual challenge is upon you.

Whether it was an MVP hangover, a Charles Barkley hex, the inevitable clunker game, hokey officiating in a league that likes to (wink, wink) lengthen a series or — much closer to the truth — the inspirational return of Mike Conley for the sufficiently energized Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors were broken Tuesday night on what was thought to be an impenetrable home court. They looked out of sorts, out of sync, soft, ugly and quite vulnerable in losing 97-90, with the Grizzlies imposing their physicality, forcing 20 turnovers and holding the frigid Warriors to 42 percent shooting (23 percent from 3-point range) in their first loss at Oracle Arena since Jan. 27.

If Steve Kerr scolded his players for a sluggish attitude while holding a 3-0 lead in the New Orleans series, we can imagine what he'll be saying these next three days. For the first time in his charmed rookie season, the coach actually is going to have to coach. The fans aren't comfortable, but those of us who enjoy sports for drama and intrigue have been served a large dose of both elements. Don't be silly and say the Warriors are in trouble. But, yes, that was anxiety — an unfamiliar and queasy feeling — in the locker room and interview room afterward. For the first time, Barkley looked correct in his assessment that a team that lives by jumpshots dies by jumpshots.

"It's obviously been a dream season, and things have fallen into place over and over again. It's not always going to work that way," Kerr said. "It's the playoffs. It's kind of how it works. You get outplayed by a real good team, and you're going to lose whether you're at home or on the road.

"They deserved to win. They kicked our butts, controlled the whole game. We have to learn from this. We were not poised, and we did not play well."

The Splash Brothers? Call them the Crash Brothers as Stephen Curry, after coach Steve Kerr had expressed confidence that he wouldn't be drained after his one-hour-plus MVP acceptance speech the previous day, amused the James Harden crowd with a forgettable 7-of-19 shooting performance, 2-of-11 from treyland. Klay Thompson was worse, missing seven straight shots at one point on a 6-of-15 night, 1-of-6 on threes.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," Curry said. "This was a big opportunity to go up 2-0 and carry more momentum through the playoffs, but after that game, we can be real and know we're not going to go 16-0 in the playoffs. We're going to face some real good teams. We have to make some adjustments. We can't play the way we did tonight. We can't make those turnovers. We have to play more physical defense.

"But we're confident we can bounce back and win Game 3. I'm not worried about that at all."

Were Curry and his teammates hungover from the MVP proceedings?

"It was weird. That was the best way I can put it," he said. "You want to stay in the moment and stay focused, but with the extracurricular stuff and the MVP and the change of routine, it was different. I don't know if it was a huge reason why we lost, but it has been a long 48 hours. A lot of words, a lot of pictures celebrating the accomplishment."

And those shooting misses? "We had open shots that we normally make," Curry said. "And they forced us into some tough shots. It's not going to be easy for us to do what we do, but we're a smart group that can make adjustments."

"We did a good job of chasing them around," said Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, refusing to submit that Curry and Thompson were just missing open shots.

Never mind the notion that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in town to hand Curry his MVP hardware, could just stick around the Bay Area until mid-June for the next trophy ceremony. This Western Conference semifinal series is tied 1-1 and is headed this weekend to Tennessee, where the natives will be hostile after Conley was accidentally hit on his protective facial mask by Draymond Green in a second-quarter episode that sent a pall through the building, then nearly erupted into something bigger when Memphis tough guy Zach Randolph got in Green's face. Though his left eye remained dark and puffy after taking a knee to the face 10 nights earlier, Conley decided to risk injury and play just two days after Joerger admitted concern that more contact to the face could threaten Conley's career.

Green may be many things, but he is not a dirty player. "My bad," he said as the Grizzlies surrounded the fallen Conley on the floor. Conley refused to leave the game, and, showing remarkable perseverance, returned again in the game's final minute after suffering a cramp on his left calf. That was probably the only positive news all night for the Warriors, who are presented with problems when Conley is able to defend Curry.

"I got hit a couple of times. After that, I just played through it," said Conley, who scored 22 points with the mask and outplayed the MVP. "The cramping was because I hadn't played and didn't drink enough water all week. I'm OK. I was a little nervous trying to get back in the swing of things, but my teammates really picked me up."

Literally, several times. "Mike Conley has a tremendous heart," Joerger said. "It's going to be really fun going back to Memphis. Our fans are going to be really fired up."

Was it a dirty play by Green? "I wasn't able to see," said Conley, playing the diplomat. "I was trying to call a timeout."

Suddenly, a 67-win regular season and 5-0 postseason start have vanished. That's how quickly the mood can swing in May. If the Warriors return home tied 2-2, they might consider themselves fortunate. That's how poorly they played.

The fans heckled the officials all night. And, yes, there were some suspicious calls, such as the phantom hack that earned Green his second personal foul — and a technical foul for complaining — barely three minutes into the game. In truth, this was the Warriors' worst overall performance in some time. We saw things not thought possible, with Thompson leading the lowlight reel with a missed dunk and constant misses in potentially game-turning moments. They did not look like a championship team. They looked like a wannabe that might need another season before breaking through. The momentum can swing right back on Beale Street, but is anyone sure of that?

"We were in such a rush out there," Kerr lamented. "It's a 48-minute game, it takes an eternity to win an NBA game. I thought like in the middle of the second quarter, it was desperation. We were too emotional, too quick with our movements. Everyone was trying to do everything frantically."

Issues the head coach is going to have to fix, right?

For a team that looked invisible in Game 1, the Grizzlies were markedly focused. Tony Allen, already an Oracle public enemy after unintentionally walking through a kids' dance performance during a timeout Sunday, added fuel when he took a slight shot at Curry. "He can shoot the ball pretty good and he got a nice handle. But it ain't nothing I ain't never seen before," Allen said. Even after winning MVP, Curry still was hearing backlash, with a website called Basketball-Reference claiming in its win-share data that he contributed 15.7 wins to his team — compared to 16.4 for Harden and 16.1 for the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul. But given the chance to prove his detractors wrong again, Curry came up unusually small on a night when the scoreboard repeatedly honored him with video highlights.

Midway through the fourth quarter, as the Warriors tried to rally, Curry threw a lazy pass that Tony Allen picked off. He drove for an uncontested dunk, and running back up the court, he mouthed off to the crowd and hoisted an index finger. The scoreboard tried to get the fans going with "MAKE SOME NOISE" proclamations, and one last time, they rose from their seats and screamed for their team.

Thompson missed. Green missed a putback and went flying over the baseline.

On the other end, Conley hit a 3-pointer.

And to think his parents didn't want him to play. "I had to tell them, no, I'm going to play," he said.

The Warriors, the team that taught lessons all season, now must learn one from Conley. The operative words are toughness, perseverance.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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