Mariotti: Hardly the Big Easy 

click to enlarge Golden State's Stephen Curry, center, shoots past, from left, New Orleans' Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter and Anthony Davis in the Warriors' 106-99 victory over the Pelicans Saturday at Oracle Arena. - MARCIO JOE SANCHEZ/AP
  • Marcio Joe Sanchez/AP
  • Golden State's Stephen Curry, center, shoots past, from left, New Orleans' Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter and Anthony Davis in the Warriors' 106-99 victory over the Pelicans Saturday at Oracle Arena.
OAKLAND — "AHHHHHHHHHHH!” came the shout from down the hallway, followed by the shouter himself, sprinting and almost knocking over two media people.

Stephen Curry was saying hello to the NBA postseason. Just before this pregame romp through the bowels of Oracle Arena, he had rushed past his former coach, Mark Jackson, who was assigned rather awkwardly by ABC to analyze the Warriors’ postseason opener. Curry didn’t acknowledge Jackson, but then he wasn’t seeing anyone or anything Saturday but the 48 minutes ahead of him.

There were some magnificent moments early, as is custom, and a team that won 67 games in the regular season looked primed to win 16 more in the postseason — all in a single afternoon. Curry was blowing kisses, flexing his biceps, playing to the crowd as he padded his YouTube trove. The MVP-in-waiting officially announced himself with a pullup missile from 27 feet, trotting past Jackson as he headed back downcourt. Next, he was gliding untouched through the lane as stationary bodies really did resemble large waterbirds with long bills and throat pouches — the working definition of a pelican, if you wondered, New Orleans or otherwise. And his reverse layup flip from his left hip over a shoulder-clutching Anthony Davis?

“A fun little play,” said Curry, who has assembled about a thousand. How giddy was the scene there for a while? Draymond Green, after smoking a 3-pointer over Davis, grinned and performed his own flex for the fans. At which point coach Steve Kerr, who could write a career primer on postseason basketball and sensed a little too much delirium inside Roaracle, pulled Green aside and suggested he, um, stop the premature celebration.

“If you scored a bucket over Anthony Davis, you’d pound on your chest, too, because it ain’t happening often,” Green explained. “You get one over him, take advantage of the situation, because you may not be able to flex next play down.”

What did Kerr tell him? “He have me a little game-plan adjustment,” he said, sheepishly.

Point being, an NBA championship is not won in the first three quarters of Game 1 in the opening round. What once was a 25-point, third-quarter lead suddenly became a stinky puddle of careless turnovers, missed free throws, blown defensive assignments, the awakening of Davis and — ohmygod — a lead that dwindled to eight and then six and then four in the final 8.4 seconds. Because the Warriors have a history of playoff frustration, the fans grew anxious, nervous, almost petrified.

“A weird kind of tension,” Curry noted.

He and his teammates survived the Davis onslaught, which included 20 points in the fourth quarter, and snuck away with a 106-99 win. Some fans will complain as they strip off their “Strength in Numbers” T-shirts, saying the Warriors lost a chance to rest Curry and other starters in the fourth quarter. The more sound, savvy perspective: The late-game slacking gives Kerr a teaching moment, a chance to remind them of their flaws — that they aren’t perfect despite a regular season that sometimes seemed close. They missed 13 free throws (three each by Curry and Klay Thompson), were outscored 33-22 in the fourth quarter and did just enough wrong to create a story line for Game 2, though I suspect this series still will extend to five games at most, long enough to grab a quick beignet at Cafe du Monde.

“Obviously, the first three quarters were a lot better than the fourth. But it was good for us to feel that,” Kerr said. “It’s good for us to have to deal with that feeling in the building, especially as a favorite, when a team starts to come back. You have to feel it. That’s all part of it.

“In the playoffs, you’ve just got to get it done somehow. We’re up 1-0. That’s where we want to be.”

He’d have preferred if Davis were sent home demoralized. Instead, the Pelicans were given oxygen for Monday night. “We’re going to the fight to the end. Down 20, we gave ourselves a chance to win,” said Davis, who showed his all-world ability with 35 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. ... I expect to win a game. Over the course of the game, we realized it was just a basketball game and executed.”

Said New Orleans coach Monty Williams: “I thought it was huge for us to handle their crowd, handle their runs. We settled down, which is a win for us. But we’re not satisfied with settling down.”

The Warriors insist they are their own toughest critics, more so than Charles Barkley and the other naysayers ... folks we call the Worriers. Green noticed how the fans lost faith and doesn’t understand their doubts. “You go up 23, and it’s like, here we go again. This is what everybody expects,” he said. “Then you’re up seven, and everybody’s like, ‘Uh-oh.’ So it was a little weird tension, and to be expected, when a team makes a run like that.

“The last two years, you’re the hunters. Now you’re the hunted. You have to go out there with that mindset knowing that they’re coming, that they’re going to give you their best shot. The world expects you to win. I guess there’s more pressure. But at the end of the day, what we expect out of ourselves and the [level] that we hold ourselves to — nobody’s expectations are going to be higher than ours. As long as we keep that mindset, we’re going to be fine.”

After his explosive start, Curry fell back to our planet and made only 4 of 13 3-point attempts. The Pelicans will be pressing him on the perimeter, which will require more from Thompson, who had an off night after a late-season slump. “Out on the court for warmups, the energy was amazing,” Curry said. “We fed off that and started well. Building a huge lead was important. We’ve just got to finish the game better. Nothing is going to be easy in this series.”

“We have to eliminate those home-run 3s,” Pelicans forward Quincy Pondexter said of Curry. “That’s what really gets the crowd going.” Watching the performance was Jackson, who rejected media questions before and after the game and tried his best to remain inconspicuous. But once he took his place at courtside, diagonally across from the Warriors’ bench, the juxtaposition was too fascinating to ignore. His former players — such as Curry, who openly questioned owner Joe Lacob after Jackson’s firing last spring — didn’t go out of their way to say hello. He was simply another TV analyst now, and these Warriors had business to address — namely, advancing one or two or three playoff rounds beyond where Jackson took them last year. Kerr, who soon should be accepting NBA Coach of the Year hardware, has been gracious in making sure he properly credits his predecessor, but Lacob inflamed tensions in December. Speaking at a luncheon of venture capitalists, he criticized Jackson for being difficult to deal with and for not having better assistant coaches when he “didn’t know X’s and O’s, really” when he was hired.

“We all know this from all of our companies. It’s ... Management 101,” Lacob told his group of business peers. “A lot of people on the outside couldn’t understand it when we [dismissed him].”

The knife twisted more, to painful levels, when Lacob said Jackson was a bad actor in the office. “Part of it was that he couldn’t get along with anyone else in the organization,” Lacob said. “And look, he did a great job, and I’ll always compliment him in many respects, but you can’t have 200 people in the organization not like you.”

The animus runs deeper. When Jackson spent days off during the Los Angeles Clippers series arranging for his players to visit his church in Van Nuys — not exactly down the street from the team’s Los Angeles hotel — it seemed like a cult of sorts.

Before the game, Jackson didn’t visit the media room or eating area as some TV analysts would. He joined his ABC partners, Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, at courtside. A few fans shook his hand, but when the Warriors took the court for warmups and Kerr took his place on the bench, the cord clearly was cut forever. After the national anthem, Jackson applauded, shook Van Gundy’s hand and proceeded with his new job.

As the Warriors did their job.

What else did Lacob say that day? “If we lose in the first round of the playoffs, I am going to be crap,” he said.

For now, he’s safe.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at


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Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at
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