Mariotti: Warriors move into championship mode after Curry (62-footer) leads clincher 

MEMPHIS — Oh, they talked about it. Damn right they talked about it. You really think the Warriors aren't going to yap a little, if not grin and giggle and LOL-howl, when their detested rival blows a 19-point lead and loses in what might be the watershed moment that points the "cute, little team from the Bay Area" — as a national TV show weakly described them — to the NBA Finals?

"It was a hot topic, for sure," said Steve Kerr, relaying his players’ thoughts about the Los Angeles Clippers choking away a playoff series clincher as only the Clippers can. "I didn’t even see it. I was tired. I was asleep. The guys were talking about it and, obviously, a crazy game and all that. I’m not going to say anything beyond that."

Nothing more needed to be said. The Warriors are not the Clippers, proving it in Game 6 by seizing an early 15-point lead, sustaining one final thrust from the grit-and-grinders of Beale Street, letting the lead dwindle to a point in the third quarter, then pulling away when You Know Who went YouTube on us again in what should be an expected nightly occurrence. Once upon a time, I was privileged to write about the Jordan dynasty in Chicago, and every night, when I was running out of spectacular descriptions and preferred to focus on someone else, Michael Jordan forced me to rhapsodize about him again.

Stephen Curry is becoming that superlative magnet. He is the Most Valuable Player of the league, and, by extension, he will not let his team blow a big lead. He stole the final gasps of the mid-South crowd, the night after B.B. King died, by hitting a series of killer three-pointers, including a 62-footer at the third-quarter buzzer. The Warriors then coasted to a 108-95 victory that places them in the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1976, the year after the franchise’s last league championship. In one furious, memorable sequence — Andre Iguodala blocks a Jeff Green jumper, the Grizzlies foolishly pause because they think Green was fouled, Curry whips up a three-quarter-court prayer that for him is a layup — they proudly displayed themselves as the steely antithesis of the choking dogs down south.

"Looked good the whole way. Haven’t made one of those since college," Curry said. "Interesting, we never gave up the lead, It was great to see the momentum change right there. We always felt confident we would figure it out."

"I was under the impression we got fouled there," Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. "Steph picks up the ball and launches it. When he made it, it was like, `What just happened?'" Steph happens.

It was coincidence that Curry’s from-the-hip heave evoked slight memories of the way Rick Barry, the superstar of the last Golden State title team, shot free throws. It was not coincidence that he made the shot. Before practice every day, Kerr allows music to be cranked and the players to warm up with a shot-a-rama sequence: full-court shots, three-quarter-courters, even drop kicks. Kerr cringed at how some of his former coaches, including Lute Olson, might react to the frenzy. "It’s sort of our way to loosen up and get into practice," said Kerr, who claims he is the best drop kicker of the bunch.

He is not the best long-range shooter in those sessions. You’ll never guess who is. "Makes a lot more than you think," Kerr said of Curry.

"Does not surprise me at all," Draymond Green said. "He stands at the other baseline, every day before practice, and just slings the ball to the other rim. He’s made more than a few." Sitting beside Green, Curry was wearing a camouflage hoodie. He can’t hide from the barrage of praise that will follow him into the next series, as America watches in awe. "Yeah, every day, we’re warming up, balls are flying everywhere because everyone is throwing up crazy shots," he said after another historic performance in a historic season: eight three-pointers, a team-tying playoff mark, on a night when he had 32 points and 10 assists. Someone asked if it was his best shot ever.

"Can’t put my shot against game-winners," he said.

That’s what Curry does. He reminds us that we’re watching a special moment in basketball time and gets us thinking. How did this shot compare to the game-winner in New Orleans, when he was tackled into the stands by Anthony Davis and still made the three that forced overtime and led to a series sweep? "Hard to say. This was a big moment, just the timing of it," he said. "In a closeout game, this was a big turning point." Not just the heave, mind you, but the other threes he made as the game was being decided, throwing more dirt on the Grizzlies with each swish and splash.

It also was an exclamation point on who the Warriors are: A team that figured out its defensive issues, thanks to Kerr’s tactical switches after losses in Games 2 and 3, and returned to its freewheeling, defense-ignites-offense, three-point-firing entertainment extravaganza. The Grizzlies need to join the rest of the NBA in the 21st century. The five remaining teams in the playoffs also are the five best three-point-shooting teams. The Warriors hit 15 more treys, the third straight game in which the made 14 or more — something not done since 1985. Curry had 25 in the series, recovering from his "slump" when he couldn't hit anything.

The Warriors want more than this. They can smell it, taste it, and are back home to watch the Clippers play Houston Rockets in Game 7 on Sunday afternoon. They claim not to have a dog in that race. Curry doesn't want to go down that hate-the-Clippers road — "That's not who we are," he said — and while Green might want to go down that road, he prefers the bigger picture.

"Not celebrating at all," he said. "We’ll be watching that game, getting ready for the next series. We haven’t really done anything yet. We've got a lot bigger dreams and accomplishments. We’ll celebrate when we get to where we want to go."

By simply mentioning that his players had yakked about it and he had slept through it, Kerr was taking a dig at Clippers coach Doc Rivers — or Glenn, as Green calls him — in the ongoing psychological warfare between these teams. It was the same message also sent this weekend by ridiculing social media, an astonished hoops world and a mortified clan of Clippers fans who sense what the rest of us now know: Any team that collapses so ignominiously at home, allowing a nothing-special Houston team to outscore them 40-15 while James Harden sat the entire fourth quarter, isn't emotionally equipped to win the championship. Imagine owner Steve Ballmer high-fiving Chris Paul when the lead was double digits, only to hold his hand over his mouth in horror during the breakdown.

Joe Lacob has no such issues this weekend after his team avoided any hint of Clipperitis. Had the Clippers won their series, they would have been the more rested team heading into a would-be opener Sunday in Oakland. "We were concerned," Kerr admitted. Now, if they somehow survive Game 7 in Houston, the Clippers would limp into Oracle Arena as a sheepish, wounded bunch.

In the NBA, this is known as a mental edge. In this rivalry, it’s known as a trash-talking point. When the Warriors have a lead of at least 15 points this season, they are 53-0, including 6-0 in the playoffs.

Please don’t commence heated discussions about which team you’d rather see the Warriors play. They’d have an easier time against the Rockets, having won all four regular-season games while holding Harden to subpar performances twice. But come on. If you live for bloodthirsty sporting thrills, you want the Clippers. America wants to see the Warriors and the Clippers, and with Curry as the angelic superhero, the Dubs will be the national rooting interest.

"No disrespect," Curry said, "but it doesn't matter to us. We just want to be ready for our next game."

It’s all heady territory for a franchise that, for decades, was little more than an occasional Bay Area novelty. Though the Warriors always were fun, they rarely were good. Now, they've set themselves up for a long period of greatness as the 21-to-34 demographic darlings of America’s tech hub. Lacob has little to worry about regarding the new Mission Bay arena, not when the mayor and governor are behind it and they’re talking about knocking down highways and building trains. If the Giants are the pride of the region, the Warriors are the new passion.

"All new ground for the Warriors," Kerr said. "It’s a testament to all the work put in the last three, four years. Building this team, developing players, developing an identity with the defense. It’s very gratifying, and the fact is, I jumped on board this year and the train was already rolling."

Where it’s going, who can say? But it’s certainly not screeching to a halt, like the clunker in L.A.

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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