This is my Friday column previewing the Warriors-Hawks game. WARNING — this is a basketball column. 49ers’ fans, feel free to skip this.
The Warriors play in Atlanta Friday Night against their alter ego — the Atlanta Hawks, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Is the game a special test or just another regular season NBA game?
“Just another game,” Andre Iguodala whispered through gritted teeth Wednesday night as he stood in the Warriors’ locker room after the Warriors defeated the Mavericks 128-114. “We don’t look at it as the biggest game of the year because every game is a big game for us.”
“It’s not the Finals or the playoffs,” Stephen Curry pointed out as he sat next to his locker. “But, it’s a big game that a lot of NBA fans will tune in to. We’re going to be ready to play. We know they will as well. And we want to come out and have a good showing and try to start our road trip off on a good foot against the best team in the East right now. We don’t hype it more than that. It’s just a good test for us to go in and try to beat a great team.”
“It’s just fun,” Steve Kerr rationalized at his postgame press conference. “It’s a fun game. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot if we win or we lose. In terms of the big picture, both teams are having great seasons. One loss, one win – I’m not sure what that means, but it’s a great test and it’s a great challenge. These are the most fun games I think for players, when you go against a team from the opposite conference because you only see them twice, and a team that is playing as well as they are, and a team that plays a very similar style.”
The Warriors and the Hawks practically are mirror images. They have the two-best records in the NBA despite losing in the first round of the playoffs last season and making minimal changes to their rosters this past offseason.
The Warriors and the Hawks want to believe they’ve improved by quantum leaps. Have they really? Are they great teams, or are they merely good teams that played great in November, December and January? Sometimes good teams play great for a few months. The Oakland A’s last season come to mind. You know what happened to them.
Before Wednesday night’s game against Dallas, a reporter asked Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle how the Warriors have changed since last season.
“I mean, there are some differences,” Carlisle said, buying himself time to figure out what those differences are. “They’re another year more experienced. They’re another year more together. They’re another year more playoff hardened.”
Call those the intangible differences. Are there tangible differences between this season’s Warriors and last season’s Warriors?
The offense is one tangible difference. The Warriors scored 104.3 points per game last season, and they’re scoring 111.4 per game this season. Big difference. Mark Jackson had offensive firepower and didn’t know what to do with it. He held it back. He got in the way.
Kerr unleased it immediately — more passes, more open shots, more scoring.
Are there any other tangible differences?
I can’t find any.
The Warriors gave up 99.5 points per game last season, and they’re giving up 99.8 points per game this season. The defense hasn’t changed much.
Before this season, Kerr said he wanted to reduce the number of turnovers the Warriors commit. So far, the Warriors have committed 14.9 turnovers per game, down from 15.4 turnovers per game last season – not much of a reduction. Sometimes, the Warriors still play carelessly, flinging one-handed passes to the other team or the hotdog vendors.
Andrew Bogut still is fragile. Who knows how healthy he will be when the playoffs start? That’s a big issue and it looms.
Bogut still can’t shoot free throws, and neither can Iguodala. If they play during crunch time of a playoff game, will the other team foul them until Kerr subs in players who can make free throws?
Kerr still is a beginner. Can he outcoach a veteran like Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich in a seven-game series?
Does Kerr make poised decisions in big games? Even a great coach like Jim Harbaugh doesn’t.
We learned that in the Super Bowl two years ago when he was screaming at the referees and forgot to use his final timeout with the game on the line. A few days ago, we learned Pete Carroll doesn’t make poised decisions, either. He couldn’t get the ball in the hands of his best player — Marshawn Lynch — 1 yard away from the end zone with 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl. Carroll got cute and tried to trick the defense with a quick pass into traffic to a bad receiver. If he wanted to throw a pass, he had a million other options.
Will Kerr get cute in a big game? Will he call some complicated play involving screens and cuts and passes, or will he get smart and give the ball to the best player in the league, Curry, and just get out of the way?
Are the Warriors championship contenders or regular season heroes? Same goes for the Hawks.
No matter how much the Warriors downplay the game, our first clue comes Friday night.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.