Off-Court Drama Is Warriors' Inspiration, Clippers' Distraction

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Off-Court Drama Is Warriors' Inspiration, Clippers' Distraction
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OAKLAND — No one ever wondered out loud what might provide more inspiration—love for a coach or hate of an owner—but Game 4 between the Clippers and Warriors nevertheless provided an answer.

The Clippers, warming up with their practice shirts turned inside out in protest of a tape recording allegedly of owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks, were no match for a Warriors squad intent on making sure their owner doesn't fire their head coach.

(Note: If owners seem to be more involved in playoff storylines than ever before, welcome to today's NBA.)

The aforementioned coach, Mark Jackson, didn't try to hide just how much love and solidarity his team has going for it right now. Veteran Jermaine O'Neal was lauded not only for volunteering to give up his starting job, but also for taking the floor in garbage time so that Harrison Barnes could get an ovation coming off.

A question about Jackson riding a shorter rotation morphed into acknowledgement of little-used Hilton Armstrong expressing his gratitude not only for getting minutes but also for getting plays called for him in his two minutes of work. O'Neal and Armstrong received as much attention in Jackson's postgame comments after the Warriors' 118-97 win as the offensive unleashing of Steph Curry (33 points) and Andre Iguodala (22).

Jackson could've been accused of piling on with all the examples of team unity if it weren't for the fact that acknowledging the subtle sacrifices his players make is something he has done for two seasons now.

"Not enough credit is given to a guy like him, a total team player, who took a backseat and was thinking how could we figure this out, how can we make an adjustment," Jackson said of O'Neal. Jackson already had been hinting that he might change his starting lineup after Blake Griffin established great early rhythms against a front line of O'Neal and David Lee.

Armstrong, meanwhile, was blown away that Jackson put him on the floor to close the first half and called plays for him on consecutive possessions when coach Doc Rivers elected to guard the 6'11" Armstrong with 6'7" Matt Barnes. Armstrong posted up Barnes and scored twice in less than 30 seconds.

"I figured I was just going in to guard Blake," Armstrong said. "Someone saying, 'Give him the ball in a playoff game'? That's never happened. I felt good, confident. I told him how much I appreciated his trust."

It is Jackson's ability to empower and encourage every player at his disposal that makes the talk about his rotations and a preference to have his assistant coaches work the clipboard during timeouts curious. If a coach's job is to put his players in the best position to succeed, and every player to a man says Jackson has done that for him, it seems a little silly to find ways to suggest he's mishandling his personnel—especially in light of the adjustments Jackson has made as this series has evolved.

After winning Game 1 plugging O'Neal in for Andrew Bogut (broken rib), the Warriors were demolished in Game 2, but the carnage was not a complete waste. Jackson experimented with a small lineup in the third quarter that saw Curry finally get loose offensively, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the period. Jackson incorporated more of it in Game 3 and was a last-possession shot by Curry away from taking a 2-1 series lead. Implementing the small-ball strategy from the start of Game 4 evened the series with a game the Warriors led by double digits for all but a couple of minutes.

No one was more impactful than Iguodala, someone Jackson could've blistered or buried for his anemic play in the first three games of the series. Instead, Jackson simply acknowledged that they needed more from him and gave him a chance to deliver, putting the ball in his hands to initiate the offense to start the game. The result: a 39-point first quarter and 15-point lead, fueled by six points and three assists from Iguodala—easily his best quarter of the series.

Rivers, conversely, has been held up as a set-calling savant, yet he admitted he did not have his team emotionally prepared to play in light of the tempest surrounding Sterling.

"I didn't do my job tonight," he said. "I thought I did the right stuff to get them ready, and I really didn't. I know what's going on. I get it. But we still have a job to do, and we didn't do our jobs. I just didn't like our spirit. I can't blame them for it."

While a completely understandable admission under the circumstances, it stood in stark contrast to the "no excuses" mantra Jackson has preached since he arrived three seasons ago. Rivers even seemed to suggest that he couldn't be sure anything would be different in Game 5 back at the Staples Center.

"We're going home now, and usually that would mean we're going to our safe haven," he said, "and I don't even know if that's true, to be honest. I don't know if home court even matters in this series. I think the team that plays the best, trusts the best, has the best focus, all the little things, will win this series."

Plays, trusts, focuses—no telling who will be best at the first and last of those. Right now, though, the Warriors are way ahead with the middle one.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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