Fair or foul, Warriors finding a way

Warriors/Clippers

LOS ANGELES -- Maybe instead of wondering why the Golden State Warriors weren't better than a No. 6 seed this season, we should have wondered why they weren't worse.

Yes, we took into consideration that David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala each missed at least 15 games with injuries. We acknowledged they had lost key reserves and positive locker-room presences Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. But we didn't consider how many new players they had to work into the mix: Iguodala, Jermaine O'Neal and Marreese Speights at the beginning, then Jordan Crawford and Steve Blake before the trade deadline. And we had no knowledge just how difficult that integration was, at least not to the extent Iguodala alluded to Saturday.

"Everyone's fighting for minutes," Iguodala said. "The chemistry didn't look so bad on the court, but you could tell there was a lot of tension at times throughout the year. You were like, 'When is it going to end?'

"I've seen that on championship teams. Miami, their first year together, they had some serious tension. It never got that bad [here], but you kind of wonder, 'When are you going to come together? When are you going to grow up and understand that it's not about me, or this guy, it's about us as a group?'

"Tonight, we kind of took a step in the right direction. Things don't go our way -- or when things are going our way -- stick together, play together, play the right way."

Saturday's victory had to feel as satisfying as any win for any team this season. The Warriors came into Staples Center for the playoff opener and won a taut, foul-plagued game against the Los Angeles Clippers.

They won it 109-105 even though their usual savior, Stephen Curry, shot 6-for-16, including 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. They won it even though Iguodala fouled out. And of course they won it even though Bogut is out with a broken rib.

"Coach Jackson's harping on it every day: It's not about you, it's not about me, it's about us, coming together," Iguodala.

That would be coach Mark Jackson. And contrary to the message he'd sent his players, it felt like this victory was very much about him. Jackson is the key Warriors figure with the least security, thus the guy with the most on the line. Curry, Lee and Iguodala all have contracts that go beyond next season. Klay Thompson will surely get extended when his rookie contract is up. Jackson has one year left, with no talk of an extension, and plenty of whispers around the league that his job is dependent on the Warriors' performance in these playoffs.

It's the reason there's so much to be read into the look of disbelief and disappointment in this GIF of Warriors owner Joe Lacob's eyes when he glanced at Jackson following a Golden State turnover in the first quarter. (By the way, for such a dramatic playoff game, the best GIFs involved people sitting at the scorer's table: Lacob, and the fan who got water tossed on him by Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter.

If one series can serve as a referendum on Jackson after three years on the job, is it that outrageous to have one game serve as a convincing argument in his favor? This sure seemed like a validation of everything he preaches, and a corroboration of his tactics.

The Warriors made things difficult on Chris Paul by sticking Thompson on him and then sending big men his way coming off screens -- never more effectively than when Draymond Green jumped out and caused Paul to lose the ball out of bounds in the final 20 seconds.

"We wanted to come up on the pick-and-rolls so he couldn't really come off and shoot," Speights said.

Normally that's an invitation for him to throw lobs to Griffin, but the Warriors took care of that as well by shifting the weak side of their defense.

"We wanted to make sure everybody was pulled over so Blake didn't get that dunk," Speights said.

The strategy was particularly effective in the first half, when Paul missed six of 10 shots. That doesn't include the times he was caught in the air, without a clean look at the hoop and without a good option to pass to, such an uncharacteristic predicament for the league's best point guard.

Not everything is strategy, of course. As Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, "I don't just go into a game prepared for Blake to be in foul trouble." But Griffin played only four minutes in the first half, which was just enough time to pick up three fouls. Paul had four fouls by the end of the third quarter.

Jackson had to do his own juggling, with Lee picking up three early fouls and Iguodala eventually fouling out. He sat Iguodala after his fifth foul and J.J. Redick got loose to hit four jumpers in a little more than three minutes. The Warriors had a counter, though, making a point of going at Redick at the other end to the extent Rivers had to sit him in favor of a cold-shooting Jamal Crawford for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

"We did a good job on finding matchups and really trying to take advantage of that," O'Neal said.

The X's and O's worked in Jackson's favor. So did the other essential component of coaching in the NBA: connecting with players. O'Neal and Iguodala, two veterans with 133 games of playoff experience between them, noted how the younger players maintained their composure even during the game's most trying times.

"To me, that's the sign of growth," O'Neal said.

These are the abstract things that Jackson speaks of so often that become very tangible during the playoffs. It's why this team has won at least one road game in three playoff series dating back to last year. It's why even though Jackson freely admits he would have picked the Clippers if he had his old job next to Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy at the ABC broadcast table, the guy coaching on the Warriors bench believes his team will win the series.

"Because I've gotten the opportunity, the luxury, of watching these guys every single day," Jackson said. "I've watched these guys for three years now. I know what they put into this. I know how they embrace the spotlight. I know how they've competed and defeated the odds. I know how they broke generational curses. And were able to turn a losing -- with all due respect -- franchise into a team that has gone into the playoffs back-to-back years. I know how they chased down 51 wins and got in the conversation with guys like Wilt [Chamberlain] and [Rick] Barry and [Chris] Mullin and [Al] Attles -- some rare air in the Bay Area. But these guys are made of the right stuff. Seeing them every day, I won't bet against them."

The Warriors won this game for themselves, but it has the most impact on Jackson. Before the game, I asked him if he had any comments or criticism about my column about the tenuous nature of his job status.

He said he hadn't read it, and wondered what I'd written. I told him I compared him to Ned Stark in Season 1 of "Game of Thrones." He doesn't watch the show, so the analogy was lost on him. I told him it didn't end well for Ned Stark.

"It's going to end well for me," Jackson said.

Maybe he knows something we don't. Or maybe he's doing more -- and doing better -- than we understood.

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