It doesn’t happen often, given the scarcity of true franchise players in the NBA, but once in a while, a legitimate championship contender lurks in the shadows. There are few real contenders every season, and most of those teams held that distinction over the previous seasons. The conference finalists that sneak up on us — the 2011 Mavericks, 2011 Thunder, 2009 Magic, 2006 Heat, 2004 Pistons1— do so because, for whatever reason, we were not prepared to think of them as real contenders. Some are young teams on the upswing, ahead of their preconceived schedule. Some are older teams with strange new pieces and uninspiring postseason résumés.
Most of them carry indicators that shout, “Hey! There’s a real contender here!” The 2011 Mavs had a killer record and point differential when their core players were healthy, but a solid percentage of experts picked Portland to upset them in the first round, and almost everyone was shocked they got by the imploding Lakers in the next.2 Teams earn reputations, and the perceptions that come with them, through their historical accomplishments, but that same history can blind us to a truth that doesn’t line up with it.
Which brings me to a question that has been nagging me, and I suspect lots of other hard-core NBA types, over the last couple of weeks: Why not the Warriors? Why can’t Golden State make the Finals and even win the championship this season? Is there a legitimate answer that isn’t some version of, “Because they’re the Warriors, and the Warriors always lose”?
There are serious barriers to Golden State’s title contention, of course — the first being that it has to stay healthy. You could say that about any team, but Golden State’s two cornerstone players have ugly injury histories, including recent ankle issues that verged on “chronic” status. The offense dies without Stephen Curry, and the defense dies without Andrew Bogut. Lose one at the wrong time and the Warriors are toast. And no team is anything like a “safe” bet to make it through the insane Western Conference.
The Warriors, fresh off a 10-game winning streak and one of the great road trips in NBA history, look more and more like a true-blue contender. They certainly think of themselves that way. “The playoffs was the goal for us last season,” Bogut says. “But this season, we’re trying to get to the pinnacle of the NBA, and that’s winning a championship.”
Klay Thompson, leaning back in his chair before last Wednesday’s game in Brooklyn, simply nods when asked if the Warriors can win the whole thing. “Oh yeah,” he says. “That’s the mind-set you gotta have. And this winning streak we have going has just reinforced that.” Draymond Green is emphatic. “We feel like we’re capable of that,” he says. “And we felt like that from the beginning of the year.”
The roster just makes a lot of sense. Golden State reinvented itself with the Monta Ellis/Andrew Bogut swap, gambling that Bogut could get healthy and transform perhaps the most defensively incompetent franchise in league history. Mark Jackson’s coaching staff watched film of Bogut in Milwaukee and, with some input from Bogut, redesigned Golden State’s defensive philosophy to fit his skills. Golden State leaped to an unthinkable 13th in points allowed per possession last season, and in one of the most remarkable single-season transformations ever, it led the league in defensive rebounding rate after finishing dead last five straight seasons.
–Zach Lowe, Grantland.com
In Seattle on Sunday, the emphasis won’t be on the quarterbacks. It will be on the defenses and the running backs.
The 49ers’ defense played probably its best game of the season against the Carolina Panthers, especially in the second half when the Niners were able to play mind games with Caroliina quarterback Cam Newton. After the game, Newton said the 49ers seemed to know exactly when he was going to an audible. Certainly, they stopped everything he tried, sacking him five times.
This meant that Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t have to win the game himself, so he stayed in control, not taking chances and spreading the ball around to what could be the best trio of receivers in the NFL — Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. It was Davis who got the Niners’ first touchdown, just before halftime, on a play that was first ruled out of bounds, setting off a Vesuvius-type eruption from coach Jim Harbaugh. When the play was reviewed, it was obvious Davis had both feet in bounds.
It was Boldin, though, who made the real circus catches, as he has done all year, taking in passes that were too low, behind him and above him. Harbaugh praised Crabtree earlier as being the best pass-catcher he’s seen, but that was because he knows how tender Crabtree’s ego is. Boldin is much tougher mentally, and he’s also a better receiver.
As he has done so often, Frank Gore became a big factor in the second half, getting 67 of his 84 yards after intermission. That included a 39-yard run on third-and-1 that set up the final 49ers score, a field goal by automatic Phil Dawson.
Similarly, Marshawn Lynch had an important run late in Saturday’s game, a 31-yard touchdown that basically put away the Seahawks’ win, though the New Orleans Saints made it interesting with late-game plays.
–Glenn Dickey, San Francisco Examiner
Somebody get Colin Kaepernick some Skittles.
So for his next touchdown celebration, he can chew them before Kaepernicking. Or pour them on the end zone turf in Seattle and stomp on them while kissing his biceps. You know, a “shout out” to Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
Call it what you want, but such an antic would let you know Kaepernick is in that against-all-odds mode. It’s his preferred way to gloat after being bombarded with doubt. And you want him with that mindset because that’s what gets him to another gear.
To beat Seattle in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, another gear will be required.
He was in that mindset when the 49ers put the host Carolina Panthers in their place. He let you know when he scored and mimicked the celebration of Cam Newton, who was drafted 35 spots ahead of Kaepernick. You know he planned all along to pull that off. Which means he planned to score a touchdown. Which means he really wanted to score.
And when Kap really wants to do something, he has shown a propensity for getting it done.
It’s no coincidence that he turned his play around so drastically after playing so poorly in the early stages Sunday. It’s like he could hear you starting to doubt him again. Like he was getting negative tweets uploaded to his armband. Or maybe it was the constant trash talking of the Carolina defenders.
“I’m not going to just let them say anything they want to me. So if you want to say things to me, I am going to respond,” Kaepernick said Sunday.
Whatever the reason, the way he came alive — the way his throws started featuring such zip and accuracy, the way his focus sharpened and decision-making improved — you got the feeling he wanted to shut some people up. Better yet, waterboard his critics in their own Haterade.
You could argue Kaepernick, if he is indeed more than hype, shouldn’t need such a temperament to produce. At the very least, he shouldn’t need outside influence to get him into whatever mindset he needs to be most effective every game. Such would be valid criticisms and underscores his inexperience as a quarterback. But that’s an issue for another day.
–Marcus Thompson II, San Jose Mercury News