When Golden State Flooded Memphis

In their baby-faced crafting of an apocalypse, the Warriors have assumed the role of the water-bringer.
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With a past championship lingering in antiquity like some shadow of a promised land, only a few teams in the NBA share a historical narrative similar to the Golden State Warriors. The lean years have unfolded not so much as the organization’s identity but the interruption of a brief and former glory. 

In the NBA’s predawn light before the 1980s, they were among the cherished few. Since then, they have lived mostly in exile. Yet this exile has never been a silent affair: The flash of Run-TMC and the 2010 dismantling of Dirk Nowitzki have maintained a raucous level of basketball enthusiasm in the Bay Area.

Thus, part of what makes the Warriors’ current success so enticing derives from how the ascension is both a continuance and a disruption of these historical threads. A championship would be an act of renewal, returning the franchise to the heights of the Rick Barry era, but it would also erase several NBA subplots that have been in development for the last half decade.

The Thunder and Clippers were supposed to be the heirs to the Spurs and Lakers, not necessarily the Warriors. After all, the Warriors’ young nucleus is the least traditional of these three challengers, so here they are, once again, invoking the life and times of Don Nelson and Captain Jack. More importantly, this latest uprising stands the best chance at ending the franchise’s championship drought.

In their baby-faced crafting of an apocalypse, they have assumed the role of the water-bringer.

***

A week ago, when the Warriors were down two games to one against the Grizzlies, fluidity seemed dammed for the present. Experts and fans alike took to discussions over the differences between having a quick release and rushing.

Did a line exist between sane movement and insane urgency? After all, Stephen Curry had shot only 4 for 21 from behind the arc in Games 2 and 3 of the series. Finding little breathing room to riff, to monologue, to iambic pentameter on the MVP-arc of his season, Curry seemed frantic. Meanwhile, his aquatic brother, Klay Thompson, had all but vanished, like Jonah in the belly of a bear.

Belief in the old gods would have demanded these Warriors reinvent themselves mid-series as a brute. And while Kerr did unearth an active David Lee from his bench and switched Andrew Bogut onto the offensively deficient Tony Allen in Game 4, these developments were no dropping of a hammer but matters of trickery and invention. Perhaps Kerr’s own experiences in the disruption of Phoenix’s ideal (through the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal) have fermented into a vision of always staying the course in times of trouble. This stoicism is not hard to fathom. After all, Kerr discusses breath control as much as basketball in the huddle, and perhaps to play basketball is to breathe. However, teams that do not win and advance are often expected to shed what they were and become something else by the next game or the next season. These transformations, when rushed, can be akin to hyperventilating.

Yet the Golden State organization does not seem prone to panic.

Considering the franchise’s flirtation with trading for Kevin Love last summer. The energy and defense provided by Lee and Bogut could easily have been somewhere else and in different uniforms this postseason. The same could be said for the understated importance of Harrison Barnes. And yet these contributions aided and abetted Golden State’s victory over Memphis, allowing the team to rediscover its motor and its rhythm.

This run to the Western Conference Finals has been contingent on a disruptive form of patience. The team exchanged Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr, but did not undermine the continuity of its athletic core in order to have Kevin Love sitting courtside in a suit and tie.

***

When a Playoff series or run to a championship becomes memorable, usually such nostalgic glory is built on the backs of well-played games that end with last second heroics. The Warriors-Grizzlies series featured little in the way of these dramatic qualities, with only one of the games was decided by less than double digits.

Rather the appeal of this series founded itself on combative philosophies and geographical myths. Situated at the end of the Western frontier and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, Golden State fills Oracle Arena with a wide open brand of basketball that, at times, resembles nothing other than a mystic vision of the future.

On the other hand, the Grizzlies play in FedEx Forum, on the banks of the Mississippi River, delivering historical reenactments. These styles and settings made it seem for two weeks as if the very identity of basketball were at stake.

To be a visiting team in the Grindhouse is to pump blood through rock.

Despite Marc Gasol’s pirouettes of forceful movement on the offensive end, where he sets a screen and clears space for himself to the basket, his flesh is always on the verge of being stone. On offense, he is muscle. On defense, he becomes a wall. His second in this ritual of weight and muscle is Zach Randolph. Whatever rhythms pulse up from the hardwood, these two typically tame them, willing their opponents into submission. Then they tramp across the court and execute a series of jab steps, grimaces, and pump-fakes that ends in a rattle of rim and a flutter of nylon.

The tempo of this ritual is something ancient and muddy and slow. And, with Tony Allen serving as their moribund priest on the perimeter, Games 2 and 3 submitted to the folkloric, yet grating, willpower of Randolph and Gasol. In these games, their counterparts, the Splash Brothers, resembled the awkwardness of foreign time travelers.

But then came a mighty torrent.

John M. Barry writes of the Mississippi River’s lower half: “The collision of river and earth at these bends creates tremendous turbulence . . . . and the movement of water from depth to shallows adds still further force and complexity.” In short, what Steve Kerr describes as “flow” requires movement in all directions and on both ends of the floor. With the exception of Andrew Bogut’s nightly Hodor impression, the play of the Warriors resembles celestial orbits, but, against the Grizzlies, the team was forced to “scour” for cracks and crannies in the mud of the Memphis defense.

Yet, by the end of Game 6, these former difficulties were rendered nonexistent. The iconic moment of the series will forever be Stephen Curry’s 3-point shot at the end of the third quarter in Game 6. The refs failed to call a foul as Jeff Green attempted a three-point shot for Memphis and was clocked in the head. The ball then found its way to Curry as much as he found his way to it.

And with a flick of the wrist that was quicker than rushed he arched the ball from one end of the court to the other—62 feet or the length of a mighty bridge spanning a foggy bay—and swish. The ease with which he shot the ball seemed to collapse a continent, as if the frontiers of the Mississippi River and the West Coast were one and the same. In all, it was an act of miraculous reduction, eclipsing Lee’s energy, Barnes’ emergence, and Draymond Green’s versatility.

Floods are cataclysmic, but they are also more than one drop of water and one bolt of lightning. That shot at the end of the third quarter gestured towards destiny and the ending of some monumental drought, yet so did all those drops before and after it when the Warriors carved their way through stone.

And, if they somehow fail to hang a banner, in its place will be a bear skin rug and an open-toothed jaw to tell the story. Lastly, that shot seemed to wash over the Grizzlies like some irreversible tide altering the wilderness of what once was basketball. Memphis can stay the course, but they seem doomed if they do.

Admittedly, the archetypes, symbols, and metaphors used by writers and fans are often infested with hyperbole and pretension, but the Warriors perpetuate their own myth. While Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have long been labeled the Splash Brothers, head coach Steve Kerr has taken to using words like “flow” and “fluidity” to describe the offense. And, when Draymond Green was asked about the team’s defense in the series, he said rather religiously: “It’s like wine; it gets better with time.” To combat drought, the organization has adopted water as its metonym.

And, as a 67-win season and two early round victories will do, the rest of us move through the postseason echoing John Fogerty’s eternal Americana question: Who’ll stop the rain?


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