Kawakami: Why the Warriors already are in frenetic playoff mode — clawing, shoving and loving the foul trend

LOS ANGELES — Stephen Curry, as he usually does, casually scanned the box score as he was giving a long answer about a specific part of Saturday’s big win over the Lakers, then spied a number that had almost nothing to do with his point but made him stop and smile.

And exclaim.

Only 18 free throws!” Curry said mock incredulously about the Lakers’ total count. “Yeah!”

This was one of many things for the Warriors to celebrate after this 128-121 victory at Crypto.com Arena, which brought their record to 35-31, nudged them back percentage points ahead of the Lakers for the Western Conference’s ninth seed (and potential home-court advantage over the Lakers in a 9-10 do-or-die Play-In game) and at least temporarily ended their recent 1-3 stumble that included the game in which Curry injured his ankle and the next three that he missed.

Curry was back and looking very bouncy on Saturday. Draymond Green returned from a game out due to a back issue and had 13 assists and 12 rebounds in 34 fantastic minutes. The Warriors, as a whole, played like they were shot out of a cannon from the opening tip, just a day after Steve Kerr told them they should treat this like a playoff game and must commit full urgency to every moment of the rest of their schedule.

But Curry’s excited non-sequitur got to the heart of the two most important developments in this game:

• The Warriors brought a bit of playoff desperation and some playoff toughness, too. They scrapped with the Lakers, which was especially effective once Anthony Davis left the game after getting poked in the eye. The Warriors outrebounded the Lakers, 45-39, got to most of the loose balls and just pushed and pulled at LeBron James enough to win this game.

• The Warriors’ physical style fit right in with the NBA’s recent trend of calling fewer fouls and creating fewer free-throw attempts, which may or may not have been ordered by the league after some of the earlier scoring free-for-alls.

The result on Saturday: The Lakers, who went into the game averaging 23.8 free-throw attempts per game, sixth most in the league, ended more than a few possessions outraged that they didn’t get a whistle and complaining about it while the Warriors were busy racing down the court with the ball and an easy path to the basket.

Is it possible that the Warriors, who helped kick off the NBA’s epic scoring wave with their 3-point shooting barrages, are one of the teams that will benefit most from letting defenses grab and tussle a little more? Yes, it’s more than possible. Think about Draymond at his best, leaning into offensive players and lashing at the ball whenever possible. Think back to the Death Lineup sprees, often keyed by Andre Iguodala swiping, stealing and starting fast breaks.

Kerr has been telegraphing this for a few weeks — he publicly stated how much he hated seeing all the foul calls created by offensive players just throwing their bodies into defenders. Kerr despises this on an aesthetic level, but also, I would suspect, because the Warriors are not really built to draw those kinds of fouls … or avoid them. The fewer fouls called across the league, the better for the Warriors, who went into the game averaging 21.2 free-throw attempts per game, 12th fewest in the league, and watching their opponents shoot 23.4 per game, ninth most.

“I like it,” Kerr said after the game. “First half, especially, they were letting both teams play, and it’s a better game when the cheap stuff isn’t called. And even with no calls, it was 67-66 (at halftime). I think that’s the point — the players are so skilled today, offense is so lethal with the spacing and the shooting, the way teams are playing. So these guys don’t need any help.

“Whether it’s conscious or not, I love the shift, whatever’s happened over the last couple weeks. Great for the game.”

The Warriors let the Lakers argue calls Saturday while they zipped down the court for easy baskets. “I love the shift,” Steve Kerr says of the trend to call fewer fouls. (Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)

And the Warriors can play this kind of game?

“I think we’re well suited; we don’t go to the line a ton, anyway,” Kerr said. “And we also don’t have the foul baiters on our team.”

More pointedly, this is almost always what happens in the playoffs, anyway. The officials let a lot of the rougher stuff go. Free throws for incidental contact aren’t guaranteed or encouraged. You have to be ready for some bouncing around without whistles.

So if the Warriors can keep up this kind of energy (and also if Curry, Draymond, Klay Thompson and their other frontliners can stay healthy), they can thrive in games like this. They’ve thrived in dozens of games like this. They’ve won four championships like this. At their best, they can figure out how to score against rough-and-tumble defenses, because they’ve got Curry and Klay and now an emerging Jonathan Kuminga. But the Warriors, as they’ve grown older and slower, can’t shut down great offenses if they can’t mix it up a little.

I don’t think they’re destined to win Championship No. 5 this postseason, but the only way they have a chance to go at least a few rounds is if they play with this kind of physicality and if the referees don’t put their opponents to the line 30 or more times a game.

“I always enjoy that time of year where you’re not getting the ticky-tack fouls, you’ve gotta play through some contact,” Draymond said. “‘Cause we are a team, we don’t sell calls. You can’t get Steph to sell a call if his life depended on it. Klay’s not going to sell a call. We are a team that naturally plays through that.

“We’ve always said we don’t want to learn and practice flopping (because) all of a sudden you get to the playoffs, you’re doing what you’ve been practicing, they don’t call it; those are turnovers. And we’ve feasted on teams that do that over the years. We don’t want to be that team. We take pride in playing through the contact and just getting the job done. I think it’s great for us.”

But can the Warriors sustain this? We shall see. It’s pretty significant that Kerr pushed this hard for this game with 16 games left to play. If the Warriors sprint to the finish line, it’s going to be a long sprint. They might not make it going this frantically.

But the logic is clear: The Warriors have to try to go as far as they can in the standings, with the seventh or eighth seed probably the highest they can get. They also have to get some momentum as they finish this season, because even if they get through the Play-In rounds, they’ll end up playing one of the West superpowers in the first round … possibly on very little rest.

So Kerr summoned the Warriors’ sense of pride and full desire to keep this dynasty going at least a little while longer. And, at the tail end of this uneven season, the Warriors responded for him and for themselves. They clawed. They came out firing. They put on some semblance of the kind of road game that turned the tide in a handful of epic series over the years — in Memphis, Boston, Houston and Cleveland.

“Sometimes you kind of go into these situations and you’re like, do you talk about it?” Draymond said. “Does it add more pressure? I thought it was amazing for Steve to come in, ‘Listen, this is a big game. It’s a playoff game. And we need to go out with that type of focus and win.’ Guys were locked in and got the job done.”

For one game, at least. The Warriors are into playoff mode earlier in a season than we’ve ever seen during this era, which was necessary and will be fascinating to watch over the next several weeks. To see if they can keep it going, and if the whistles will stay mostly silent while they’re going.



Warriors get big win over Lakers as Steve Kerr tightens rotation: 5 observations

(Top photo of Stephen Curry during Saturday’s win: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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