The Golden State Warriors are loosely considered to be a branch on the San Antonio Spurs family tree.
Head coach Steve Kerr won two rings with the Spurs as a player, and later served two years as an assistant coach. It is widely recognized that the Warriors run some of the Spurs’ set plays. The owners and players have gone on record saying that they aspire to be like the Spurs in terms of continuity, culture, and of course, championships. Klay Thompson of the Warriors admits that the Spurs are making them better.
The Warriors can be considered to be the little brothers of the Spurs and, like all younger siblings, they crave the Spurs’ respect.
Don’t get it twisted: the Spurs respect the Warriors in the general sense of respecting a formidable foe. Even given their favorable record in the regular season against Golden State, the Spurs treat the Warriors just like any other team that stands between them and another ring.
For Golden State, that’s not enough. Other teams in the league have bent over backwards trying to mimic the Warriors’ small-ball juggernaut. Trades have flown in an attempt to build smaller lineups that can keep pace with the Warriors’ speed and pacing. Three-point specialists are in even more demand to try and get at least within sniffing distance of The Splash Brothers and their barrage of three-pointers.
Stephen Curry has replaced LeBron James as the league’s new face and fan darling, and James has admitted to staying up at night to watch Golden State games. The Warriors, as the reigning NBA champs and boasting the current league MVP, are the standard du jour, the former scrub turned cool kid that everyone is trying to emulate.
Everyone except the Spurs.
When asked earlier this season if the Spurs were concerned with Golden State’s red-hot season start, guard Manu Ginobili replied, “If they want to be 82–0, that’s all right. Hopefully, we can get to the conference finals and see what happens. Right now, we’re more concerned about ourselves.“
That had to be galling to the Warriors, who have gotten into the heads of almost every other team in the league. While the Warriors are getting shine now, the Spurs are like the operating system of your computer or smartphone: always there, always running, and doing their best work in the background.
Golden State took major umbrage at Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers‘ assertion — and subsequent backtrack — that the Warriors got lucky on their path to the 2015 championship, as they didn’t have to play either the Clippers or the Spurs and also remained healthy for the entire playoffs (perhaps the travesty lies in that Rivers puts the Clippers in the same conversation as the Spurs or the Warriors, but I digress.).
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That statement wouldn’t have rankled as much if the Warriors, on some level, didn’t believe that to be true. We have a saying in the South: “A hit dog will holler.” If not for the grace of a fluke shot by Chris Paul during Game 7 of the Clippers-Spurs series in the first round, they would have faced down Big Brother Silver & Black for the title–and perhaps came up wanting.
Most recently, in advance of their highly anticipated matchup on Jan. 25, the Bay Area media tried to keep the pot stirred with news that the Warriors, according to a “team executive,” don’t fear the Spurs because they’re too old.
Perhaps it’s because this game is considered to be a preview of the Western Conference Finals. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the Warriors are tired of being unable to break out of the Spurs’ shadow, even after winning a championship (Draymond Green, in post-championship interviews, complained of hearing “The Spurs have done this and that…”).
Perhaps it’s because Green lost out to the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard for not only 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, despite Leonard missing time due to various injuries, but also as a 2016 All-Star Game starter in Toronto.
— 2016 NBA All-Star (@NBAAllStar) January 22, 2016
Perhaps it’s the fact that those old men are only 2.5 games behind Golden State in the standings and closing in fast behind Leonard’s meteoric rise this season and an offseason roster retool that was the envy of the league. Perhaps it’s the fact that no matter how hard they try, they won’t be the Spurs…not for a while, anyway.
For those of a certain age, the Warriors’ gripes are reminiscent of the famous “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” Brady Bunch scene:
Despite digs at their age and relative lack of highlight reel plays, the Spurs are like EF Hutton in the league: when they talk, people listen. If the Spurs aren’t that concerned about the Warriors, then the rest of the league won’t be, either — no matter how many games Golden State wins. Even despite a crushing loss to Golden State on Jan. 19 on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers shrugged it off as just another game and a learning opportunity.
“It’s not miserable. It’s just not the end of the world,” he said. “It’s still a basketball game. I don’t take it that far.” While this seems like forced nonchalance on James’ part, the ball doesn’t lie: The Warriors’ four losses show that they are not infallible, and the league is taking note.
Losses to the Milwaukee Bucks (road-trip tiredness), Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks (Curry injury), and Denver Nuggets (Green resting) are easily explained by the die-hard fans and pundits who need to believe in the supremacy of the Warriors. And that’s okay; there is some validity to those explanations, especially since they made it clear how valuable Curry and Green are to the team.
But beyond braggadocio and saving face, there is a collective lack of fear of the Warriors — and a smidgen of dislike that goes beyond wins and losses — that is a more interesting sub-story to their illustrious season.
It’s why the Spurs are tending to their own business and not sweating the small stuff — and the whole “Warriors are streaking” rhetoric is small stuff to them. It’s why the Spurs are on target to usurp Golden State’s regular season throne. It’s why the Spurs keep succeeding.
Those teams around the league that won’t be playing on Monday night will be glued to their television sets, note-taking apps open on their smartphones, to see how the top two juggernauts in the league can be stopped — or not. Maybe this time, the little brother will get one off on the big one. Or maybe the big brother will remind the younger one who’s still in charge.
Originally published at hoopshabit.com on January 21, 2016.