A Different Kind of Ballgame – The Golden State Warriors
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 May, 2016
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Today, I saw a different kind of ballgame.
I used to be a regular NBA watcher when I was living in the USA. But I left the USA and came back to India in 2005, and never found the time to watch basketball matches, mainly because of the timing of the games. In 2005, very few NBA games were telecast in India, and few were telecast live. Today, every playoff game, and a lot of regular season games, are regularly shown live on cable in India. This year, I finally got a chance to watch some NBA playoff action after 11 years.
The first game I saw a few weeks ago was a game involving the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers. It was during this game that I learned about a phenomenal shooter: Stephen Curry, who is the league MVP. What was incredible about him in that game is that he seemed to be able to shoot three-pointers at will, from any distance, in spite of players opposing him. I have never seen such ability. Interestingly, he is the son of a well-known, but mediocre NBA player that I had seen during my viewing days in the USA – Dell Curry. But father was never anywhere as talented as the son.
I subsequently learnt through Google that the Warriors were the defending champions and are the owners of the best regular season record in history, with an astounding 73-9 record in the 2015-2016 season, beating even the legendary Jordan-led Chicago Bulls’ record of 72-10 set in 1996.
Today, I had a chance to see another playoff game. This was the Western Conference Finals, Game 6 – an elimination game for the Golden State Warriors, who were trailing Oklahoma City Thunder 2-3 and playing in Oklahoma. The odds were heavily against them. This time, I managed to get up early enough and watch most of the game (6 am Indian time.)
The Warriors were in a lot of trouble throughout the game, and I seriously felt they deserved to lose. There was a complete absence of post play. There were a few layups after fast breaks, but mostly players hovering around the 3-point perimeter and taking long-range threes – and missing many of them.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, were playing excellent team basketball. There was plenty of post action, people setting picks and freeing up open shooters who were attempting high percentage shots and scoring. Their defence was also much better.
And the results were what I would have expected…for most of the game. The Thunder were always leading the Warriors, by as many as 8 points at one time.
But then something dramatic happened in the fourth quarter.
Klay Thompson, one of the two nicknamed “Splash Brothers,” along with Stephen Curry, went on an unbelievable three-point streak – he scored 11 three-pointers in the game – a playoff record. Unbelievably, the Warriors outscored the Thunder 33-18 in the fourth quarter to win the game.
And that made me think.
A team that is playing really lousy team basketball wins the game because of incredible shooting by two supremely gifted shooters. These guys, Curry and Thompson, are so good at shooting the three-pointer that they can do it from 40 feet away while being double-teamed and having two hands in their face. These two guys are feeling it so much that often they release the ball after just two or three strides from the half-court line – and still sink the ball in the basket. This is talent from a different planet.
And yet, it is boring.
The Thunder were doing all the right things. Their players were getting in the low post, drawing fouls, making free throws, setting up pick-and-rolls, fighting for rebounds, and finding the open man who would sink a comfortable two-point shot from 15 feet away as opposed to a three from near the half-court. Any coach would be thrilled by the things they did, because coaches know winning basketball games is about high-percentage games. Three-pointers are low-percentage shots. So you want to work as a team and free up one player in each play you run, so that he is open and can make an easy basket. A lot of the hard work in a basketball game is done by players who do not have the ball. That has been the principle of all NBA coaches ever since I started watching the game.
It is like tennis, in which the successful players are those who have an all-round game, not those who can hit the most aces. If a player relies on serving aces all the time, he can succeed for a while, but there will be times when his serve does not click, and he will lose. Or in cricket, where a batsman cannot rely only on hitting sixes. He needs to have an array of ground strokes to be a great batsman. In the same way, basketball coaches do not normally like players who only take three-pointers, because they can fail. If you watch post-game interviews, basketball coaches rarely find fault with players who miss shots, but they get upset if their players are not playing as a team. The only team aspect of the Warriors is the ball-passing as all the players are hanging around the three-point line. I had to wonder if Warriors coach Steve Kerr had retained anything that he had learned from his former Bulls coach Phil Jackson about team basketball and the triangle offense.
Well, at least that is the conventional wisdom – that you must play an all-round game to win. But the Golden State Warriors have turned conventional basketball wisdom on its head. After all, this is a team that won the championship in 2015 and has the best regular-season record in history this season, so they must be doing something right. Right?
Wrong. They are just fortunate to have two incredible players on their team who are supremely talented – so talented that they can sink those baskets day in and day out. These two guys defy the laws of probability, as did one great gent in cricket from days long gone – Donald George Bradman. There is a famous account, mentioned in Wisden, of Bradman telling Neville Cardus that he needed to score at least 200 the next day against England to save Australia. Cardus responded that Bradman was being unrealistic because the law of averages was against his scoring a century the next day. Bradman’s response? “I don’t believe in the law of averages.” He proceeded to score 304.
And so it is with the “Splash Brothers.” The law of averages does not apply to them. They can score their threes at will from anywhere, game after game, as they have proved over two seasons now. But the game of basketball is poorer for it. There is no beauty, no strategy, and no team skill in the Warriors game. Of course, crowds are happy. Everyone loves a shooting party. And who can argue with winning?
Well, almost everyone loves it. Those who love the game of basketball and know there is more to it than shooting threes may not love this as much. One longs to see the perfect execution of the triangle offense, or to see the epitome of post play with the Houston Rockets of 1994-1995, with Hakeem Olajuwon in the post getting double- and triple-teamed as he dished out the ball to Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, or Sam Cassell to score freely – while often scoring against a double team himself by using amazing skill and footwork. That was beautiful to watch.
The Thunder did everything right today. They played their hearts out. They fought for every rebound and every loose ball. They got numerous second chances on offense. But they could not win against two supremely talented shooters. Tonight belonged to Klay Thompson, who scored 41 points with 11/18 from the 3-point line. Stephen Curry added 29. Together, they accounted for 70 of Golden State’s 108 points.
Golden State will likely stick with a winning formula, and the team is making history by playing a different kind of ballgame which conventional wisdom says cannot succeed – and showing it can succeed, with the right players.
But one thing is clear. This is not a formula that other teams can replicate. Shooting of this quality and consistency is extremely rare, and it is highly unlikely that another team will have players of the quality of Curry and Thompson. It is also Steve Kerr’s extraordinary luck that, being a three-point specialist himself, he has had the good fortune of mentoring two amazing shooters and passing on his knowledge to them.
Just as cricket saw a Donald Bradman who defied all conventional wisdom to score a test average of 99.94 runs per innings (the next closest to him is Wally Hammond at 58.45), Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are defying conventional basketball wisdom and showing that one can win a ballgame purely by exceptional shooting.
Let’s see how long the party lasts.