Mark Jackson has been on the hot seat for months now, with persistent rumors that he would be fired without a deep playoff run, and open speculation among the fan base about who might replace him. A number of his players have come out to support him, some of them with unusual vehemence.
As if they knew that this was going to be a game where Mark Jackson showed off all facets of the debate, Jeff Van Gundy went on an early-game rant about how the team needs to extend him. It wasn't extemporaneous, either: the ABC team had prepared a series of graphics arguing that Jax has done a great job.
Van Gundy's argument, and the graphics, focused on the fact that, yes, indeed, the Warriors were terrible two years ago, and they're definitely not terrible now. This is a silly argument when it comes from an internet keyboard jockey, and it's even dumber coming out of the mouth of a respected former head coach. Is Van Gundy really not aware that Jackson's first Warriors team featured a Stephen Curry who played under 800 minutes, and, compared to the current team, has made the following upgrades to its starting lineup:
Upgrade injured Stephen Curry to healthy Stephen Curry.
Upgrade Monta Ellis to Klay Thompson.
Upgrade Dorrell Wright to Andre Iguodala.
Upgrade Andris Biedrins to Andrew Bogut.
That's four positions where the Warriors have upgraded to a top-seven player at their position.
But yeah, let's credit the coach with all the team's improvement. Van Gundy's idiocy reached an apogee when he suggested that Jerry West needs to convince Myers and Lacob that Jackson needs to stay, completely ignorant of the fact that Jerry West was the man who was responsible for the firing Del Harris only 12 games (and no training camp) after the coach won 61 games and made it to the Western Conference Finals. So, yeah, 50 games ain't gonna get it done.
Nevertheless, this analysis was enough to prompt a former player to chime in on twitter:
WoW!!! Thanks Jeff Van Gundy for speaking up for @MarkJackson13 there are 14 other Coaches that would LOVE to be where Coach Jackson is....
— Carl Landry (@CarlLandry) April 19, 2014
This seemed to matter because everybody was expecting a Clippers win, especially after Bogut was injured. How could we match up with their forntline, which has feasted this season when our big Aussie was on the bench? Was Jackson being robbed of the chance to earn his job in the playoffs because of an errant elbow to Bogut's chest? Even most of the GSOM staff predicted a Clipper win, with several of us citing the coaching advantage as a factor.
The team, in a pattern that's familiar to anyone who's watched them this season, came out extremely flat. They looked lost, overamped, and outmatched. There was no way to watch the first five minutes and feel like the team was mentally prepared. For a team coached by someone who's supposed to be a master motivator and leader, this was bad, no doubt about it. Mark Jackson had again failed to have his guys mentally ready for the opening tipoff.
But then something happened. The team battled back. No matter how overmatched, they didn't quit. A lot of teams would get down on themselves, particularly in a game they had no business winning, and Jackson's relentless optimism deserves some serious credit for the way the team fought.
We saw the fruits of Jackson's coaching in the performances of a couple of players, too. Often fans get frustrated when a player looks bad, and want to see him benched. Well, David Lee looked terrible in the first half. Overamped, rusty, and out of game shape. And plenty of GSOM regulars seem eager to trade Harrison Barnes for the now-empty bag of Doritos we once got for Rony Seikaly, or at least dropped from the rotation entirely.
@SherwoodStrauss I really don’t think it does. He’s so much worse than Lee. I’d rather see Barnes not be a part of the rotation.
— EvanZ (@thecity2) April 9, 2014
But Jackson kept his faith in his players, and both delivered. David Lee was a crucial cog in the third-quarter run that could have put the game away (more on that later), and Barnes, well, Jackson kept Barnes from quitting after a disappointing sophomore season, Jackson kept giving Barnes minutes, and Barnes responded with what may have been his all-around best game of the season. Not a great scoring game, but a ton of hustle leading to some absolutely crucial rebounds, good passing, and clutch shots.
And admit it, when Klay found Barnes - instead of Curry - open on the wing for a three, you thought he was going to clang it. Instead he nailed it. He also showed smart passing and awareness as the Warriors eviscerated the Clippers attempts to trap Curry.
If you want to talk about exhibit A of why Jackson's players love him, this is it. He keeps his faith in his players. Not every coach would have been able to keep Speights motivated and energized once he (justifiably!) fell out of the rotation, but Speights got himself into shape and has been huge late in the season. Speights probably quits on a lot of coaches. Jackson kept building up Barnes. He focused on what Lee can do (lots) rather than what he can't (also plenty). And in return they reward him for it.
Let's talk about those traps. The Warriors introduced a nice wrinkle to their trap-busted offense, by giving Curry an big man outlet. The result was what should have been a never-ending series of 4-on-3s that produced dunk after dunk. Surely Jackson deserves credit for come up with that, right?
Not so fast. Turns out it was Warrior deep-bench big guy and recent d-league callup, Hilton Armstrong, who came up with that wrinkle. I guess when you're firing assistant coaches like human canonballs on opening night at the circus you've got to take your strategies where you can get them, and Jackson at least had the good sense to listen to a good idea when he heard it.
In fact, things were going so well that, early in the fourth, a lot of people were ready to recant their skepticism of his skills. Until the inevitable happened.
The Warriors had been destroying the Clippers with pick-and-rolls. Curry's shooting ability was bending the Clipper D completely out of shape, and they had no response. Curry's off night shooting could disguise the fact that the offense was flowing because of him: the mismatch he created forced double teams, which created the four on threes that led to those dunks.
(Aside: I've already seen some comments about how the Warriors win was evidence for how the team plays better when he scores less, and he should dominate the ball less. For example here:
@SherwoodStrauss All year I shrugged off their crazy-good winning% when Curry scores under 20, but maybe there's something to it.
— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) April 20, 2014
This is hard to fathom if you actually watched the game. The Warriors offense worked, when it worked, because the Clippers over-commited to not letting Curry beat them. Curry responded by passing, and the rest of the team delivered. But they don't overcommit to stop him if they're not deathly afraid of his scoring. End aside.).
But, in a move predicted by about half of the GSOM commenters in the game thread, Jackson's team got away from their strength, and instead decided to burn some clock with a long series of isolations and post ups.
It's hard to explain just how incomprehensible this is. The Warrior offense was humming. The Clippers had demonstrated a completely inability to stop the Warriors' unselfish passing that was the result of Curry pick-and-rolls. But the Warriors decided to go to post ups and isolations despite those simply not being this team's strengths.
It's rare that you'll see such clear demonstrations of bad and good offense side by side. When the Warriors moved the ball, they got easy looks. But instead we were treated to a long series of mediocre postups and obvious isos which let the Clippers back into the game. It was ugly.
In the middle of that run of putrid offensive basketball, the Warriors moved the ball on one play: easy bucket. But Jackson stuck to his guns, like he has all season: when you've got a lead late, slow it down. More isolation basketball, and the result was predictable as the Clippers easily tied up the game.
While the Warriors eventually pulled out a victory, the result was a strange mix. A game which feels like it could be the signature moment of Mark Jackson's coaching career (injuries, against a superior, healthier team, winning without Curry's heroics) but a lot of fans walked away from this one more certain than ever that Jackson is not the coach who can take this team to the promised land.
This is the third postseason series where the Warriors have squandered a big game one lead. Personally, I simply don't think you can win a title when you can't hold a lead, and Jackson's tactical deficiencies will sink us. On the other hand, Jackson's strengths have rarely been so clear, as well.
There are a lot of coaches with whom we get blown out in this game.
But there are even more coaches who don't blow that lead.
The series has just started, and you can rest assured that Doc Rivers will have some adjustments up his sleeve. They tried the "don't let Curry beat us" method and it didn't work. Will they see if Curry can do it himself in game two? Will they find ways to exploit their size advantage inside? Does Hilton Armstrong have another tactical wrinkle up his sleeve?
Playoff series don't end after one game for a reason, and if the Clippers storm back and win this series, this game will be relegated to a footnote. Will Mark Jackson be the hero or the goat?
It sure seems like he's going to be one of them. It's not so easy to tell which.