Photo via CBS Sports
Golden State Warriors fans are feeling “It.” “It” has historically been few and far between. But it’s here now and fans are going to soak “It” in and make “It” last as long as they can. Warriors fans are resilient but when playoff fever comes, they push their chips to the center of the table and go all in.
From 1966 through 1977, the San Francisco Warriors/Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs just twice. Within that span, they won the NBA Championship (74-75), lost in the finals (66-67) and twice lost in the Western Conference finals (72-73 and 75-76).
Since that era of Warriors basketball, there have been only five times where “It” happened again.
The Sleepy Floyd Game
The 1986-87 Golden State Warriors threw out this lineup in game one of their NBA season.
PG – Sleepy Floyd
SG – Chris Mullin
SF – Purvis Short
PF – Chris Washburn
C – Joe Barry Carroll
Some of the lineup would change, but that team would win 42 games, making the playoffs for the first time in eleven years. By the time they swept the last three games of a five-game first round series against Utah (and a young John Stockton and Karl Malone), they swapped Short for the younger Rod Higgins (though Short would play heavy minutes off the bench) and Washburn would wash out giving Mr. Mean, Larry Smith the start and the rebounding responsibility.
With young lefty Chris Mullin and Floyd leading the scoring way and Carroll giving them good games whenever he cared (his nickname was Joe Barely Cares), they stole the series from Utah and had to face the Los Angeles Lakers, who historically would destroy them in the regular season. As a kid, I only wished that the Warriors could beat the Lakers even if they lost to everyone else.
The Lakers were everything the Warriors weren’t. They were efficient, athletic, and seemed to get every break. On the other hand, the Warriors would play great in some spurts, terribly in others, and would self destruct at the worst times. Remember how I said that Warriors’ fans are resilient? If we weren’t, we would’ve given up long ago.
This version of the Lakers won 65 games in the regular season and would win the NBA Championship, losing just three games in the entire playoffs; two to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals and one to the Warriors.
After winning the first three games of the Western Conference Semis, the Lakers put the Warriors’ backs against the wall and looked to be cruising to yet another sweep. At the end of the third quarter, the Lakers were in control, leading 102-88. Then, Sleepy happened.
Sleepy Floyd started blowing past Michael Cooper who was the best perimeter defender in the league. He scored 29 points in the quarter and brought the Warriors back, giving the hometown fans a playoff victory over the best team in all of basketball.
Bill Simmons recapped the game for an old column when he was still writing for ESPN’s Page 2:
To recap: Sleepy scored 34 points in 11 minutes. During that stretch he went 13 for 14 from the field and 8 for 8 from the line. He didn’t shoot a single three or anything from more than 15 feet. He made eight shots from inside three feet, six of them in traffic. He single-handedly brought his team back from 15 down and saved their season. And he did it against Cooper (the best defender in the league) and Scott (one of the top five or six), the two stoppers on a team that would eventually win back-to-back titles.
Eric “Sleepy” Floyd was my favorite player at that time. He was so much my favorite player that when I played basketball for the YMCA, I wore a white headband with “Eric Floyd” written on it. For that one time, Sleepy Floyd was better than Magic Johnson and the Warriors were better than the Lakers.
Just a year after Sleepy Floyd was a household name (for at least a day), the Warriors blew up the team. Floyd and Carroll were traded to the Houston Rockets for a broken down Ralph Sampson and Steve Harris. In 1988, after a stint in rehab for alcohol, Chris Mullin remade himself into a top notch NBA scorer. They drafted Mitch Richmond, a young two-guard from Kansas State who became the “rock” of the team. Don Nelson was brought in to first run the franchise and then coach the team, eventually replacing George Karl. They made the playoffs again sweeping a favored Utah before losing to the Phoenix Suns (and being unable to stop Kevin Johnson).
The following year, in an effort to slow down Johnson, they drafted Tim Hardaway from UTEP who was a quick and fearless point guard. You know, he was from Chicago. Playing a crazy run and gun style, they’d miss the playoffs in 1989-90 before making it again the following year. They upset the favored San Antonio Spurs and David Robinson, winning the series 3-1. Nelson played unconventionally, using rookie power forward Tyrone Hill as an undersized center and using players like Tom Tolbert to bring up the ball to make bigger defenders come out on the perimeter. It didn’t work against the Lakers and they would lose to them in the second round.
Run TMC (Tim, Mitch, Chris) combined to score nearly 73 points per game by themselves, but interior defense and rebounding were their kryptonite, especially against efficient teams like the Lakers. This caused Nelson to trade Richmond away for Billy Owens who was a dream player for Nelson. Owens was a 6-8 forward-guard who could both rebound and start the break. Even though he was right-handed, he was more comfortable going left. If he could’ve only developed a consistent jump shot, he would’ve been a devastating player. The Warriors were technically a better team with Owens instead of Richmond as they scored more points and gave up less in 1991-92, but they would be upset by the Seattle Super Sonics in the first round of the playoffs after winning 55 games in the regular season.
Run TMC only lasted for two years, but they were two of the most memorable years in franchise history.
The 1992-93 Warriors were hurt by injuries to Mullin, Hardaway, and Owens and only won 34 games. By luck of the lottery, the 7th-worst Warriors won the 3rd pick in the draft which featured two prime big men; Chris Webber and Shawn Bradley. Tall and athletic point guard Penny Hardaway and do-it-all college small forward Jamal Mashburn were also supposed to be top picks. On draft day, the Warriors pulled off a trade with the Orlando Magic who had the first pick and took Chris Webber. They traded third pick Penny Hardaway and three future number one picks for Webber. The run and gun Warriors finally had a big man to grab rebounds and score from the block, but he could also pass extremely well which worked wonders within the offense. More importantly, Webber would bring some national eyeballs to the team as the top rookie in the league, which the Warriors hadn’t really had since they won the title.
Hardaway blew out his knee before the season, but second year guard Latrell Sprewell blossomed into a defensive-stalwart and clutch scorer and Webber and Owens complemented each other well. Mullin was near the end of his run as a top scorer in the NBA, unable to shake injuries, but he was still a great shooter. Avery Johnson ran the point and helped guide the Warriors to 50 wins. Unfortunately for the Warriors, they had to face the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs and Charles Barkley just annihilated them. With Hardaway out, they also had no answer for Kevin Johnson again. All three games were close and entertaining, but there was never a feeling that the Warriors were in it and they’d lose all three.
Webber was phenomenal during his rookie season, but was a baby about having to guard centers because the Warriors played small ball. He and Nelson didn’t get along because of it and he opted out of his contract after just one year. By the way, how did the team allow him to even have an opt-out after just one-year? Was Webber planning to get out of dodge all along? As Webber was throwing his tantrum, the Warriors traded Billy Owens to Miami for center Rony Seikaly, hoping that being able to play power forward full-time would appease Webber and he’d stop acting like a baby. Nope. Webber was then upset that the Warriors traded his best friend on the team. They couldn’t make him happy and traded him to Washington essentially for Tom Gugliotta.
The media made it out to be Webber vs. Nellie. Webber even claimed that he was scared of earthquakes, which was hilarious in hindsight because he had the greatest years of his career, not that far away in Sacramento. Whose fault was it? Nellie should’ve known better, but he would never know better. By forcing the trade, Webber sabotaged the team and they wouldn’t have a winning season for thirteen years.
In 2005, Chris Mullin (now running the team) traded for point guard Baron Davis who couldn’t get along with his coach in Charlotte/New Orleans, but had all the talent in the world. And he did it without ever shooting even a halfway decent percentage. But that wasn’t his biggest problem. Davis couldn’t stay healthy (or in shape) and hadn’t played a full 82 games since the 2001-02 season, which was his third year in the league.
Davis wasn’t a surprise or a disappointment for the Warriors in his first year and a half with the team. He showed flashes of brilliance, but he couldn’t stay healthy. He played just 54 games for the team in 2005-06 and shot a horrendous 39% from the field. In January of 2007, Chris Mullin robbed the Indiana Pacers by sending Ike Diogu, Mike Dunleavy, and Troy Murphy in return for Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington. It didn’t matter that Stephen Jackson had a tattoo of a gun on his stomach. He was only about five times as good at basketball as Dunleavy was. The “We Believe” Warriors were born. Oh yeah, Don Nelson was back too.
Monta Ellis was in his second year and coming into his own. Jason Richardson transitioned from a high flying scorer to a solid inside-outside player with three-point range. Harrington gave the Warriors flexibility upfront and Jackson wasn’t afraid to take and hit big shots.
At the point of the trade, the Warriors were 19-21. They then went 7-14 in their next twenty one before going 16-6 down the stretch to qualify as the 8th seed in the West. Their opponent – a 67-win Dallas Mavericks team coming off a NBA Finals loss the year before. Dirk Nowitzki was the league’s MVP.
The Warriors would win the first game in Dallas, lose the second, win both games at home, drop the next in Dallas, and then win game six going away at home. The crowd was on fire. They knew they were witnessing something special. The Warriors would be the first 8-seed to upset the 1-seed in a best-of-seven game series.
They would lose to the Utah Jazz in a closer than it looks round two series 4-1.
The next year, the Warriors would win 48 games and miss the playoffs in a crazy competitive year in the West. It was so crazy that if they were in the East, they’d have been the 4th seed.
Mullin would trade Richardson on draft night for rookie Brandan Wright. It freed up Ellis who came into his own and together, Davis, Ellis, and Jackson would average over 60 points together, not a far cry from the Run TMC days.
That summer, Davis would sign with the Clippers and the Warriors would plummet to just 29 wins. Soon, Mullin would be gone in a tug-of-war battle that he lost to Don Nelson.
A Playoff Promise
The Steph Curry era has had its ups and downs. The Warriors drafted him in 2009 as a small shooting guard who had to play point guard. Monta Ellis immediately said the pairing of he and Curry wouldn’t work. In a recent piece on Ellis by Jonathan Abrams, Ellis explains:
“I mean, [we were] in the West,” Ellis says. “How are you going to make it work? Steph is a 2-guard, but they’re playing him at the 1. How are you going to make that work? That’s just how I felt. You’ve got two 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 guards, both 185 pounds, if that. How are you going to win like that?”
Ellis would be right. With Curry and Ellis together for two season, the Warriors would win 26 and 36 games. In 2012, ankle issues caused Curry to miss most of the season. In March, the Warriors traded Ellis for center Andrew Bogut, who was also out for the season at the time of the trade. The day of the trade, the Warriors were 18-21 and still in the playoff hunt. With no Ellis and no Curry, the Warriors went into tankapalooza mode only winning five more games for the rest of the season. Yes, they went 5-22 to close out the strike-shortened season.
It was also a season in which new owner Joe Lacob promised a playoff run. He hired Mark Jackson away from ABC/ESPN to coach the team. When the season was over, there was a lot of apologizing and promise for hope, which Warriors fans were used to.
And in 2013, it happened. David Lee had a phenomenal offensive season at the power forward spot (even if his defense was terrible) and Curry stayed healthy for the most part. Before the season, he signed a 4-year, $44 million deal that was looked at as a risk. Today? It’s looked at as a bargain. Curry finished the season by scoring nearly 23-points per game and breaking the NBA record for three pointers made in one season. He did it by shooting at a 45% clip. The Warriors won 47 games this season, finished sixth in the West, and spent the entire time waiting to see if Bogut would ever be healthy. He finally is.
The Warriors drew the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Bogut’s nastiness on defense has made all the difference for the Warriors against the Nuggets who have more knuckleheads than nastiness at their center spot. The Nuggets lost their best perimeter player Danilo Galiinari before the playoffs started. I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal for them because while Galinari shot them into games, he also shot them out of games. And when he started to take a lot of outside shots, Andre Iguodala seemed to want to match him. Iguodala is a great athlete, but when he’s regulated to shooting jumpers, he’s not much better than replacement level.
Losing Gallinari was a bigger loss than I thought. The Nuggets have one perimeter player who can hit an open shot in Corey Brewer. Their entire offense is based on Ty Lawson (who is outstanding) driving and either scoring or throwing lobs. Late in the games when it slows down, they become predictable.
In game one, the Warriors lost David Lee to an injury that will cause him to miss the entire postseason. With their second best player out, most figured it was curtains for the Warriors. But hold on there. Mark Jackson has played a myriad of lineups including one with rookie Harrison Barnes at power forward and another with a three guard look of Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson and Curry alongside Barnes and back-up power forward Carl Landry at center. Even rookie small forward Draymond Green has earned playoff run with his aggressive defense.
Steph Curry has been phenomenal. In three games, Curry has gone 12-27 from three-point land helping the Warriors to a 2-1 lead in the series with game four in Oakland on Sunday. If Denver loses on Sunday, they will have to win three straight with one of those three in Oakland. This makes game four just as much of a must-win for the Warriors as game three was. Winning game four means they’ll be able to close the series at home in front of crazy fans, even if they lose game five. That’s how they did it against Dallas.
Lacob’s promise was fulfilled. But Warriors fans want more. After years and years of heartbreak, could they win another series which would be just their second playoff series win in the last 22 years? Whatever happens, Warriors fans have experienced “It” yet again.