LOS ANGELES — Championship hangovers are a real thing.
“There always is (a championship hangover),” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, talking from experience as the coach of the champion 2008 Celtics. “I just remember a conversation I had with Michael Jordan. I reached out to a lot of players and coaches about what to expect (after Boston won), and I thought he had the best answer. He said, ‘Your role players have been carrying around that championship trophy all summer long, they’re going to come back and think they were the reason. And they were… but then they have to get back into their roles.”
The Warriors started this season with a pretty severe hangover. They were 4-3 to open the campaign, turning the ball over at a frightening rate, getting crushed on the defensive glass, and they had one of the NBA’s worst defenses during that stretch. The Warriors were a combination of moving slowly and disinterested.
It left Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr where a lot of us have been before — looking for a hangover cure. And in this case, the hair of the dog was not an option.
Monday night he may have found his magic elixir.
It started with one-part Clippers — a team the Warriors always get up for and beat, 10 times in a row now during the regular season. The Warriors rose up Monday night and routed the Clippers 141-113, behind 31 points from Stephen Curry.
“I told the guys that tomorrow is Halloween,” Kerr joked after the game, referencing the traditional NBA season start. “Which means that tonight was opening night, and we are back to being us.”
Kerr’s cure is also one-part patience. That’s the hard part.
“Honestly, it’s about not snapping right now,” Kerr said of coaching the team through this. “You know I want to snap — I’m competitive, I want to win every game. But I recognize, having been in their shoes literally with the (1998) Bulls team, I recognize we’re gonna be fine. I know we’re gonna be fine. And we have to get there, but I can’t force that.
“Ron (Adams, Warriors assistant coach) had a great line a couple weeks ago. He said Chuck Daly, after winning a title with the Pistons, he said ‘Sometimes you have to wait on a championship team.’ You have to wait on them. You can’t lead them, you have to wait on them. And I kind of feel that’s the case right now, we’re waiting on these guys a little bit. It’s not effort, the physical effort is there, it’s the mental approach, it’s the focus. And I know that’s going to come from my own experience.”
Kerr’s experience was that even the mythologized Jordan-era Bulls had championship hangovers. Kerr lived through it.
“In ’98 with the Bulls, we were 8-7, after winning 72 and 69 (games),” Kerr said of a team that had won back-to-back titles and would go on to make it a three-peat. “Everybody was (wiped out), we started off the year 8-7, and we had all these team meetings. It feels exactly the same.
“It’s not easy. I think that’s the hardest thing for people to understand — fans, media, whomever — the fatigue, the spiritual and emotional fatigue that sets in when you’ve been going to the Finals. That’s why I think LeBron (James) going to the Finals seven years in a row is, to me, one of the most amazing accomplishments ever for a player in this league. You feel it. You feel it after a number of years. The team has a different vibe and you have to play through it.”
That mental fatigue leads to sloppy plays on the court.
“Guys have their legs underneath them, but our minds aren’t right…” Kerr said. “We’re letting our guard down constantly. With the ball, with our minds…. We know how hard it is to win in this league, but we’re not respecting how hard it is to win in this league.”
Monday night they finally respected it. The Clippers bring that out of the Warriors (Chris Paul or not).
The question now is will Golden State build on those good habits — Kerr said that was his most important job right now — or revert back to their lackadaisical ways? Next up is an always tough test, the Spurs in San Antonio (TNT Thursday night).
“We’re beating ourselves with some things,” Kevin Durant said after scoring 18 points against the Clippers. “It’s the nature of the beast right now, early in the season, it’s the small detail things why we’re losing basketball games. You see tonight when we correct that we can be a phenomenal team.”
It’s one win, the Warriors are still a long way from being a phenomenal team yet.
“I don’t think we are better at all right now,” Green said comparing last year’s title team to this one. “We have a long ways to go…. Do I think we have the potential to be better? Absolutely. I think we have a lot more depth, a lot of guys have gotten better individually, we are more familiar with each other, but we are nowhere near where we are going to have to be or where we can be. It’s a long road.”
A road where the Warriors look a little more comfortable with each step.
Which should scare the rest of the league.