The Warriors were never supposed to be here. Even making the postseason once seemed a long shot in a Western Conference teeming with qualified contenders, to say nothing of the challenges of upsetting the third-seeded Nuggets in the first round or keeping competitive with the Spurs a round later. Yet Golden State's season has been one of progressive improbability, with each task more daunting—and each accomplishment more amazing—than the last. After squaring the series with San Antonio at 2--all with a 97--87 win on Sunday, the Warriors still aren't likely to be NBA champions, but a path so rich in wonder is well worth watching, and certainly worth celebrating.
And as much as that success has been built on the incomprehensibly potent shooting of Stephen Curry, the improved health and strong play of center Andrew Bogut, and the roundly impressive performance of a supporting cast that includes three rookies, all that this Golden State team is can be attributed to second-year coach Mark Jackson. No longer is he a visionary point guard or a color-commentating character; he's taken up his latest position with an earnestness rarely seen in the coaching ranks.
"In case I forget to tell you: I love you," Jackson, 48, told the Warriors huddle in the midst of their first-round upset, broadcast to the world thanks to TNT's Inside Trax segment. That's not a sentiment you often hear in an NBA timeout; the average huddle seems to be equal parts technical adjustment and pseudo-motivational tripe.
Jackson moonlights (or morninglights?) as an ordained minister, though his talks with his team are anything but preachy. He's a man resolute in his hoops convictions, yet he conveys them with surprising grace for a former player revered for his hard-nosed style. There's a balance in coaching professional athletes that Jackson already understands better than most. His is a position of authority, but one born of a mutual respect between an empowering coach and the players he tends.
The trust in that bond is what gives these Warriors their fundamental zeal, though Jackson's own development as a tactician has been crucial to their ascent. A way with words is ultimately just a medium for what's actually being said. In the case of Jackson's first season as coach, that message included exploitable pick-and-roll coverage, bland offensive design and head-scratching bits of in-game decision making. He was learning on the job—his first as a head coach at any level—which has become even more apparent now that we've seen the fruits of his labor.
Where some coaches might have panicked after losing an offensive piece as pivotal as All-Star forward David Lee, Jackson gently tweaked his strategy: spacing the floor with shooters, counting on Bogut to offset the rebounding and playmaking lost, and leaning on reserve forward Carl Landry to provide spot scoring. Even when Curry started cooking, Jackson didn't allow his team to rely on his heat-check shooting; instead, Golden State continued to run its offense while accounting for the fact that Curry was on fire. The high pick-and-rolls moved higher and higher, to the point where Curry could step around that single screen and into an open three-pointer—an impossible attempt for most opposing big men to contest. The other Warriors played off Curry by making hard cuts to the rim. Together they stretched the frenetic Nuggets and the well-trained Spurs to their respective defensive limits. Defensively Golden State was 14th in points per 100 possessions—its first finish in the top half of the league in 14 years.
All of which goes to explain why Jackson's engaging his Warriors at the center of a huddle is one of the most enduring images of this year's playoffs, and why his words from within those huddles are as indelible an NBA sound bite as you're likely to find. Most gatherings of this kind come with benchwarmers scattered on the fringes, staring into space or inattentively glancing up at the jumbotron. But the chemistry of this team is too strong, as is the fellowship that a truly influential coach's leadership inspires. When Jackson speaks, the Warriors listen. And now, more than ever, Jackson is speaking tactical truths from a truly thoughtful perspective, and guiding a team of believers to be the best version of their basketball selves.