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SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard to say whether the Golden State Warriors were winning one for their coach, or providing a place of temporary solitude for their grieving teammate.
They had a basketball game to win, an opportunity to go up 3-1 on an opponent they’d like to dispatch — so keeping whatever emotions were flying through this wild series, on this day, seemed to be at a premium opposed to a source of inspiration.
Steve Kerr was diagnosed with COVID-19 moments before his pregame media session, hours after Draymond Green learned his college teammate was killed in Florida on Monday morning.
Kerr’s team did what veteran squads do in May, even as Mike Brown took the reins as a head coach for two teams in the same day, being announced as head coach for the Sacramento Kings and filling in as acting coach in a critical playoff game.
Kerr’s team was in a malaise for 24 minutes, inspired enough for spurts just to hang around. They finally took what the Memphis Grizzlies gave them in the final four minutes to move one game away from the Western Conference finals with a 101-98 win at Chase Center on Monday night.
“Steve, if you're watching, get healthy quick,” Brown said with a laugh.
Before Kerr had to take a step back, he began the day by acknowledging the death of former NBA player Adreian Payne, Green’s Michigan State teammate.
He said Green was “crushed” by the news, and Green probably had very little time to process everything as he went through his gameday routine.
Green didn’t appear to play overly inspired, and it’s nearly impossible to gauge someone’s emotions from 10,000 feet away. His team played a game, a tough one on a tough day, and made it work for them.
“Draymond, emotionally, he’s our emotional heart and soul, and for him to get hit with something that impactful, not only was it for him, but we felt it,” Brown said. “We felt it as a group.
“It was a tough night for us, but at this point in the year, you win ballgames. Doesn’t matter how you get there, but you win ballgames and we found a way to win tonight and that’s why I’m excited.”
They leaned on every bit of experience to grind out a win they rightfully deserved to because their opponents sure didn’t. They didn’t lead until it was 45.7 seconds left, but kept knocking till someone answered.
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson naturally came down off the high of the blowout Game 3 win, hitting everything but the bottom of the net for most of the night. The first 15 threes by the team renowned for 3-point shooting went awry, before Otto Porter Jr. opened the door ever so slightly.
“Nothing figured out. It was just, don’t let the first three quarters influence the fact that we still had a chance to win the game,” Curry said. “So just understand we’ve been here before, you know, whether we won or lost, the intentions of how we could give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter.”
Curry nearly outscored the Grizzlies by himself in the last seven minutes with 18 of his game-high 32 coming after the Warriors trailed by eight. It wasn’t a classic Curry barrage, he took advantage of some open real estate in the midrange that wasn’t available beyond the long line and hit all eight of his free throws to close the door.
Green kept feeding Curry, Thompson and Jordan Poole for open shots, and it didn’t translate. Thompson struggled again after breaking out in Game 3, but hit a baseline jumper to shake things up in the fourth. Poole shot 4 of 12, but kept probing in whatever crevices he could find.
That inefficiency has traditionally spelled doom through the years, and perhaps on another night against another team, tradition would’ve won out.
“I thought we were playing a little frantically,” Brown said. “We just had a few unforced turnovers that gave them confidence and kind of took away from our spirit a little bit, and then we rushed some shots.”
What they displayed in the meantime was a way to keep the Grizzlies in the muck with them, and the Grizzlies were glad to play there. In a way, the Grizzlies felt they had the Warriors right where they wanted them — missing shots, out of rhythm and nowhere the juggernaut they were 48 hours prior.
What the Grizzlies didn’t realize was the Warriors were just as comfortable being uncomfortable in this basketball setting. Even though Ja Morant bellowed “20 and 5” following the morning shootaround, referring to the Grizzlies’ regular season record without him, they didn’t look as sure of themselves even when taking an early lead.
The Grizzlies, before and after, still gave off the look of a team overwhelmed with controversy and irritation. The magnitude of the contest seemed to cause brain farts on the floor and then the sideline.
They performed like a team knowing each loss puts them closer to elimination rather than one with an opportunity to advance, with Dillon Brooks returning from his one-game suspension determined to make a mark.
Brooks did more insult to the code of playoff basketball than he did to Gary Payton II’s elbow, which broke on Brooks’ flagrant 2 foul in Game 2. He hoisted brick after brick under the roar of the Chase Center faithful’s boos at every turn.
Nobody was there to pull the 26-year-old aside to bring him off the basketball ledge, and the Warriors knew, whether stating it or not, he would self-destruct and it would provide an opening.
He shot 5 of 19, missing seven of his nine 3-point attempts. Seeing as how Curry and Thompson were equally ineffective for most of the night, he might’ve felt right at home in the struggle.
“We have confidence in him that he’s going to knock down shots. He’s done it for us all year,” teammate Kyle Anderson said. “You can’t get upset at him when the ball doesn’t go in for him.”
But Coach of the Year finalist Taylor Jenkins didn’t save Brooks from himself, didn’t pull him as his 39 minutes were second to Morant’s backup, Tyus Jones. Jenkins was fixated on a late 3-point attempt from Jaren Jackson Jr. with 12.7 seconds left that was blocked by Green, hoping the two-minute report would deliver some justice the game didn’t provide.
Jackson, who was stellar in moments, didn’t think to go there.
"I missed,” said Jackson, who led the Grizzlies with 21 points, five rebounds and five blocks. “I took it, I thought it was going in. Probably could have done more to attack on me with five fouls, but that’s a shot I work on every day, so I just missed.”
Green came close to the emotional line but didn’t pick up a technical, allowing his usual celebration once the game was in hand following his stop on Jackson.
Afterward, he stood to the side during Curry’s news conference, eyes down, waiting his turn before reality would soon hit. He challenged notable Michigan State alums to contribute to a fund in his friend’s name, announcing a $100,000 donation.
“My emotions are all over the place now. I’m losing that emotion for the time, from the game,” Green said. “I just don’t have it in me tonight, I truly apologize.”
The game was no refuge for Green, just a delay from the inevitable.
His coach still has COVID, a reminder this terrible virus is still among us.
His friend is gone.
He won a big game in a big moment, but there’s still another on Wednesday.