Last night in Chicago brought the latest proof of what many are already figuring out: Something special is going on in Oakland.
It wasn't, as yours truly once suggested in print, a one-and-done month-and-a-half hot streak in the spring of 2007.
It is, however, the continuance of the most exciting phenomenon in basketball today: Nellieball.
It is a phenomenon that only grows more compelling with the ongoing rehabilitation of the character of Stephen Jackson, a man often (rightfully) vilified by plenty of pundits and fans alike.
It is a joy to watch every time the opportunity presents itself, as it did last night.
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In the greater scheme of things, a mid-January game between the Bulls and Warriors won't mean all that much. Frankly, by the time you read this it probably won't mean that much. The Warriors recovered from a poor first half to out-play the Bulls late, especially down the stretch of the fourth quarter. The better team took home the victory. Two teams headed in opposite directions continued down their separate ways. Ho-hum.
Actually, anything but.
As has become their signature over the past year, the Warriors not only outplayed the Bulls down the stretch, they put on a show in doing so. Not some sort of hot-dogging, overly fancy show, but the beautiful show of a bunch of grown men fearlessly playing a boy's game like their lives depended on it.
Baron Davis and Monta Ellis pushed the ball up the floor with abandon. Ellis drove the lane with purpose and made impossible kickout passes to the perimeter. Then he hit an absurd up-and-under lay-up in transition. Matt Barnes swarmed the glass. Stephen Jackson flew around all over the place being his usual crazy self before hitting the dagger three from the left corner to extend the Warriors' lead with the clock dwindling. Three different Warriors finished buckets plus the foul on three consecutive possessions in the game's final six minutes. The defense collapsed to the middle to strip the ball from ball-handlers in the paint down the stretch.
Chances are, none of this is news to you. Because, win or lose, the Warriors do this nearly every single night. And that is the special part.
They do something so incredibly obvious yet so sadly rare in professional sports culture that, thick as I am, it took nearly a year to fully sink in with me: The Warriors play hard every night.
While I can't speak for the rest of the basketball-watching populous in this country, I know that I have spent a lot of time maligning this team over the past twelve months for a variety of reasons. The collective basketball IQ on the team has long made me nervous. Stephen Jackson has long been one of my least favorite characters in all of sports, a distinction he completely earned with his behavior over the course of his tenure in the league. A well-behaved three months is a step in the right direction (see link in the opening of this column), but it isn't demonstrative of a full-scale character rehabilitation. Baron Davis didn't always do the best job of keeping his head screwed on right during last year's playoff run either. For all the hustle this team puts in defensively, its efficiency (24th in the league) is still very poor.
The list goes on, and it remains a list I don't regret compiling. Many of the concerns about this team are quite legit, and by no means is this piece to say that the Warriors are suddenly an NBA title team.
But they are a team of guys who care. They buy into Nellie's system, and they buy into playing for each other. The effort is almost always there.
It can be seen in the fact that virtually no one on this team is afraid of contact. They don't mind scoring the hard way. As Dan Shulman said on ESPN last night, Ellis and Davis seemed to be engaging in a game of "Can you top this?" as each hit unbelievably acrobatic lay-ups with contact in the fourth quarter of last night's game.
The caring can be seen by the effort on defense, which is certainly there. It isn't always perfectly well-guided effort, but players like Jax and the Baron are always looking to jump passing lanes or sneak around to take the ball away from behind an unsuspecting ball-handler.
It can be seen in the frenetic pace this team maintains all the time, and it can be seen in the way the ball moves on offense.
It can even be seen in the protesting to the refs that a few of the leaders on this team engage in with regularity -- not the best way to use energy, but a demonstration that the desire is there nonetheless.
For all their flaws, the Golden State Warriors want to win every night, and they want to have fun doing it.
And so they remain a joy to watch.