The Golden State Warriors hosted the Lakers Saturday night at Oracle Arena. The teams have met dozens of times over the years but rarely have the Warriors, who entered the game 18-9, been the favorites.
There still would be great satisfaction with a victory, but it shouldn’t be considered unexpected anymore. The Warriors are growing past that. They’re racking up wins, vying for not only a playoff spot but a high seed in the Western Conference. The Warriors have improved dramatically over the last few seasons, hiring legitimate basketball people, including a coach (Mark Jackson) who wasn’t a bargain, as well as former player agent Bob Myers as general manager and Hall of Famer Jerry West as a consultant.
Last season, the Warriors lost close games, competing but unable to overcome the top teams. They have changed that perception this season, winning at Brooklyn, Miami, and Atlanta on an East Coast swing. The victory over the Heat was especially sweet because it came on a last-second shot by rookie Draymond Green.
“Having the same coaching staff back from last year really helps,” point guard Stephen Curry said last week. “You have some familiarity with the system and day-to-day how the team is going to feel and what to expect from the coaching staff. But also bringing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry in, and for guys to be able to contribute off the bench and a great draft class, three guys that are contributing right off the bat.”
The Warriors entered Saturday seventh in the NBA in field goal percentage defense, a far cry from the free-wheeling Don Nelson days, when defense was optional. Golden State had always been a fun team to watch, but their score-first mentality would always lose out against superior teams. They had to get better defending the ball.
“That allows our game to travel,” Curry said. “You’re not trying to outscore people every night. So, it’s kind of a different focus for us.”
Golden State didn’t make a big free agent splash last summer, but it didn’t have to. The additions of Jack and Landry brought toughness, and there was the continued development of Klay Thompson and the hard work of David Lee.
“Jarrett is a constant voice in the locker room, calling out things that he sees, trying to challenge guys when they need to be challenged, keeping the morale up when there’s a bad game,” said Curry. “He’s kind of a cagey veteran where he’s been on some winning teams and he’s been to the playoffs, and there’s some guys who haven’t experienced that on the team. He’s filled that role for us.”
Golden State teams of the past would often start fast, only to fade in the midseason.
“It’s great to get off to a good start, but we haven’t been through 82 games with these players,” said Myers. “It’s a long grind, a long road, so we just have to try to maintain. We’re going to have some adversity, we have to respond when it comes.
“Any positive stretch that our team has is pretty fragile. The group spends a lot of time together and Mark has gotten some players playing confident basketball. Things can change very quickly, both positively and negatively, in the NBA, but the coaching staff has instilled in our guys competing on every possession.”
Jackson may have erred by promising a playoff berth in his first season, when the Warriors went 23-43 in 2011-12, but the consensus around the league was that he was building something positive for a long-suffering fan base that has been surprisingly supportive.
And the Warriors have racked up their early-season wins without projected starting center Andrew Bogut, who is out indefinitely following microfracture ankle surgery.
“Every team has a philosophy on trying to become relevant, and we’ve made some changes and our belief was let’s not be entirely youthful and let’s not be too long in the tooth as we try to improve,” said Myers. “Our thought was try to find the right mix of young talent sprinkled in with some veterans who are solid people.”
Myers understands the Warriors have three more trips of four or more games this season.
“How do we respond when we are faced with obstacles and hurdles?” he said. “We know it’s coming. When that happens, stay together and fight through it.”
Varejao gives Cavs options
The Cavaliers have a situation with center Anderson Varejao. Do they continue to allow him to lead the league in rebounding while playing for a team obviously headed for another lottery, or do they try to trade him and get draft picks and assets in return? Varejao has two years left on his contract in the $9 million range, along with an early-termination option for 2014-15.
The Cavaliers will have enough cap space next summer to pursue a major free agent, and trading Varejao would create even more space. The Cavs also have Tristan Thompson and former North Carolina center Tyler Zeller in their frontcourt as potential cornerstones.
Varejao is beloved by Cleveland fans, one of the final links (along with Daniel Gibson) to their Eastern Conference finals runs before LeBron James went to Miami. At age 30, Varejao has entered his prime, plucking 14.4 rebounds per game with hustle and grit. He’s healthy after dealing with a series of injuries over the past few years.
“I’m just trying to play the same way,” he said. “I’m probably playing more minutes, more consistent minutes. I don’t know, I’m just doing everything that I did before — just getting more production. I’m not sure why.”
Varejao was limited to 56 games over the previous two seasons because of a torn right ankle tendon and a broken right wrist, so this is the first season that he’s avoided major injuries since the Cavaliers were forced to rebuild following James’s departure.
“It’s always good to be healthy, and like I said, once you’re out there anything can happen,” Varejao said. “I don’t know why I’m rebounding more but it’s happening right now.”
Obviously, Varejao’s role has changed dramatically since James left. He was a complementary piece on those title-contending teams, a rebounder who was hardly an offensive option. His energy would drive Kevin Garnett crazy, and he was a valuable interior presence.
But when James left, the Cavaliers were forced to scrap their championship plans and start over with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Thompson this season. So, Varejao has been grabbing rebounds in mostly losing causes.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “It’s not easy once you’ve been fighting for championships every year and now being part of the rebuilding process. I’m happy in Cleveland. I’ll try to keep working hard and help this young team. The people in Cleveland, the way they treated me when I got there, the way they care about me, it’s just something huge for me. So, I’m just trying to give something back to them the same way and also try to help the young guys.”
That has not been lost on opposing coaches.
“I will say one thing — they have the one guy who can teach them all and that’s Varejao,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s just a joy to watch and you can see that in Thompson’s play, and Zeller. Playing with that guy every day, it makes you take notes, and I think he’s been a great teacher for their bigs.”
Varejao understands that his days in Cleveland may be numbered, but unlike his more celebrated predecessor James, he is not looking to get out.
“It’s something I don’t have control of, so I can’t worry about it. I just have to keep working hard every night,” Varejao said.
“I’m happy in Cleveland. I’m happy with the organization. I want to be in Cleveland.
“But if they trade me, they trade me.”
Irving grows into the role
It was last January when Kyrie Irving streaked through the Celtics’ defense at TD Garden, made a winning layup, and then looked over at his father, Drederick, a former Boston University star, who cheered his approval. It was the younger Irving’s first winning shot in the NBA, but it wasn’t his last during a remarkable rookie season.
“It was a great feeling,” Irving said. “My dad being there, one of those memorable moments from my rookie year, especially in a historic place like this. It was a great moment.”
In his second season, Irving is the face of the Cavaliers.
“It’s difficult finding ways to win. I think we’re getting there. We’re taking steps in the right direction,” he said. “I kind of knew that going into this season [I would be a leader]. I’m still getting better with it. I’m only in my second year and I’m the youngest on the team again, so I am trying to find my way to lead these guys.”
Irving is averaging 23.2 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting nearly 47 percent from the field.
Irving also was impressive for the US Select Team last summer, the “junior varsity” team that helped the big club prepare for the Olympics. Irving even had a heated exchange with Kobe Bryant, refusing to back down.
“It definitely helped, more for my confidence,” Irving said. “I went out there to prove myself, to prove I belong with the best, and I think I did a good job of that.”
Lin does best to fuel Rockets
Jeremy Lin returned to New York Monday with the Rockets and dominated his matchup with Raymond Felton, scoring 22 points with 8 assists and 4 rebounds at Madison Square Garden in a 109-96 Houston win.
Lin is playing under a much dimmer spotlight in Houston, where the Rockets are in a rebuilding mode with several offseason additions, including James Harden and Omer Asik. Lin got off to a rough November, but his numbers this month have dramatically improved, including his shooting percentage (37.3 in November, 48.1 in December).
“Yeah, it’s a lot better,” Lin said about the atmosphere in Houston. “Just a matter of us becoming comfortable and learning each other. But it’s been a good experience so far.”
The Rockets are young, using second-year forward Chandler Parsons, who told reporters in Houston that he did so well during his pre-draft workouts with the Celtics that he thought they would draft him, along with forwards Patrick Patterson and Greg Smith. The leader is Harden, who was the third option in Oklahoma City but now is an All-Star candidate with his new team.
Coach Kevin McHale has endured a difficult season because of the illness and death of his daughter, Alexandra. But he has managed to hold it together, still talking often with close friend and former teammate Danny Ainge. McHale embraces the Celtics’ connections.
“Danny runs the team, so I always watch [the Celtics] and wish them well,” McHale said. “Kevin Garnett is a guy I drafted years ago [with the Timberwolves], and his ability to sustain his play and longevity is amazing. So yeah, I have connections when I watch them.”
McHale said he still has the utmost respect for the current Big Three.
“[Paul] Pierce, [Rajon] Rondo, and Garnett have been through the wars together,” he said. “They’ve added some new pieces and done some other stuff, but you get a core group of guys, similar to the Spurs, in a lot of situations nothing is going to surprise them.”
The Timberwolves were dealt another blow when veteran swingman Josh Howard was diagnosed with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament after tweaking the knee Monday against the Hornets. Howard worked arduously to recover from a torn left ACL and waited all summer with no free agent offers. He joined the Timberwolves last month after an injury to Chase Budinger and showed signs of being fully recovered. The 32-year-old Howard is expected to miss at least nine months . . . The Bulls are not waiting for Derrick Rose to come back any time soon, but when he does return, there is a question as to whether they should allow him to play if they are barely in the playoff picture. The Bulls handily beat the Celtics on Tuesday and could win the Central Division, which is shocking considering the Pacers were the prohibitive favorites until Danny Granger’s injury. If Rose is cleared to return, should the Bulls throw him out there to be the savior or wait until 2013-14? It looks as if they will play him when he’s ready . . . The Spurs are at full strength now that Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard are back from injuries. They were getting by defensively with former first-round pick James Anderson and Nando de Colo. Anderson was waived when Leonard was activated . . . Ex-Celtic JaJuan Johnson is improving in the NBADL, averaging 12.1 points and 8.7 rebounds in 10 games with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. But the player to watch in the D-League is ex-Bucks swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, who is averaging 22.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in 10 games with the Texas Legends. Douglas-Roberts has proven in the past that he can be an asset on an NBA team but consistent minutes and lack of humility have always held him back . . . It’s highly likely that teams will wait for Jan. 10, when contracts are guaranteed for the season, before making roster moves. There is expected to be a slew of available players who will be waived.
Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn.@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.