Welcome to the Western Conference finals, a track meet between baskets.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets ranked first and second in pace in the regular season, so the action figures to be fast. That’s an arrangement the Warriors welcome, as they’ve managed a better offense (second-ranked) and defense (first) than Houston this season.
Dominance in the latter is what’s truly unusual, as no other modern-era team has ranked first in defense and first in pace. A run-and-gun offense shouldn’t leave you with enough energy to play lockdown defense. But somehow, some way, the Warriors found enough stamina to burn teams on both ends of the floor.
Surely the Warriors' conditioning drills must be grueling. There’s no way a style this fast, this, well, fun, can flourish sans pain in practice.
“We don’t run wind sprints here,” coach Steve Kerr says, beaming, as he looks over the Warriors practice facility in Oakland. He’s grinning, almost mischievously. This is his scene, and he can get away with doing things his former coaches would scoff at. Kerr, who fluctuated between glue guy and guy glued to benches, had to endure a lot of drudgery as a player. Now that he has the power, he wants to remove the things he hated.
"My experience as a player was that in training camp, coaches just ran the crap out of us. We had all kinds of suicides, deep sixes,” Kerr recalls with a grimace. “We used to have this drill in Chicago where we ran around the court single file and on the whistle, the last guy would run to the front, and then on the next whistle and the next last guy, and on.”
The human conveyor belt will not be making its way to the Bay. “I just think that it's sort of unnecessary" Kerr said.
The hope is that a laser focus on basketball work blots out the pain. A ball and a plan can distract you from the weariness. This is why so many people prefer playing sports to jogging for their fitness, of course. “You're sort of tricking your players into conditioning without them realizing it," Kerr says.
Kerr’s ethos, oft-repeated throughout the season, is “basketball should be fun.” It’s a belief belied by the ultra-competitive coach’s in-game histrionics. Kerr wants to win, desperately so. He just also happens to think that winning comes more easily to those who enjoy the game.
This might be the most subversive aspect of the Warriors, though criticism of it is often transmuted into mutterings about “jump shooting” and “living by the 3.” American sports has a distinct Puritanical streak. Winning is supposed to come through self-denial, sacrifice and, above all, toil (see: NFL teams getting admonished for “pass-happy” attacks, as opposed to “establishing the run”). There’s something unsettling to some about a sports team whose reward for having fun is yet more victories.
Kerr’s Warriors like to approach the season as a grueling slog, best mitigated by metaphorical painkillers. That’s why music blasts during practices right up until the moment it’s time for defensive coordinator Ron Adams’ instruction segment (“Class with Professor Adams,” as it’s been referred to). That’s why film sessions often include a dose of humor, like when assistant Luke Walton’s soap opera appearance found its way into the rundown. With enough variety, with enough levity, work might not seem so much like work.
Kerr advocates something he calls “coaching with compassion,” the antithesis of an old-school mentality where struggle is ignored, dismissed as weakness. Actually, the Warriors constantly question players on how just how tired they are -- not exactly the stuff of Bear Bryant banning water breaks at Texas A&M. “They do a series of things each day,” Kerr says of Golden State trainers Keke Lyles and Michael Roncarati. “One is just a question. 'How do you feel? On a 1-to-10 scale, how's your body feel?'”
Golden State bought themselves more rest for starters with their blowouts, but they’ve also tried to stay disciplined about reserving 16 minutes of rest for Curry and Thompson in games this season. It’s crucial for a team playing this pace and this kind of defense. If the Warriors get worn out, they cease being the Warriors.
There’s also a scientific component to monitoring fatigue. Golden State players wear heart rate monitors at practice to track stress on the body.
“We look at that every practice and SportVu for the game,” Lyles says.
“And then based off what we're seeing, we'll use that to guide us decision-wise. If we're seeing workload going down, but their heart rate response is going up, we know it's probably fatigue.” Kerr says, “After each practice, Keke and Mike will look at the load and the exertion on it. So we know if it's a light practice or a heavy practice.”
This process informs when the Warriors choose to have heavy practices. It informs substitution patterns, as well. Specifically, the process dictated a choice by Kerr, back on March 13, when the Warriors visited the Denver Nuggets. Kerr says, “Keke warned me. He said Steph and Klay are really tired. They aren't getting much sleep, and all the signs pointed to fatigue. So I decided to give them that night off along with Bogues (Andrew Bogut) and Andre [Iguodala].”
Golden State lost that game, and Kerr felt guilty about paying customers who showed up hoping to see Curry. He sent emails to fans who voiced their disappointment. Still, he’d do the same thing again.
"The other thing we know from research is, if a guy's fatigued, he's more susceptible to injury,” Kerr explains. “So, probably nothing would have happened. But what if I had known those guys were fatigued and then Steph went out and got hurt? I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself."
Welcome to the modern NBA, where coaches worry about pushing their players too hard instead of over whether their players are pushing themselves hard enough. Welcome to the modern NBA, where coaches win with this player-friendly approach.