If only Kevin Durant had played the second half

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — That was a wonderful line by Warriors coach Steve Kerr about Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. “We did a good job on him in the second half,” said Kerr. “I didn’t even notice him out there.”

That’s because he wasn’t out there, and what might have been an exceptionally wonderful line by Durant, in the box score, was not to be.

Oh, he scored 30 points. In 18 minutes. It was announced that nobody had  done that playing fewer than 20 minutes since the NBA and ABA merged in 1976. Whether that’s accurate is almost beside the point. Durant, the MVP, scoring champ four of his five years as a pro, is oh-so-accurate. And it seems oh-so-fragile. Or unfortunate.

In October, he fractured his right foot and missed the Thunder’s first 17 games. Then, Thursday night at the Oracle, while helping put on a show that if not unprecedented was exhilarating, he sprained the ankle of the same foot just before halftime.

Durant limped off, and the report was that he wanted to return. OKC coach Scott Brooks refused. One game in December was not going to cost Durant and the Thunder a dozen or so games down the road. Who it cost was the usual sellout crowd of 19,596.

They did see the Warriors win, coming back from 17 points down in the first quarter, beating OKC 114-109, and after the defeat at Memphis making it 17 victories in 18 games. What they didn’t get to see was the sort of basket-for-basket thrill that only the NBA can provide. After intermission that is.

Here they were, four of the best shooters in the game, Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Thunder, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors. This is what the NBA sells, stars, personalities, gunners. This is what the game had going. Swish, Dunk. Wow. Whoo.

“They just unleashed a barrage on us in the first quarter,” said Kerr. “Kevin Durant was incredible. And Westbrook was rolling.” And the crowd was roaring. Even more so when Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green of the Warriors began to connect.

Then, like that, one of the parts was missing. Even though he was on the opposition, and that was to the Warriors' advantage, it was like an opera without Pavarotti, a ballet without Tallchief. The special few in this world help make our memories.

Curry finished with 34, Westbrook with 33 and Durant, in his 18 wonderful minutes, 30. It was great. Imagine what it might have been.

Indeed, the idea is to end up on top. “No ‘I’ in team,” we’re told. And Michael Jordan would add, “There is an ‘I’ in win.” It was a joy watching Jordan. In the first half on Thursday night, it was a joy watching Durant.

Kerr, who was Jordan’s teammate and knows so well how a player can take control of a game, was asked how one might guard Durant. “If you have any suggestions,” said the Warriors' coach, “I’m open. He’s unguardable. The logical thing when he’s hitting threes from 28 feet — the logical thing — is to get up on him and make him put it on the floor. But he’s pretty good at that too. You have to stay with it and just trust that eventually he will slow down a little.”

Durant didn’t slow down. He fell down. The ankle rolled. The battle was over, at least for this evening.

The Thunder scored 40 points in the first quarter against a Warrior team normally efficient on defense. “That’s because of a guy named Kevin Durant,” said a guy named Stephen Curry.

“I had my shot going,” said Durant after the game. “They had to convince me not to play (the second half). I have been feeling good for the last week or so. I just made a few shots today. That was the difference.”

In fact, he made 10 of 13 (5 of 6 on 3-pointers). He was close to perfection, and the game was tantalizing, mesmerizing. Bombs away. Then his ankle gave way.

“When I wake up in the morning,” said Durant, “I’ll see how I feel. I’m glad nothing serious happened. There are a lot of places I’m glad I’m not in.”

What he was in Thursday was rhythm. He wasn’t alone. Baskets from everywhere. The halftime score was Warriors 65, Thunder 63.

“The way the NBA works,” reminded Kerr, “everybody has talent.”  But not talent like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

If only all four had been there at the end.


Warriors continue the streak that coaches try to ignore

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Oh yes, the Bay Area, where suddenly nothing makes sense. Where Colin Kaepernick, the silent one, becomes an orator. Where a drought turns into a storm of biblical proportions. Where the Warriors fall behind the Houston Rockets by 11 points.

This seemed the perfect day for basketball perfection to stop. Andrew Bogut on the bench with an injury. The Warriors missing nine of their first 10 3-point shots. Sooner or later, the run has to end, right? Of course, but it wouldn’t end Wednesday night.

So Kaepernick, the 49ers' QB, talked. And talked. And the weather people warned us that we would be washed away if we weren’t blown away. But good old (well, good young) Golden State would not be defeated.

They played the fourth quarter the way the sellout crowd at The Oracle expected them to play every quarter, tight defense, effective offense and, outscoring the Rockets 32-17 in the quarter, won 105-93. It was their 14th straight victory, a franchise record.

Although coach Steve Kerr tries to stay as reticent about the subject as Kaepernick had been down Santa Clara way about another subject, himself. Kaep didn’t want to let us in on what wasn’t happening. Kerr barely will let us in on what is happening: The winning.

“The coaches don’t talk about it,” said Kerr, the usual answer when teams streak one way, winning — the Warriors haven’t lost since November 11, a month — or the other, losing. It’s the famous “one game at a time” admonition. Even though you don’t get headlines for one game. Unless it’s the one that keeps the streak alive or brings it to a close.

“I’ve heard the guys say things like, ‘Let’s keep this thing going,’” Kerr conceded. “You don’t want to put more pressure on yourself. It’s tough to win in this league. There are so many great teams.”

At the moment, off their record, 19-2, the Warriors are the greatest. And if Kerr isn’t the greatest coach — let’s see, for a start there’s Red Auerbach and Red Holzman, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich — he is the first to begin his NBA career at 19-2.

When asked what it meant, the rookie answered properly, “It means I’m the luckiest coach in NBA history. I inherited a team that was already really good.”

Absolutely, with people such as Klay Thompson (21 points Wednesday), Stephen Curry (20) and Harrison Barnes (20). But he also means that he has them playing with passion and intelligence. Playing defense, because that wins (teams are shooting more poorly against the W’s than against any other franchise). Playing courageously.

An off game Wednesday night, the big man Bogut not on the floor (then again, neither was the Rockets’ Dwight Howard) and Houston’s quick James Harden shooting well (34 points). And yet the W’s came out ahead. Encouraging.

They go on the road now, Dallas, New Orleans, and Memphis. Surely one of those will be a loss. Maybe all of those. Still, what the Warriors have accomplished to this point is, well, remarkable. Fourteen straight wins? That doesn’t happen these days.

That doesn’t happen to the Warriors.

“It took us so long to break through,” said Kerr. “That’s a helluva team they have over there. They defend like crazy and make it hard to guard because they have all those shooters around Harden.

“The last six or seven minutes we had just tremendous efforts from everybody on the floor. Harrison was great, and Steph and Klay made big shots.”

The Warriors, down 86-83 with 6:20 remaining, just smothered Houston.

“They attacked us off the dribble,” said Kevin McHale, the Rockets' coach, “and we didn’t handle it very well. They got some open stuff, and when they went small, it bothered us.”

Small is a relative word in pro basketball, meaning people who may not be 6-10 or 6-9 but don’t buy their clothes off the rack at Macy’s, such as 6-foot-7 Shaun Livingston and 6-6 Andre Iguodala.

“We wanted to do small down the stretch,” said Kerr. “What more can you say about Draymond (Green, who is 6-7) because he guards (7-foot) Donatas Motiejunas and fronts him and steals the ball a couple of times and then switches out and guards (the 6-5) Harden. Then he jumps out on Patrick Beverley or Jason Terry.

“The versatility defensively of what Draymond brings is remarkable.”

The Warriors are passionate in their basketball, selfless. They do what is required. Most of all, they play defense when it matters. Good teams always do that.


Is there a future for Harbaugh, Kaepernick with Niners?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — He had the look of a man who had just swallowed a lemon. Or a huge loss. Colin Kaepernick stood at the podium with his headphones and without any meaningful answers.

The 49ers' season has gone down the drain, and it’s not unfair to suggest that Kaepernick’s career has also.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kaepernick threw an interception. On the last, in a finish that was all too symbolic, he was thrown on his backside, sacked.

In between, on this Sunday of tectonic shift, the Oakland Raiders climbed from their embarrassment of a week previous, a 52-0 loss, and stunned the Niners 24-13 at Coliseum.

What a crushing, painful time it’s been for the Niners, battered on Thanksgiving night at their own venue, Levi’s Stadium, 19-3 by the Seattle Seahawks; caught in the constant tumult involving the future of head coach Jim Harbaugh; then getting embarrassed by a team that had won only once in 12 previous games.

And somewhere in the maelstrom was that tweet from team president Jed York, immediately after the defeat by Seattle, apologizing for the performance, or lack of same, against the Seahawks.

These are the conclusions one jumps to after the rapid flow of recent events: Harbaugh will not return for a fifth season as the man in charge of Niner fortunes. Kaepernick has been exposed as a quarterback who sees only his primary receiver.

Kaepernick was and is Harbaugh’s guy, chosen in the second round of the 2011 draft, a brilliant athlete who can throw a baseball more than 90 mph and in football can elude tacklers. Until, admittedly, they surround him in a well-planned pass rush.

When Alex Smith incurred a concussion midway in the ’11 season, Kaepernick took over, and with his speed and arm gained Harbaugh’s endorsement.

The following year, the two of them had the Niners in the Super Bowl, although San Francisco’s defense was the real reason, and in the game itself, the final play, Kaep demonstrated an inability to feather a pass, firing away an incompletion.

Over the last few games this season, Kaepernick and the Niner offense — one and the same — were ineffective.

Defensive coordinators in the NFL are well paid to develop designs that take advantage of every offensive weakness. It certainly appears they’ve figured out how to shut down Kaepernick.

The Raiders are in no way among the better defensive squads — on the contrary, they’re among the worst — but they sacked Kaepernick five times (including that ultimate play), picked him off once and limited him to 18 of 33 passing for 174 yards, a quarterback rating of only 54. Derek Carr, the Raiders' rookie QB, was 22 of 28 for 254 yards and a 140.2 rating.

Unsuprisingly. Kaepernick’s post-game comments offered little explanation of what was wrong and why. He has become notably reticent, almost as if being interrogated by an enemy solider rather than a few harmless journalists.

“We haven’t played well,” said Kaepernick, as if anyone holding a note pad or a microphone was under the impression they had.

Kaepernick did concede on that opening scrimmage play he was trying to find receiver Michael Crabtree, and the safety, Brandian Ross, “came over the top.” But he wouldn’t allow that the interception, so quick and jarring, had effect on the rest of the game.

“You leave that play behind,” said Kaepernick, an ironic choice of words because when Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski kicked a field goal eight plays later the Niners were left behind, 3-0.

Although San Francisco would carve out a brief 7-3 lead, there was a sense the Raiders were in control and the Niners, about to fall to a record of 7-6, were in trouble. Once Donald Penn caught a touchdown pass from Carr on a tackle eligible play, the 49ers were out of the lead.

Harbaugh was hardly more illuminating than Kaepernick as the coach fielded questions equally divided between the game result and his own future.

When asked about Kaepernick, Harbaugh — a former quarterback himself — understandably was not going to toss his man under the bus, particularly on a day when Kaep had been tossed under the defensive line so many times.

“I look at it as a team effort,” a subdued Harbaugh said about Kaepernick’s failing, “and we didn’t get it done.”

Not at all.

Asked if York and general manager Trent Baalke want Harbaugh, under contract, to be coach of the Niners in 2015, Harbaugh responded, “My priorities are: No. 1 winning football games; No. 2, the welfare of our players, coaches and our staff; and lastly what my personal future is.”

When a journalist wanted to know if he had coached well the last month, Harbaugh said, “You have to take responsibility so it falls on me if we don’t win these games. That’s my No. 1 priority, winning football games.”

The Niners, who next face Seattle — all hope will be gone with what seems a certain defeat at the Seahawks’ place — are in a very tenuous spot. Maybe so is Harbaugh.

Asked if he wanted to be with the Niners next year, Harbaugh repeated a previous remark, “My priorities are winning games.”

Something that has become very, very difficult of late.


Great night for Mariota and Oregon, not the Pac-12

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA — The game didn’t hurt Marcus Mariota’s chance for the Heisman Trophy. “If this guy’s not what the Heisman’s about...” said Mariota’s coach, Mark Helfrich.

The comment went unfinished, but Mariota’s quest for the Heisman surely will not be.

Nor did the game hurt the University of Oregon, arguably the second-best team in the land and surely destined for one of the four positions in the college football playoffs. The Ducks embarrassed Arizona, 51-13, Friday night at Levi’s Stadium in the Pac-12 championship game.

“Wasn’t a good night,” said the Arizona head man, Rich Rodriguez. He was talking about his team, which had beaten the Ducks two in a row, 41-24 earlier this season at Eugene, Oregon’s place, and 42-16 last season.

He also could have been talking about the conference’s reputation.

Arizona took a hit, a big one. In what was supposed to be a competitive game, Arizona was disgracefully non-competitive. At halftime, the Wildcats had minus-9 yards rushing, only 25 yards total offense. At halftime, the Wildcats trailed 23-0.

At halftime, the game was over.

“You know,” said Rodriguez, “this play didn’t work, that play didn’t work.”

But for Mariota, the redshirt junior quarterback, after a slow start almost everything worked. By the time he was taken from the game in the fourth quarter, Mariota had rushed for 33 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 303 yards and two more touchdowns.

By that point, Mariota had all but made certain he would earn the Heisman.

“I wouldn’t be in this position,” said Mariota, “if it weren’t for the other players. It’s an 11-man game.”

But of those 11, Mariota, with 39 touchdown passes and only two interceptions this season, is one of a kind. The Ducks are 12-1, that only defeat to Arizona, and headed for one of two postseason semifinals, probably at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. But that is a few weeks in the future.

On Friday night as the rain fell and stopped and fell, on turf at the San Francisco 49ers' new $1.3 billion stadium that despite having been replaced five times was slippery, Mario worked his magic.

And worked over an Arizona team that was as bewildered as it was battered, giving up 640 yards while acquiring only 224.

“I think Oregon is a very, very good football team,” said Rodriguez. “The winner of our league each year is going to be, I think, a contender to be one of the best in the country. Oregon’s the best in our league this year, and I think they have a chance to prove they’re the best in the country.”

That’s because, in addition to the offense driven by Mariota, they also have a defense. Or is that statement unneeded when the opponent has only 25 yards in the first half?

“The defense did a tremendous job,” confirmed Helfrich. “They stopped a higher power offense.” An offense that gained 495 yards against Oregon in October. An offense that Friday night could hold on to the ball just over 21 minutes of the game’s 60.

Helfrich was apologetic about his own offense early on. The Ducks took the opening drive to the Arizona 16 and finished with just a field goal. After Oregon recovered an Arizona fumble on the kickoff, the Ducks went to the Arizona five and finished with another field goal. Next, they were stopped on downs at the Arizona 25.

“Offensively,” said Helfrich, “we were a bit tight. A bunch of guys were trying to make it 42-0 on two plays, and that’s very difficult. Whether it was jumping offsides or making mistakes, we were inches away from a bunch of points.”

Those points would come, and in the fashion of Oregon’s high-speed tactics that wear down the defense, they came quickly. What didn’t come was the big crowd Pac-12 officials wanted in the first of the four conference championship games not held at one of the opponents’ stadiums. Announced attendance at the 68,000-seat stadium was 45,618, and it seemed closer to 35,000.

Mariota seems closer to the No. 1 individual prize in undergraduate football, the Heisman.

“We had a lot of motivation going into this game,” said Mariota. Two months ago, against the Wildcats, he caught a touchdown pass and threw TD passes of his own, but the Ducks were defeated.

“We didn’t try to put too much emphasis (on this game), because that’s going to be a distraction. We just wanted to go out there and play the best we could. The last couple of years we haven’t been able to put that out there against them. Tonight was just a great example of us playing a complete game.”

And a great example of a quarterback who has likely earned the Heisman.


Warriors: The beacon by the Bay

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Let’s not get carried away. On second thought, do get carried away. There’s a team in town, in Northern Cal, that has everything going for it: talent, hustle, fortune, a team untouched by so much of the trouble that has beset the others.

It’s the Warriors, of course, and they’re the beacon by the Bay, winners and not whiners, a delightful breath of spring, if you will, in a dreary autumn — and I’m not alluding to the weather.

In Santa Clara it’s one thing after another, a war between Jim Harbaugh and the media — and maybe, quite possibly between Harbaugh and the owner. The Sharks have been less than hoped, if not less than expected, and the Raiders, after losing a game, 52-0, what do you say except, “When does it ever end?”

Yet nobody wants an ending to the Warriors' success. Home again, at last, Tuesday night they extended their streak to 10 wins in a row, beating the Orlando Magic 98-97 at Oracle.

Sure, they should have lost. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said they were lucky, which arguably they were. Still, that’s part of what makes a good team good, a great team great.

They win when they should have lost.

Remember the Celtics in Boston? Remember the 49ers with Joe Montana? You had them. Then, as you cursed fate, they had you, and the opponent mumbled about what might have been.

What the Warriors have is their own Montana. Basketball never will be as big around here as football, so whatever is said or written about Steph Curry — whose 3-pointer (what else) that left his hand with 4.2 seconds was the winner — he never will be elevated to the places occupied by Montana or Jerry Rice.

He’s the man right now, however, maybe ahead of Colin Kaepernick and a notch below Madison Bumgarner. If this were New York or Chicago, cities where basketball and hockey have a history and a legacy, Curry would've already been touted for the Hall of Fame.

The Warriors, however, seem less a landmark, like the Niners and Raiders, the Giants and A’s. The word "afterthought" is a bit strong, but here is a team that at 15-2 is off to its best 17-game start in the 69-year history of the franchise and gets less attention than the Niners’ coaching dilemma.

Sooner or later the Warriors are going to lose, and Tuesday night was the appropriate time. Teams coming off a long road trip, and the Warriors’ was a six-gamer, so often fall flat on their return.

“It’s always been the case in my career,” said Kerr, who although in his first season as a head coach has years of NBA experience as player, general manager and television announcer.

“It’s a tough game when you return,” said Kerr. “Three time zones (from Detroit), and you don’t practice the day before.” And the Magic, who the Warriors defeated a few days ago in Orlando, played, in Kerr’s thinking, “fantastic.”

The Warriors were 3 of 18 on 3-point attempts at one juncture in the fourth quarter. (They finished 8 of 27). The Warriors trailed by nine, 93-84, with 4:27 remaining. Then Klay Thompson hit a couple of deep ones, and suddenly with a minute and a half left, it was 95-95.

Tobias Harris hit a running bank shot with 38 seconds remaining to get the Magic in front once more. The Warriors’ Draymond Green rebounded an Orlando miss with 6.9 seconds, passed to Curry and as everyone expected Curry flashed down the court and scored from 27 feet.

“I was thinking, ‘Don’t call timeout,’” said Kerr. “Steph Curry in the open floor is going to get a better shot than anything I could draw up. It’s what Steph does. He bailed us out.”

Somebody always does on excellent teams. Which is why they’re excellent. And exciting.

Curry saved the streak. Curry and Thompson and Green. They saved the Warriors, who as the Niners flail and the Raiders fail, are saving this autumn.

“Every night you have a game that proves something,” said Curry. He finished with 22, high for the Warriors, five fewer than Orlando’s Victor Oladipo.

What this game proved is, even when they are less than their best, the Warriors have the resources to win. They are on a roll, and as December begins a promise in an otherwise disappointing time for Bay Area teams.