About a month ago, with the Warriors too close to the playoff fence for comfort, when the owner refused to sugarcoat his thoughts, when the coaching staff suffered from upheaval, Mark Jackson decided to poke fun at his own expense.
Moments after center Andrew Bogut rose his rump from an interview chair at the Warriors' practice facility, Jackson plopped himself down, and before a question could be asked, offered an observation.
"Wow," he said. "This seat is warm."
"A coincidence, I'm sure," he added.
Then, after asked how he's doing, he smiled somewhat sinisterly and said: "Oh, surviving."
And this is how Jackson has dealt with a season where the Warriors won 51 games in a tough Western Conference and reached the playoffs for the second straight year and yet were left with the impression Jackson was -- and probably still is -- fighting for his job.
So there was something in the air last Saturday in the Clippers-Warriors series besides a suspicious flying cup of water tossed by Blake Griffin on the head of a courtside Warriors fan. Redemption, perhaps? Well, it's too early to know for sure, but with the Warriors up 1-0, Jackson's seat must feel like room temperature again.
The real mystery is why he had reason to sweat in the first place. Right around the All-Star break, when the Warriors were 31-21 (no thanks to some early-season injuries), Joe Lacob fidgeted. He's the hyper-charged Warriors owner who inhaled the fumes of last spring's tremendous playoff run and therefore raised the bar on Jackson and the team. Lacob essentially told the San Jose Mercury News that everyone, Jackson included, was on alert.
"Maybe [Jackson] is feeling it a little and he should be feeling pressure," Lacob said. "That's a good thing. I feel the pressure for this team to perform. We've invested a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of thinking, a lot of effort, and we're going to continue to do so."
Strange how an organization that lived through a forgettable stretch that saw them previously reach the playoffs twice in 19 years can be spoiled, but the Warriors and Lacob might be exactly that. The sizzle from beating the Nuggets in the first round and then spooking the Spurs last spring carried over into this season and, perhaps with some justification, the Warriors were elevated by fans and management into the contender's category. Never mind that success rarely happens that quickly and that the Warriors, even after adding Andre Iguodala, were still weak in certain areas. The burden was on Jackson to put this team in the class of OKC and the Clippers and Spurs, and when the Warriors were instead lumped with the Blazers and Mavericks when the season ended, that was cause for Lacob to sound the alarm.
It didn't help Jackson's cause when he felt necessary to demote assistant coach Brian Scalabrine for unexplained reasons (perhaps disloyalty and distrust). For whatever reason, there's a disconnect between Jackson and management that only winning can solve. And even then, can Jackson win enough to please everyone?
This could be similar to what Tom Thibodeau is living through in Chicago. Thibodeau is one of the three or four best coaches in the game, someone who should feel nothing but secure in his job and feeling love from management. And yet there are constant whispers about Thibodeau and the Bulls merely coping with one another, which is crazy. If the Bulls ever let Thibodeau go, he'd be hired before he cleaned out his office. Jackson isn't quite in Thibodeau's class, yet he's respected enough around the league that he'd find work pretty quickly.
Jackson was somewhat of a surprise choice to coach the Warriors only because he had no experience, on any level. The Warriors took him over Brian Shaw, who served under Phil Jackson and is an Oakland native. Jackson had a solid playing career and he sounded intelligent on the microphone as a TV analyst. That's what got him the job. If Jackson is still growing as a strategist, then isn't that to be expected?
Besides, all things considered, the Warriors just completed a solid regular season. And Monday they have a chance to steal a second game in Los Angeles, which would transfer pressure to the other coach, Doc Rivers, who was hired to do what Vinny Del Negro couldn't. And Jackson is working without Bogut, a much-needed rim protector against a bigger, physical team like the Clippers. Jackson has Draymond Green guarding Griffin, and guess who got the better of that matchup in Game 1?
A coach in Jackson's position needs allies, and when he took the job, Jackson did a smart thing. He aligned himself with Steph Curry and made sure the two were on the same page. That was probably the best play Jackson ever drew up, because when the room temperature began to rise, Curry came out publicly in support of Jackson, as did Iguodala. Their message to Lacob: Chill.
The Warriors have a shot to do something special against the Clippers, which means they can match last year's playoff run. Curry and Klay Thompson are a matchup nightmare for the Clippers, and if he can avoid fouling out as he did in Game 1, Iguodala could cause major disruptions for the Clippers with his defense and length and willingness to take big shots. There's also David Lee, who outplayed Griffin and once again proved how underrated he is around the basket.
Can you imagine the atmosphere in Oakland in Game 3 should the six-seeded Warriors return with a 2-0 lead? It would be seismic, and probably will be anyway if the series is tied.
In the event the Clippers wake up and realize what's at stake and make all the necessary adjustments, at the very least we'll have the kind of series we expected: thrilling, tense and tight. If the Warriors come out on the short end, how can that be held against Jackson, assuming he doesn't make a head-scratching coaching decision in the clutch?
Here's the smartest thing Lacob said about his coach and his team a few months ago:
"The truth is these teams have to grow, have to play together for several years, have to build to get to that [contender] point. That's the coaching staff, too, they have to grow and get better. Go back and look at the league, it doesn't happen overnight."
Oh, really? Then maybe the same principle should be applied to the evaluation process. The Warriors should give Jackson room to grow faster than the expectations.