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Early-season humbling just what Warriors needed

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

It wasn’t very difficult to identify the happiest person in the gym in the moments after the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs finished off their respective season openers at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, with the visitors prevailing in a 129-100 thumping.

It wasn’t Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who was likely too busy wondering if one of his favorite dining spots in North Beach would stay open to accommodate him for a late-night bite to consider the ramifications of the final score.

It wasn’t Kawhi Leonard, who led everyone with a career-high 35 points but is tragically incapable of emotion due to faulty wiring.

It wasn’t Jonathon Simmons, a relatively anonymous Spurs substitute who sparked his club with eye-popping plays at both ends as the proverbial “X-factor.” Simmons nailed a pair of buzzer-beating threes to close the first and second quarters, had a chase-down swat of a would-be Stephen Curry layup in the third and threw down a hellacious jam on JaVale McGee’s mug to punctuate his 20-point outing, but seemed fairly nonplussed about it all afterward, the epitome of “having gotten over himself” that Popovich demands of his charges.

And it certainly wasn’t any of the 19,596 fans in attendance, all of whom had to pay hand over fist for the privilege of baring witness to the beginning of the Kevin Durant era.

No, the one and only acceptable answer was Warriors skipper Steve Kerr, who was noticeably overjoyed when the final horn sounded by the spanking administered to him by Popovich, his friend and mentor. Pop, who in his inimitable fashion before the game declared, “I hate Steve Kerr. If he asks me anything, I tell him to go urinate into a bucket,” when asked if his former player still asks him advice when they speak on the phone, got to watch the Warriors soil themselves instead.

Kerr picked up many coaching philosophies from his mentor, chief among them the need to bring levity to stressful situations, calm to losses, a dismissive shrug to wins and the pragmatism to suppress hype whenever possible. While everyone around him assumes Durant joining a core of a team that came within a dribble or two of winning successive championships will make winning the next few seasons a fait accompli, Kerr has made it known that he doesn’t take anything for granted and that the notion of winning 73 games or thereabouts again strikes him as unrealistic in the extreme.

“We weren’t energized to start the game,” Kerr said in the postmortem. “We took for granted that things would go well.”

Later on, he added, “I’m sure we’ll be motivated for our next game. I think our guys were embarrassed tonight. I know I was.”

Privately, Kerr and others on staff have been cautioning about a slow start, in spite of the attention and expectations caused by Durant’s arrival, or perhaps because of it. There are a lot of new, moving pieces to integrate into the roster, six new bodies in all, which works out to 40 percent of the squad.

Sure, most of them aren’t expected to be big contributors, but all of the team’s flaws, such as they are, were exposed against the Spurs. San Antonio enjoyed a whopping 54-16 advantage in bench scoring, a 21-8 margin in offensive rebounds (which they used to dominate the second chance points 26-4) and even had a 24-20 edge in fastbreak points.

Golden State Warriors, from left, Andre Iguodala (9), Kevin Durant (35) and Stephen Curry (30) wait during a called foul during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

AP Photo/Ben Margot

The Spurs, playing without one of their best perimeter defenders and outside shooters in Danny Green, preyed on the usual Warriors’ sloppiness in the open court and uncharacteristically outscored them from the three-point line, hitting 12-of-24 from downtown to Golden State’s 7-of-33. Coaches around the league copied the tactic Popovich started last season, furiously switching on every high screen to run Curry and Klay Thompson off the three-point line, and I’d wager a great many of them took notice of how Pop was hellbent on calling timeout after every made Curry three in an effort to nip Warriors runs in the bud.

The team’s biggest issue in the early going might be the drop-off in rim protection and rebounding they’ll have to overcome after losing Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli to clear up cap room for Durant. Replacements Zaza Pachulia and David West were both weak and ineffective at both ends in their Warriors debuts.

Obviously, the game wasn’t as lopsided as the final score indicated. The Warriors bricked some open looks, and the Spurs turned those misses into points on the other end for the two-way swing. The Dubs fell victim to a career night from Simmons and to their own headlines, in whichever measure you deem comfortable. Like most of their playoff run last year, they looked like a club who didn’t have a Plan B, C or D when Plan A, raining down threes from everywhere, wasn’t going their way. Durant hit a few mid-range shots, but he didn’t have much company in that regard.

In the end Kerr got what he wanted. His guys need to understand that you can’t just roll the ball out there and win, no matter how many All-Stars you have, and certainly not against a Spurs team that won 67 games themselves last year. We’ll see if the Warriors take matters more seriously Friday night at New Orleans — where they’ll be greeted by another pal of Kerr’s, former assistant Alvin Gentry — against a Pelicans team featuring Anthony Davis, who merely went for 50 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, seven steals and four blocks in their home loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.

It’s the beginning of a three-game road trip that might do the team some good, to get away from “distractions,” but at the same time it’ll be their first taste of life as full-fledged heels. It remains to be seen how it’ll affect the mentality of Thompson, Durant (already acting weird) and Draymond Green, who picked up a taunting technical in the opener and was boorishly defiant about it afterward as you’d expect.

Kerr has been a part of some of the most iconic teams in league history, both as a player and a coach. He knows they’ll have to confront the reality of the attention head on, like it or not, and learn to ride the ebbs and flows:

“There’s going to be so much written about our team and so much exposure,” Kerr said. “We’ll probably win a few games in a row and everybody will say, ‘Wow, they look great and they’re going to win the rest of their games this season.’ Then we’ll get killed again and just play this game all season.”

Indeed. We’re just waiting for the “wow, they look great,” part to kick in.

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