On Monday night, the Golden State Warriors registered what many fans will call one of the team's most important wins of the season. In a game with significant implications for the playoffs, they beat the rival Los Angeles Lakers 109-103 on the strength of a stellar performance from star guard Stephen Curry, who flirted with a triple-double despite playing through a sprained ankle. The Warriors are now a full game up on the Houston Rockets for the sixth spot in the West, and it looks certain that they'll participate in the postseason for the first time since the "We Believe" team of 2007.
Oracle Arena has a reputation as one of the most raucous buildings in the NBA, and Warriors fans are known for supporting their club with intensity even during (very long) periods of failure. So it stands to reason that the Warriors would thank their fans after the win for their enduring support, right?
Thanks to all the Warrior fans that came out to support is tonight. Big time road win!
— Harrison Barnes (@HBarnes) March 26, 2013
That remark is similar to what Indiana Pacers guard George Hill said following his team's "home" game against the Lakers last week. It's an issue around the league, frankly, because the Lakers are very popular in every region of the country. That's a little odd, considering the team plays its home games in only one major metropolitan area, but several decades of mostly uninterrupted success does a lot to build a fan base.
However, it makes a little more sense in Oakland. California is a big state, but there's a fair amount of movement between the Bay Area and Los Angeles because of the expansive UC system and different kinds of job opportunities in both locations. I live in San Francisco but have lots of friends who've moved to and from Los Angeles, and that's not uncommon. Lakers fans attend Warriors games because they grew up in Southern California and buy tickets early, not because they rejected their birthright. Maybe Warriors fans should have done a better job to lock up available tickets early, but it's not ridiculous for transplants to take advantage of this opportunity. It happens in lots of places — there just happen to be a lot of Lakers fans around Oakland.
Yet, while Barnes likely didn't intend to be commenting on this issue, his comment does factor into the Warriors' longstanding little-brother relationship with the Lakers. During the Warriors' two-decade run of futility, the Lakers have coincidentally been really good, creating a one-sided rivalry in which Golden State fans have focused perhaps too much on games against L.A.
If you don't believe me, check out head coach Mark Jackson's post-game comments, as quoted by Contra Costa Times beat writer Marcus Thompson:
The standings, Mark Jackson said, already proved the Warriors are better than the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, Golden State has the head-to-head victory to prove it. [...]
"It's a message that was sent," Warriors coach Jackson said. "I wanted my guys to understand that we are the better team. ... We were not going to come into the game on our heels. We respect them and they have guys that will be in the Hall of Fame. ... That being said, this is a different day."
It's unclear if Jackson responded to specific questions or brought up this issue on his own, but the fact remains that it was a legitimate point to raise and respect following a game with importance well beyond the Warriors' relationship to the Lakers. They hadn't notched a win over the Lakers this season, yes, but logic dictates that could be a scheduling quirk as much as a sign of relative superiority. The schedule exists to determine which teams are better than others — head-to-head matchups are for bragging rights.
In that sense, Monday's win mattered largely for what it signified to the culture surrounding the team. If a rivalry depends on the two sides being relatively equal, then the Warriors are doing more to encourage the Lakers to view them as a threat. The teams are a lot closer in quality, their players are starting feuds, and the teams may be competitive over the long term. The Warriors' preoccupation with the Lakers could become something more substantive very soon.