Daydream Believers

In the middle of another catastrophic season, the Golden State Warriors refuse to face the probability that they're as bad as they seem

While he's made strides in other areas of his game -- his assists are up (4.8 per game from 4.1), and he remains one of the league's best rebounding guards -- his shooting is actually down a percentage point this year (to a bricklayer's 38 percent), and he frequently lapses into what Cowens calls his "typical stuff," a wild assortment of off-balance, low-percentage shots that, while producing some highlight-reel material, wastes more possessions than a pro basketball team can afford.

"Larry's had some real big games for us," St. Jean says, referring to the 41-point explosion against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers last season. "So there's a lot of optimism. But having said that, he's 21. And you don't just turn this on like a light switch. You have to learn how to play in the NBA."

The other half of what the Warriors market as their "dynamic duo," Jamison, has, at 24, developed into one of the league's top scorers. He worked relentlessly -- and successfully -- to add a consistent jump shot to what had already been a difficult-to-defend inside game. Despite an endless progression of defenses primarily focused on stopping him, and despite the virtual necessity of his hoisting up anywhere from 18 to 30 shots on a nightly basis, he's still managed to shoot a respectable 47 percent from the field. His weakness? He can't stop opponents from putting up similar numbers.

How, for example, would Jamison guard himself?

"I don't think I could," he says with a sigh. And he is probably right.

A genuine, sterling-silver lining to the dark cloud that hovers over the Warriors is Marc Jackson, the 26-year-old rookie center who had played in Europe, where he was assured of playing time, since being selected by the Warriors in the second round of the 1997 draft. Forced into the lineup by injuries to Dampier and Foyle, he almost immediately added a totally new aspect to the Warriors' pivot: offense. A reliable midrange jump-shooter who uses the brute strength of his 6-foot-10, 270-pound frame inside, Jackson erupted for 20 and 27 points in his second and third starts, and has since emerged as the front-runner for the NBA's Rookie of the Year Award. Cowens has declared him the starting center, even when Dampier -- at $7 million per year, the Warriors' most highly paid player -- returns.

Like Jamison, however, Jackson is defensively challenged.

The rest of St. Jean's "young core" consists of: Fortson, 25, who played so brilliantly before his bad foot gave out again; off-season acquisition Bob Sura, 27, a versatile-if-streaky offensive player who struggles at the defensive end of the court; and Vonteego Cummings, 24, the laser-quick backup point guard who has been criticized publicly by Cowens for not running the team's offense well at times. And Cummings shoots 35 percent from the field, even worse than Hughes.

The painful paradox of this year's version of the Warriors is this:
1) They play incredibly hard for coach Dave Cowens, which keeps them close in a lot of games, inflating their hopes, and
2) They are remarkably adroit at losing close games, which leaves them frequently feeling crushed and deflated.

This was never more clear than on Jan. 26, when Seattle, a solid playoff team, even in the NBA's powerful Western Conference, came to the Arena.

On paper, the game was a mismatch.

How, Cowens was asked before tip-off, would the Warriors manage to contain superstar point guard (and Berkeley native) Gary Payton? "Just hope that he stayed out late partying with his buddies," the coach replied, maybe half-joking.

The first quarter did little to dispel any preconceived notions about the mismatch, with Seattle scoring an absurd 38 points. That total, good enough for a nine-point lead out of the gate, resulted from a defense that was inept, both inside and out-. Patrick Ewing, who has looked very old and very slow for most of the season, found the fountain of youth in the first quarter: the Warriors' post defense. Ewing converted all four of his attempts while Seattle's best outside shooter, Brent Barry, and one of its slashers, Ruben Patterson, had little trouble finding, and making, open shots.

For most of the next two quarters, Golden State bobbed in and out of the game, trailing by so many as 15 in the second half. But the Warriors came back furiously, holding Seattle's offense to only 19 fourth-quarter points as Jamison, Jackson, and Mookie Blaylock shot the team back into the game. And after Blaylock's 25-footer cut Seattle's lead to 105-102 with 1:05 remaining, Hughes made the kind of play the Warriors have envisioned since trading for him. He burst into Ruben Patterson's passing lane on the perimeter, intercepted the basketball, raced to the other end, and then soared, leaning toward the hoop and converting an acrobatic scoop shot, while being fouled, in midair.

The Arena erupted. Hughes sank his game-tying free throw, putting the capper on what would have been a thrilling comeback for any team, much less the Warriors. It was the type of spurt that good teams regularly run off to win games against their inferiors. It was ... amazing. Stunned, Seattle called timeout. And then Barry missed a shot, giving Golden State the ball with 23.5 seconds remaining.

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