My companion for Game 7 of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference finals was talking about the delicate process of hard-boiling eggs.
“When you put a bunch of eggs in a pot, which one is going to crack?” Fabulous Flournoy, the longtime face of the British Basketball League, asked as we watched the game on television at Valhalla, a pub in Manhattan. “And why did the egg crack? Did you drop the egg in the pan from too high up? Was the egg too cold before it went in the water? There are various reasons eggs crack.”
He was making a roundabout point about pressure, and it was essentially this: Players crack in basketball games, too. On Monday night, that sad fate befell the Rockets, who disintegrated in the crucible of the postseason. Even before the game was decided, Flournoy could sense that disaster loomed for them. He said he could see it in their faces.
“Those are not confident looks,” he said.
For the decisive game of the series, which the Warriors won, 101-92, to secure a fourth straight meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the N.B.A. finals, I reconnected with Flournoy, 44, whose 18th season with the Newcastle Eagles of the B.B.L. — the last 17 as their celebrated player-coach — recently ended with a loss in the league quarterfinals.
“We did not have the look,” he said.
When I first met Flournoy in December, I wrote about his various diets, his goal of playing basketball forever and the seven championships he has won with Newcastle. Back home this month to visit friends and family from the Bronx, Flournoy joined me for the finale of a terrific series that had taken me all over the country to watch the games with astute coaches, mostly from their living rooms.
Flournoy and I took in Game 7 from bar stools, even though he is a teetotaler. He ordered a club soda — no ice, no lime.
“I’m hard-core,” he said.
Before the start of the game, Flournoy talked about trying to identify which players would emerge as “alphas” — or leaders. As a coach, Flournoy studies the faces of his players, and even those of his opponents, to gauge who has confidence and who lacks it, especially in the tense moments ahead of an important game. Body language matters to him.
“I’m always playing detective,” he said, “trying to see who’s ready, who’s masking it and who needs someone to support them.”
Less than 2 minutes into Monday’s game, Flournoy spotted the demeanor of an alpha from the Warriors’ Draymond Green, who got in the face of teammate Kevin Durant after a botched pass.
“That’s the look I was talking about,” Flournoy said. “Draymond has the look.”
And even when the Rockets ran out to a 15-point lead, Flournoy described it as “fool’s gold.” He did not think he was being bold with his assessment.
“As great as Houston’s played,” Flournoy said, “you still feel like Golden State is going to take control of this game.”
Like so many other coaches whose brains I had prodded over the course of the series, Flournoy was alarmed by Houston’s offense. He was not bothered so much by the volume of one-on-one sets that featured James Harden operating from the top of the key, but by the lack of movement around him. Harden’s teammates were so stationary that the Warriors were able to conserve energy on defense and send help whenever Harden did drive to the basket.
“If I’m Houston, yes, we played well, and yes, we’re up, but it’s the quality of how we’re up,” Flournoy said at halftime. “If they don’t find easier ways to score, it’s going to be a long night. Because at some point, Harden will tire. And I think the Warriors will also wear him down because he’s going to have to defend someone at the other end.”
It hardly helped, of course, that Chris Paul, the Rockets’ starting point guard, was absent with a hamstring injury. He was someone who created additional movement on offense, Flournoy said.
He cited one other factor to consider.
“Golden State,” he said, “is going to make a run in the third quarter. They know it. We know it. And Houston knows it.”
Sure enough, the run was in its nascent stages when Harden tumbled to the court after he had a layup attempt blocked by Green. But when Green reached to help him up, Harden brushed him away. Tempers flared.
Flournoy identified it as a pivotal moment. It was no coincidence to him that Green got the ball in the post on the Warriors’ next possession and took it right to the rim for a layup.
“Game on,” Flournoy said. “That’s how you wake a sleeping giant.”
Later in the quarter, Flournoy highlighted another bit of basketball psychology. The Warriors’ Stephen Curry had the ball at the top of the perimeter when he called for a screen from Jordan Bell, who dragged his defender, Ryan Anderson, with him. Anderson, a 6-foot-10 forward, is not known for his defensive prowess. But he had to switch onto Curry.
“He shouldn’t be on him,” Flournoy said a split-second before Curry drained a 3-pointer.
Curry kept hunting for Anderson by calling for screens from Bell. The Warriors’ lead ballooned.
“Steph is thinking to himself, ‘You’re not supposed to be on me, so I’m going to destroy you,’” Flournoy said. “It’s a respect thing.”
As this was playing out, the Warriors’ Klay Thompson was watching from the bench. He re-entered the game at the start the fourth quarter and immediately made a long jumper.
“He was full of good feeling from watching Steph Curry go off at the end of the third quarter,” Flournoy said. “The eggs were cracking, and Klay was on the bench and he saw it.”
(It is worth noting that Flournoy, despite his nuanced egg metaphor, does not even eat them. “Oh, I’m off eggs,” he said.)
The game turned into another abject disaster for Houston, which missed 27 consecutive 3-pointers over one protracted stretch. It was almost painful to watch.
Nobody from the Rockets emerged as an alpha. Not Harden, who disappeared late. Not Trevor Ariza, who missed all 12 of his field-goal attempts. And not Gerald Green, who had 3 points in 21 minutes. Perhaps the team’s true alpha was nursing a hamstring injury on the sideline, powerless to affect the outcome.
Golden State, meanwhile, passed the alpha torch — from Green to Curry to Thompson to Durant. And as the Warriors celebrated their victory, Flournoy reflected on what the moment likely meant to them. He noticed all the hugs and high-fives, expressions of joy that might come off as common or cliché. But not to players, Flournoy said, and not to coaches.
“When the moment comes when you’re finally able to show some emotion and appreciate the journey, you want to share it with the people who did it with you,” he said. “So you go to your teammates and you go to your coaches. There’s an understanding that all the struggles were worth it.”
At the same time, he said, the Warriors probably felt some compassion for the Rockets. Both teams had been on the brink of getting knocked out.
“But you’re glad it wasn’t you,” he said.
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