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Barnett recalls legends Russell, Wilt, Barry

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Second in a two-part series

Watching the sustained excellence of the Golden State Warriors in his job as the team’s longtime TV analyst, Jim Barnett exudes passion when describing the brilliance of the team’s style of play.

Fueled by the “Splash Brothers,” stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and the offseason addition of former Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant, the Warriors have won 43 of 50 regular-season games through Thursday. They have league-best totals of 118.1 points and 31.2 assists a game plus No. 1 averages in steals (9.4) and blocks (6.4).

In a recent phone interview, Barnett noted that Durant and Curry can “go to the basket at will.” And he recognized that Thompson now has an improved ability to penetrate to the hoop, “but he’s also one hellish shooter.”

“Kevin Durant has just added another tier and it affects everything the opposition does now defensively because they can’t blitz or they can’t double-team Stephen Curry off a pick-and-roll successfully because you have an open man and you are going to die because we are going to hit a lot of 3s,” said Barnett, a Warriors announcer since the 1985-86 season. “We are going to have people open from the 3-point line.

“So when those three are on the floor together, it brings a dimension that is virtually impossible to stop offensively.”

Not only do the Warriors score points in bunches, they also have impressive accuracy, shooting a league-best 50.1 percent from the field.

Barnett marvels at the impact that Durant has made in helping reshape the team’s defense after the offseason departure of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Team-leading shot blocker Durant, he said, has brought a “defensive-minded purpose, ironically enough. He is engaged defensively.”

“We have become more active individual defenders,” Barnett told Hoop Scoop, “which I think we needed because we used to depend on Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli to clean up some of the mistakes.

“So I think that by him playing defense, our leading shot blocker, deflecting passes, working at that end of the floor has inspired others.”

That inspiration has helped deliver big-time results.

“When they play defense, when they get steals, when they hold the opposition to one shot and get a rebound and run, they are unstoppable,” Barnett said, “and that’s when they are at their most effective, certainly much more effective than just a half-court offense. That’s what Durant has brought.”

Led by the Big Three and their 20-plus point-per-game scoring outputs (Durant: 26.1; Curry: 25.3; Thompson: 21.3), Barnett envisions these Warriors capturing multiple titles during this new era with Durant on board.

“I knew that this was going to be a loaded team. I hate to use that word ‘loaded,’ . . . (but) I’m not surprised by anything at all,” said Barnett, who played college ball at the University of Oregon and was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1966. “I’m not surprised when they lose, but losing is a part of it and I don’t overreact like everybody else does.

“When the Los Angeles Lakers won five championships in the 1980s — they won it in 1980, ’82, ’85, ’87 and ’88 — there was only one year where they didn’t lose at least 20 games. The Warriors are on pace to lose 14, maybe 15, 16 games at the most, maybe 12. I don’t know. They might be 70-12. So they are going to finish as one of the five- or six-best records in the history of the league. . . . People overanalyze all this stuff when you lose.”

Exactly.

Bouncing back from defeats is a Warriors trademark. Since April 2015, they have not lost back-to-back contests in a league-record 136 games.

Barnett remembers another famous run from his playing days, the remarkable 33-game win streak by the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1971-72 season.

“They lost two games in a row one time, “Barnett recalled with crystal-clear clarity, “and they they’d win 12 in a row; two games in a row one time and then they’d win 33 in a row. Of their 13 losses, six of those were back-to-back losses.”

Decades before he became an authoritative voice on 21st century powerhouse teams, Barnett had a close-up view of all-time legends Bill Russell, his first coach, and Wilt Chamberlain.

As a rookie, he developed a great appreciation for what Russell meant to the Celtics and the NBA. He cited Russell’s 11 titles in 13 years and the fact that Russell’s Celtics never lost a Game 7.

“You can’t get a more fierce and better competitor than Bill Russell night in and night out,” said Barnett, who entered the NBA when there were 10 teams. He witnessed the on-court clashes of Russell and Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers an estimated 18-20 times that rookie year.

Barnett described what he saw as Russell “going against the most fierce, dominating, strongest versatile big man in Wilt Chamberlain in the history of the league, including Shaquille O’Neal, or anybody else you may want to name. He’s the most dominating player in the history of the league, including Michael Jordan. And I’m not saying he’s better than Michael Jordan. Most dominating. Michael Jordan at his size is probably the most incredible, fierce competitor I’ve ever seen and maybe the best all-around basketball player for his size.”

Barnett, who suited up for the Celtics for one season, followed by stints with the San Diego Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State (1971-74), New Orleans Jazz, New York Knicks and Sixers, shared court time with a slew of Hall of Fame teammates, including Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Pistol Pete Maravich and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

Those legends left an indelible impression on Barnett, who retired in 1977.

“Aside from Bill Russell, now for a normal human being, there’s no better competitor or player than Rick Barry that I played with,” he declared. “Rick Barry is one of the greatest individual basketball players in the history of the league, and he’s not appreciated as much as he should be because he wasn’t very popular.”

What else stood out about Barry’s game?

“Rick Barry was by the book, by the fundamentals and effectively so, in every sense of (the game), he was a master of the game and understanding spacing, cutting, passing, timing, outside shooting, driving to the basket, taking advantage of all the weaknesses, he saw everything,” Barnett noted. “He was a coach on the floor.

“I played against all of those guys and I know how underrated he was. When he averaged 35.6 points a game in his second year (1966-67 for the San Francisco Warriors) and led the league in scoring, he had an off-night and got 26. . . . Guaranteed the next game he would come back and get 40-something.”

Recalling the showmanship and dazzling play of avant-garde stars Pistol Pete and Dr. J, Barnett delivered this revealing nugget: “I would view definitely that Pistol Pete was flashier than Dr. J.”

He added: “But Dr. J could certainly jump and certainly do those flying dunks and all of those type of things — put the ball in one hand. But he was not near the shooter Pistol Pete was or scorer.

“They were different. They were ahead of their time and I’ve often said this that Pistol Pete Maravich would’ve been a greater player today in this era. He was as athletic as heck. He was a showman and he was denied playing his game in that era.

“We would not — his teammates, his peers, I — we wouldn’t let him play his way; his coaches would not let him play his way, because it was too dangerous, it was too risky. We wouldn’t accept the turnover on a natural easy play that he would do something unexpected. And I remember distinctly him coming down and doing this wraparound-his-head back pass to me that went out of bounds, and I had an easy layup. . . . They weren’t ready for that, particularly the coaches. So they put a lid on him.

“Today, oh my gosh! You would be talking about all the greats, you’d be talking about LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook. Pistol Pete Maravich would be right there with them today.”

Our chat moved on to a conversation that the iconic Tom Heinsohn, a former player (1954-65) and coach (1969-78) and longtime broadcaster for the Celtics had with Chris Mannix on “The Vertical” podcast in December. During the interview, Heinsohn said that the legendary Red Auerbach offered the coaching job to him before Russell when he stepped down to run the front office.

Recounting the experience more than 50 years later, Heinsohn told Mannix that he declined Auerbach’s offer, saying he “couldn’t handle Russell.”

“Why don’t you make him the coach?” Heinsohn said he told Auerbach. “He’ll get the most out of himself. Nobody else is going to be able to deal with him like you did. So I took a pass, but then he asked me to do the television . . .”

Russell took over as player-coach for the 1966-67 season, becoming the first black head coach or manager of an NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL team.

Did Barnett have recollections of what Heinsohn said took place?

“I’ve never heard such a thing,” he told me.

“All I can tell you was that I’m very glad that Bill Russell was player-coach,” he added, “or I would have been fine with Heinsohn. Anybody but Auerbach. I’m glad that I had anybody but Auerbach on my back every day because I think Auerbach was a bully, he was a cheapskate, he screwed me on my contract, and Russell was very fair and fun, and I enjoyed every day with Russell and that Celtic group that I played with.”

And what if Heinsohn had become coach in 1966?

“I think it would’ve worked with him being the head coach,” Barnett said. “I think Russell wanted to win, and he put the team above everything, so I can’t see Russell balking at anybody in that position unless he was a total stooge.”

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