JAZZ: Headed toward a Golden horizon
OAKLAND, Calif. - Never has yellow been such a menacing color.
The Jazz might never look at taxi cabs, dandelions and rubber duckies quite the same way again after stepping on the floor to play the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of their playoff series tonight in the manic cauldron known as Oracle Arena.
"The fans are crazy," center Mehmet Okur said.
One fan, in particular, has helped transform the atmosphere at Oracle Arena from one of the most moribund in the NBA to the most electric in the playoffs - increasing exponentially the degree of difficulty for the Jazz to keep their playoff hot streak rolling away from the comforts of home.
"It's not going to be easy for us," Okur said. "We can't panic out there."
Local restaurateur Paul Wong had only hoped to generate a little faith in the Warriors when he began distributing dozens of little yellow signs at home games two months ago - with the Warriors seven games below break-even.
Many other fans thought he was crazy.
But as the Warriors took off on a riveting late-season surge that landed them in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, fans began to clamor for the signs that read, "We Believe." Soon, the signs were a full-blown phenomenon, with Wong paying to produce thousands for every game and fueling a runaway excitement that has turned Oracle Arena into the hot place to be for the playoffs.
Now, the Warriors give away thousands of bright yellow "We Believe" T-shirts at every home game to create a "sea of yellow," and their frenzied sellout crowds have become the most fearsome in the league - something the Warriors expect to help them fight their way back into the series with the Jazz.
"It's almost become cliche to say we have the best fans in the NBA, but we do," Golden State's Adonal Foyle said. "We really do, and they're going to come out in full force to support us and we're going to ride that."
The Jazz hardly disagree.
Having seemingly solved the up-tempo "small-ball" style the Warriors prefer while winning the first two games of the best-of-seven series - coach Don Nelson acknowledged that fatigue has become a problem for his Warriors, and that "we are in trouble" - the Jazz expect the Warriors to push the pace even harder, shoot a little better and maybe even get a rebound or two with the roaring support of the home crowd.
"You can't really prepare for it," guard Deron Williams said. "You just have to face it."
Just as the Jazz enjoy their own home-court advantage - they have not lost at home in these playoffs, and are 75-30 at home all-time in the postseason - the Warriors have won 15 of their last 17 games at home, including a 126-102 victory over the Jazz on April 9.
"We got destroyed," forward Carlos Boozer recalled.
Worse, the Jazz have won on the road only three times in their last 21 playoff games since reaching the 1998 NBA Finals, while the Warriors are facing the same situation that the Jazz did in their first-round series against Houston - trailing two games to none, and returning to their home court desperately needing a victory.
"They're definitely going to shoot the ball better," Williams said. "They'll play more relaxed, more confident. They'll have the crowd behind them. But we can't worry about what they're doing or what they're not doing. We have to worry about us, about coming out hard at the beginning of the game, not letting the crowd get to us, being positive and having that energy we have at home."
The Jazz have won four straight games for the first time since March, and have survived two games in which the Warriors hit 38 percent of their three-point attempts.
Mostly, they have done it by dominating the rebounding battle - denying the Warriors both second-chance points on the offensive end and the opportunity to run-and-gun off Jazz misses at the defensive end. The Warriors have not scored nearly as many fast-break points as they're accustomed to scoring.
But while coach Jerry Sloan cautioned that "if you worry about the crowd, you'll be sitting up there with them" soon, the Jazz players expect everything to be different tonight, when that yellow-clad crowd is directing all its fury at them as they try to win at least one of their next two games at Oracle Arena.
"You have to get your mind right," Boozer said. "You have to go into it knowing they're going to boo you. They're not going to be cheering you on. You know, there's just 15 guys, plus the coaching staff at the arena who are your fans. You might have a couple [others] sprinkled out, but there's going to be a lot of yellow jerseys, and we have to get our minds right."
Otherwise, those school buses might never look the same again.