The Warriors' Latest Title Might Be Their Most Surprising
For the fourth time in eight seasons, the Golden State Warriors are NBA champions. This latest title comes after a two-year interregnum during which the Warriors scarcely resembled the juggernaut that ran through the league from 2015 through 2019. Golden State went just 15-50 during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season and was not even invited to the NBA bubble. Just shy of two years later, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Steve Kerr and company are back on top of the NBA world.
This championship might well serve as Curry’s crowning achievement. Despite what so many insisted before and during this series, Steph did not need a Finals MVP to cement his legacy. With three rings, two league MVPs, two scoring titles, eight All-Star appearances, eight All-NBA selections and the well-earned title of Greatest Shooter of All Time under his belt before Thursday night, it was already secure. But he went and got that Finals MVP anyway, putting together one of the best playoff series of his terrific career.
Curry averaged 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists against Boston, with a 48-44-86 shooting line, setting fire to the NBA’s best defense. His 43-point Game 4 that featured seven threes — each more spectacular than the last — is already the stuff of legend. His 34-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist, six-trey Game 6 may well be, too. Each game was emblematic of his work in this series as a whole, during which he subsisted on the fifth-toughest diet of shots among any of the 23 playoff series he’s played in since Kerr took over as head coach, according to Second Spectrum.
His running mates, Thompson and Green, are not the same players they were a few years ago; but during this run, they each at different times tapped into what makes them so special.
Klay made at least five treys in seven of Golden State’s 22 playoff games, poured in 32 points in the series-clinching Game 5 of the Western Conference finals and connected on two enormous threes to keep the Warriors in range of the Celtics during their comeback Game 5 victory, as well as another that just about put the game out of reach. He did not return to the floor this season until early January, after he had missed 940 days in the wake of ACL and Achilles tears. Far removed from minutes limits and mandates that he not play in back-to-back games, Thompson logged at least 38 minutes in five of six Finals games, looking more and more like himself as the series went along.
Green also missed ample time this year with back and calf injuries, and for the first few games of the Finals, he was in such a bad funk that Kerr briefly benched him down the stretch of Game 4. He returned to form in the final two games of the series, though, and looked very much like Vintage Draymond in Game 6 as he collected 12 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks while finally making his first 3-pointers of the series and playing his usual fantastic, seemingly telepathic defense.
The Warriors love to tout their Strength in Numbers, and indeed, this title would not have come to fruition without major contributions from several players who were either not on the team or not major parts of the rotation the last time Golden State climbed the mountain.
Andrew Wiggins, once practically left for dead in Minnesota and widely viewed as an albatross until quite recently, was perhaps the second-best player in this series. He smothered Jayson Tatum (who made the All-NBA First Team this season), keeping the Celtics’ best player under wraps and out of sorts all series long. Wiggins has become a different player than the one many envisioned when he was a prospect, but this version of him is more interesting — and more consequential. He has grown into an uber-athletic, two-way wing, one who defended Luka Dončić and Tatum in back-to-back series and not only lived to tell about it but thrived along the way. Wiggins’s 3-point shooting did not carry over from the regular season (39.3 percent) to the playoffs (33.3 percent) or Finals (29.7 percent), but he made up for it with a hellacious commitment to defense and rebounding (29 boards combined in Games 4 and 5). Once one of the worst positional rebounders in the league, Wiggins led the Finals in rebounds. That’s the type of thing that was once unthinkable but is now his reality.
Gary Payton II, who considered taking a job in the Warriors’ video coordination department but instead made the team out of training camp, returned from a fractured elbow suffered during the second round and played a key role in shutting down Boston’s offense. Payton collected three steals in Game 5 and three more in Game 6, chipping in 21 points and seeing the Warriors outscore the Celtics by a combined 34 points in his 46 minutes of floor-time in those two games.
Jordan Poole, who started for most of the regular season before returning to the bench when Thompson and Curry were fully healthy, gave the Warriors another off-the-dribble creator and a third deadeye shooter to pair with the Splash Brothers. His banked-in 3-pointer to give the Warriors a lead at the end of the third quarter of Game 5 may well have catalyzed Golden State’s fourth-quarter surge, while his 15 points in Game 6 were three times as many as Boston’s entire bench scored combined.
Otto Porter Jr., who played only 42 games across the previous two seasons due to various injuries, emerged as a key rotation player and occasional starter, including in Golden State’s three consecutive victories to win the series. Solid, dependable iron man Kevon Looney played in all 104 of the Warriors’ games this season — and willingly slid to the bench for the final three contests of this series, making the same impact in a slightly different role.
With four titles in eight years, Kerr sits behind only Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich for the most in NBA history. His adjustments during the series, and throughout the playoffs, were top-notch. Going back to Payton despite the injury and long layoff paid dividends. Bringing Looney off the bench to reduce the time he spent playing next to Green (and thus provide the offense with more spacing) did as well. Turning to rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga at different times in previous rounds proved fruitful, while veterans Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala had their moments, too.
Kerr’s staunch commitment to his system, even through two years of painful performances, paid off in the end. The Warriors don’t play much like other teams in the league. Though they are led by a superstar guard, they do not use him the same way most other teams would. Curry does not come off 100 pick and rolls a night, dictating the entire game from the top of the floor. He instead flows through a maze of screens both on and off the ball, leveraging his gravity to create for others as often as for himself. The system empowers everyone on the court to move and pass and cut and score, even if it’s built around the singular talent who makes it all work.
Kerr’s defensive acumen has gone overlooked through these years, in part because Green (and previously, Thompson and Iguodala, among others) is so transcendent that it’s hard to necessarily know where his brilliance ends and Kerr’s ideas begin. This Golden State defense was fantastic right from the beginning of this season (they finished the regular season ranked second in defensive efficiency), and was particularly so in the Finals, when the Warriors held Boston to an offensive rating that was the equivalent of the Detroit Pistons’ 28th-ranked offense.
The Celtics were criticized often (including by me, as recently as Thursday) for giving away too many chances. But the Warriors took plenty of chances away from Boston on their own. They dominated the possession battle throughout the series, but especially in the clinching Game 6, when they forced 22 Celtic turnovers. They at one point held Boston without a basket for four minutes and 54 seconds, fueling a 21-0 run that was the longest in the NBA Finals in 50 years. Doing so helped the Warriors overcome the 14-2 deficit they faced just four minutes into the game.
Kerr said during his postgame interview that this title might be the most unlikely of the nine he’s won as a player and coach. The Warriors were not the favorites entering this season — not after losing in the play-in tournament last year and not with the questions surrounding Thompson’s health and how all the new and old pieces would fit together.
This title, unlike some of their previous ones, did not seem inevitable. As recently as last weekend, in fact, it seemed rather unlikely. But the Warriors won again anyway. That they did is a testament to what they’ve built, and who they’ve built around, and who has done the building. If this latest spectacular season is the start of another run of contention, rather than the capper to an era that had not quite reached its conclusion, this championship might seem in retrospect to have been just as preordained as its predecessors. In the here and now, though, we know it wasn’t — and that likely makes it all the sweeter for the victors.