PORTLAND, Ore. -- When coach Steve Kerr came up with “Strength in Numbers” as the slogan as the latest -- and one of the greatest -- NBA dynasties took root, who knew it would remain in vogue five years running? It defined the Warriors then and still does today as they prepare for this final step of yet another chase of the Larry O’Brien trophy in earnest, because it accurately captured the reality of these handicapped Warriors in the spring of 2019.
Sure, don't get the logic twisted -- this journey to June was greatly made possible by the core that first put the Warriors on the map, the players who proudly reminded everyone what they’re still capable of doing with a Western Conference finals sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. So let’s give them the roll call they deserve:
* Stephen Curry pieced together his finest performance in a playoff round. He averaged 36.5 points against Portland and sealed the 119-117 Game 4 overtime clincher Monday with a satisfying triple double: 37 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists. If Curry indeed previously suffered from playoff poisoning for his good-but-not-great level of play in past Aprils and Mays, consider him cured.
* Draymond Green was beastly on both ends throughout the series and also went triple Monday with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. But that doesn’t pinpoint his signature moment. With 39 seconds left in overtime and the Warriors nervously holding a one-point lead, Curry was trapped and threw to Green, standing by the 3-point arc.
Why was he alone? Because the Blazers studied the scouting reports. During the regular season, Green shot 28.5 percent from that distance and his confidence understandably wavered. This time, there was no nerves or hesitation. There was nothing but net, biggest basket of the night in a series-clinching win.
“You know, it's always great to have a guy of Steph's stature who if he takes that shot, nobody is going to be mad,” Green said. “Nobody is going to complain. But for him to throw me the ball in that situation, it helps with my confidence, as well.”
* Klay Thompsonwas once again a security blanket who not only averaged 22 points against the Blazers but played tough defense while matching up with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a terrific backcourt that never really hurt Golden State.
And yet, those three players don’t tell the story of this win and this series. The real numbers came from the depth of the Warriors, who were forced to win this entire series without Kevin Durant and then Game 4 without Andre Iguodala. There was Kevon Looney and Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook, Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie.
Those bench players and role players stepped in and stepped up when given increased minutes and responsibility. More impressively, this took place in the thick of the playoffs, where there was no time for mistakes or jitters. With the exception of Livingston, none of the above were this battle-tested. Looney in delivered a particularly uplifting effort with 12 points and 14 rebounds Monday to repay the faith Kerr showed in him by keeping him on the floor in the tense, closing minutes of OT.
We don’t want this to end as long as we can control it. Every single guy came here with that mentality, and then we walk off the court with some fancy hats and celebrating our fifth straight Finals. A pretty special moment.”
“When you’re missing Kevin Durant, you can’t replace Kevin Durant with one guy,” Kerr said. “We had to replace him with three or four, night after night, and then without Andre, we had to find more minutes. We mixed and matched and tried to find combinations that worked and a lot of guys played really well over the course of the series.”
And that’s why this series, to a significant degree, was all about Kerr, the confidence he showed in those players and how he cleverly put them in position to help. They set screens to spring Curry and Thompson, made subtle plays to keep possessions alive, occasionally made important shots or collected prized rebounds and minimized the key losses in personnel as best as possible. Consider that Kerr utilized seven different starting lineups in the three rounds, and in the close-out game had McKinnie and Bell logging their first playoff starts.
Taken as a whole, and considering the situation, this was perhaps Kerr’s finest work since the run of championships began in 2015.
“He used everybody on our team,” gushed Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob. “It was amazing. Everyone made contributions. If ever there was a testament to what we call 'Strength in Numbers', this was it. Steve did a wonderful job finding the right players at the right time and they played with a lot of heart and got it done.”
What a powerful message the Warriors just sent through the league, one that certainly made its way to Milwaukee or Toronto, whichever city will get its chance to play the role of Goliath-slayer. The Warriors trailed the Blazers by 17, 18 and 17 points in the last three games of this series ... and rallied to win them all. Golden State constantly came up with the right decisions and execution in the closing moments, repelling anything Portland threw its way. That speaks to the mindset of the Warriors and their understanding of what’s at stake.
“We’re trying to win this thing,” Green said. “I’ve been to The Finals and lost and it’s no fun.”
They weren’t better without Durant … but certainly more motivated. Not once did they take a nap, as they did during the regular season with Durant.
“As much as we’ve been here, we still don’t take anything for granted,” said Curry. “We don’t want this to end as long as we can control it. Every single guy came here with that mentality, and then we walk off the court with some fancy hats and celebrating our fifth straight Finals. A pretty special moment.”
Kerr mentioned the trust shared by the Warriors and cited the shot by Green as the perfect example.
“I almost called timeout halfway through that possession,” Kerr said. “Draymond did what Draymond does. He hits big shots. He’s a guy who hit five 3s in Game 7 of the (2016) Finals. Draymond is just a big-game player and Steph trusted him and obviously that was the shot of the game.”
The Western dominance of the Warriors makes them only the second team to reach five straight Finals, matching the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics (always exclusive company). Of the 15 rounds in this now five-year Finals run, five were sweeps, two went to a Game 7 and they fought through three elimination games. Essentially, they’ve been barely tested, and the best player from one team that nearly beat them -- Durant on the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder -- ended up joining the Warriors in free agency that summer.
He has now been out for nearly two weeks with a strained calf. The good news is the Warriors didn’t need a future Hall of Famer to finish off the Rockets, or the entire series against Portland, and don’t need him for another 10 days because … they’re off duty.
You see where this is headed, then. It sounds, smells and looks like another title, which would be three straight and four in five years. When the NBA Finals begin in either Milwaukee or Toronto a week from Thursday, the Warriors could look different. Figure on a rested and ready Durant, as well as Iguodala and possibly even DeMarcus Cousins, out since Game 2 of the first round with a quadriceps injury. (Durant is set to be re-examined in a few days and Cousins will be likewise before The Finals, but Iguodala's status remains unclear.)
With each trip to the basketball promised land, the Warriors place another brick in their legendary foundation. They’re chasing trophies and also history in the process. They’re competing against the "Showtime" Lakers, the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish-era Celtics, the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls and the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant-led Lakers of the early 2000s. Their sustainability will be tested this summer when Durant, Cousins and Thompson become free agents ... but that’s a story for another time. In the here and now, this is a feat that may take years to duplicate.
“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated,” Kerr said. “It’s really, really, difficult. This group has a fiber to them. When goes go down, they find a way to come together and compete and win. I just think the experience of winning titles helps you in these moments and it helps you continue to move forward.”
Kerr had already stamped his trip to Springfield when he won his second championship. Now he attempts to breath truly rarefied air with his next step, one that he made possible by steering the Warriors without arguably the best player in basketball.
The Warriors are bringing the experience, the motivation and most of all, the numbers to the next round.
“As Draymond said, it’s just an incredibly committed organization,” Lacob said. “Everyone in the organization is committed to being champions and winning. These players are indomitable. They just want to win so badly. It’s hard to maintain year after year, but they’re doing it. It’s really exciting to see.”
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