SAN FRANCISCO — Some franchises have never reached the NBA Finals, some haven’t been in decades … and then there’s the Warriors, the envy of the league, hoping to return for the first time since way back in 2019, when they made their fifth straight trip.
To the folks in the Bay Area, it might seem like an eternity ago, given the injuries (to Klay Thompson and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Curry) and a major defection (Kevin Durant) that happened in the interim.
Here are four things to look for in Game 5 at Chase Center.
1. What does Luka Doncic have left?
Really, that’s the issue here. He’s now about to play his 80th game of the season, including regular season and playoffs, and is playing in his eighth-straight month. Add the intensity of the postseason, his high usage rate, this being his first trip to the West finals and the extra attention he gets defensively.
Then there’s the responsibility he carries nightly and the challenge of trying to follow up a seven-game upset of the top-seeded Phoenix Suns with a toppling of the championship-tested Warriors.
When does it become a bit much for one (admittedly superb) player?
It wouldn’t be a shock to see Doncic finally run out of gas Thursday, if only because it would be perfectly human to arrive at that point. Keep in mind that these games are a grind because they’re taking place every other day, with travel. Also, Doncic isn’t exactly the fittest player on the floor — far from it, actually. And that’s one (and maybe only) area where he’ll need to improve eventually, maybe this offseason, to sharpen his body, since he’ll likely have a number of deep playoff runs in the future.
The Warriors will once again throw everything and almost everyone at Doncic and force his teammates to take big shots Thursday. As we’ve seen, that’s been a prickly issue with Dallas this series. The Warriors will, and should, try to wear him down, by pressing him at full court and making him work for every dribble. By the fourth quarter, if the game is close — and most in these playoffs have been decided well before then — will the persistent hounding of Doncic take its toll? Based on their defensive strategy since this series began, the Warriors are banking on that.
2. Who’s the first Magic Johnson?
As in: Who’ll win the freshly-named Magic Johnson Award, given to the MVP from the Western Conference finals? (The Eastern Conference finals MVP award is named after Larry Bird, ICYMI.)
Assuming the Warriors clinch the series Thursday (no team has ever rallied from 0-3, so winning it at some point seems a safe bet), the interesting MVP could be determined by which of three players closes it out in style: Curry, Andrew Wiggins or Kevon Looney.
Let’s start in inverse order, if only to salute Looney, the unexpected candidate. He’s having his best stretch as a pro, by far, and his paint presence tilted a slew of games in Golden State’s favor. They include a 22-rebound game against Memphis in Game 6 of the West semifinals and a career-high in points (21) in Game 2 of this series.
Wiggins is the respectable first layer of defense against Doncic, and owner of the most vicious dunk of this series, and a steady all-around presence in this, the first meaningful stretch of basketball in his life.
Curry may be lacking his typically-high shooting efficiency level, he’s averaging 26 points in the series as well as 7.5 rebounds and seven assists while shooting 47.1% on 3-pointers. He, therefore, holds pole position and if there’s a spirited race among the three on Thursday night, that means the Warriors are ready to move to The Finals.
3. Chase-ing playoff history
The Warriors’ new home is almost perfect in every way, and definitely perfect in one way so far: Chase Center has yet to experience a playoff loss. The Warriors are gunning for their ninth straight win here, as the new building has quickly warmed up to the team and vice versa.
Feel free to debate whether Chase has the same charged atmosphere as Oracle Arena in Oakland, which had far fewer amenities but maintained a first-class noise level. The 2017 Warriors were 9-0 in those playoffs and that Durant-fueled team lost only once all postseason: Game 4 of The Finals in Cleveland.
Yes, it’s LOUD in here 💥 pic.twitter.com/9VC40spntJ
— Chase Center (@ChaseCenter) May 21, 2022
These Warriors seem determined to reward the Chase fans for enduring a tough first two years when Thompson was hurt and then Curry broke his wrist and also the pandemic closed the doors. The Warriors will need to keep that same home energy.
Remember, the Mavericks won Game 7 in Phoenix to close out that series, beating the Suns by 33 points. There’s still a long “road” ahead before we’ll know if the 2022 Warriors can match the 2017 version for home dominance throughout the postseason, but they’re trending in the right direction.
4. Finney-Smith is not finished
Aside from Luka and maybe Jalen Brunson, the rest of the Mavericks are wildly unpredictable. Dallas isn’t sure what they’ll bring from game to game. Such is the case for a team without a proven All-Star besides Doncic — inconsistency is the trademark of role players. And that’s largely why Dallas lost the first three games.
But the most likely candidate to break through that fog, if only temporarily, seems to be Dorian Finney-Smith. He’s actually a more well-rounded player than most of the others in the rotation. While his primary responsibility is hitting 3-pointers — just like the others — he’s a solid athlete, can get to the rim, and is a decent defender as well.
And coach Jason Kidd trusts him the most. Finney-Smith averaged 43 minutes in the first round and is getting 39 in this series, a staggering workload for a non-star. He’s had some dud performances (going four straight games with single-digit scoring) but also some gems (eight-for-12 from deep in a game vs. Phoenix).
He’s coming off a 23-point Game 4, by far his biggest mark of this series, and if the Mavs have any dreams of pulling a surprise Thursday, he’ll need to duplicate that — and get help.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.