SAN FRANCISCO — This journey took longer than five games. Well, it took five games against the Mavericks but also two years from the abyss for the Warriors to bow-tie another Western Conference championship and punch a trip to the NBA Finals.
Remember, when Klay Thompson collapsed and Kevin Durant bailed, both in the summer of 2019, the Warriors subsequently delivered the worst record in the NBA.
That was so long ago … or so short ago, depending on your measuring tool. And now, after a 120-110 victory in Game 5, here they are, again. Here are five takeaways from the Western Conference finals:
1. “New” Warriors, same core
Five years ago, Joe Lacob, co-executive chairman of the Warriors, bragged in a New York Times interview how the franchise was “light years” ahead of everyone else, and this didn’t go over well with his — jealous? — brotherhood. It smacked of smugness, of forgetting the part about “dumb” luck (like Minnesota passing twice on drafting Steph Curry) and a pinch of arrogance.
In hindsight, was it the truth?
Lacob was talking about maintaining a legacy despite the usual roadblocks. The Warriors are playing for a championship for the sixth time in eight years, and this is their third reinvention. The first installment had the Curry-Klay-Draymond Green core with Harrison Barnes and a younger Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. The second one, and certainly the scariest, added Durant.
The Curry-Klay-Draymond trio is now older and (slightly) more vulnerable than before; Klay needed repair, Draymond’s shooting is almost non-existent and Curry is less efficient (for him). But the support is younger and athletic and therefore exactly what the trio needs at this stage.
Applaud the Warriors for having the vision to swing a trade for Andrew Wiggins and draft (and develop) Jordan Poole. They’re not in the NBA Finals without either. In that sense, Lacob was right; the franchise is stretching the championship lifespan of its core trio by making the right decisions. Even after their first title, Lacob subscribed to the time-honored theory: If you stand still, you fall behind.
While Klay was on the mend from a pair of major leg surgeries, Poole blossomed, which served as a silver lining. Poole developed the personality and mindset of a go-to player and therefore became one. Once Wiggins arrived from Minnesota, it didn’t matter that he was a former No. 1 overall pick who signed a fat extension and never lived up to either perk. With an established winner, he could be a role player and the Warriors were content with that; no need or pressure to be anything more on a team with Steph and Klay.
So: Warriors gunning for the top … yet again?
“Pretty special,” said coach Steve Kerr.
2. Feats of Klay
It seemed like 2018 all over again Thursday when Thompson ran to a spot, caught the second-quarter pass and without dribbling launched a 3-pointer off the fingertips.
You could tell the similarities, because (a) the ball was swished, and then (b) Klay did a shimmy, proof that he was feeling it, feeling like four years ago. His 32 points, making half of his 16 shots from deep, in a closeout game, was his happiest night this season if not his best, all things considered.
“This time last year, I was just starting to jog and get up and down the court,” he said.
These post-injury flashbacks by Klay are always followed by the gushy announcement that Klay Is Back, and then the next game he’ll be decent and good … but nothing especially splashy, and the process recycles. Thompson scored 20 or more in six of 16 playoff games.
The Warriors have gotten away with these understandable teases — having Wiggins and Poole on deck helps. That gets you through the Western Conference playoffs. Will these fleeting stretches by Klay fly in the NBA Finals? Dare we say it could mean the difference between the Warriors sipping champagne and drowning in sorrows?
Thompson’s pre-injury history is rich and robust, with dozens of epic scoring games and just as important, solid efforts defensively against top competition. The consistently high level might not return until next season … or maybe it’ll be prematurely (re)born in the Finals.
The Celtics or Heat, both tremendous defensive teams, may require Klay to be closer to his old self. If so, and he delivers, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors being denied another title.
3. A sterling season (so far) for Steph
This isn’t his finest season from a performance standpoint. Even Curry would admit he ripped the nets with better consistency and efficiency in the past. And he did win a pair of MVPs and three titles in the past. So, yeah, hard to top that.
Still … from an award standpoint, 2022 is engraved on some special hardware. Curry won the first Kobe Bryant Award at the All-Star Game in February, and now adds the Magic Johnson award for being voted MVP in the Western Conference finals. Earlier this season, he also became the all-time leader in 3-pointers made and is generally recognized as the finest shooter in history.
What’s left for 2022? Just another championship trophy and, maybe, his first Finals MVP trophy. If he adds both, it would elevate his status even higher and, depending on whom you ask, put him in the conversation for top-10 or 15 players all time.
This monopoly would certainly be welcomed by a star who endured the bitter taste of what other teams go through: injuries and crummy luck. The Warriors avoided both from 2015 until June of 2019, when Durant and Klay suffered injuries that led to back-to-back non-playoff seasons.
Curry was mainly terrific for the Warriors this playoff stretch; he led them in scoring, had a string of strong rebounding games and essentially did everything except make free throws at his (absurdly high) typical rate.
A transcendent star who’s still thirsty — and now has the motivation to add to his 2022 trophy case — puts the Warriors in a solid position no matter whom they see in the series.
4. Name change: It’s Andrew Iguodala
We just saw Andrew Wiggins morph into Andre Iguodala during the West finals and really throughout the playoffs. The real Iggy is mending from injuries and even if he heals in a few days will likely get little playing time in the Finals.
The new Iggy is taking those minutes at small forward and making the most of them, and as previously mentioned here, upgrading his reputation in the process.
The comparison between Wiggins and Iguodala comes primarily with their ability as two-way players. Wiggins was never known as an elite defender, but you couldn’t tell in this series and this season, as he helped the Warriors become one of the top defensive teams in the league. Wiggins is arguably a better scorer than Iguodala was during his peak-Warriors years, bringing more aggressive shooting and plenty of bounce off the dribble.
The previous Warriors teams all had difference-makers: Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, David West, etc. Wiggins is built like them, or more accurately, built like the player whose role he’s assuming.
“Thankful to be in this position,” he said. “A position that players dream of.”
5. Doomsday for Dallas
And so it ends, five games into the Western Conference finals, perhaps eight more games than they were expected to last this postseason. In the big picture, the Mavericks went beyond even their own expectations, and went where Luka Doncic had never gone before.
“We made a huge step, maybe a couple of steps,” said Luka.
That’s progress, right? Absolutely. The danger, though, is the belief that deep runs for Luka and the Mavericks will now be less of a surprise and more regular. Guess what: Trae Young and the Hawks thought the very same thing last summer when they reached the East finals, and how’d that turn out?
The Mavericks need to know, like the Hawks discovered last month when they fell in the first round, is they’ll start from zero again. That’s because it gets harder — the competition gets better. For example, in the West, the Clippers and Nuggets will be healthier next season, the Suns aren’t going anywhere, the Grizzlies are on the rise and the Warriors are built to last at least a few more seasons. Where does Dallas fit in all that?
Luka needs a co-star; he wore down Thursday, missing bunny shots on the way to going 10-for-28. As coach Jason Kidd said, “we need Luka to go big a lot of nights just to give us a chance.” The playoffs and this series obviously took a toll. A better big man is a must, and the Mavs must also decide on guard Jalen Brunson, a free agent this summer.
“We can pay him more than anyone,” said Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “And I think he wants to stay, and that’s most important.”
Re-signing Brunson is one thing; even if they keep him, all that does is keep the status quo. They need more. Luka needs more. Or else this deep run won’t be duplicated for a while.
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