In November of 2018, in the middle of what would become a four-game losing streak and a week removed the infamous Draymond Green-Kevin Durant sideline blowout, Steve Kerr told reporters that his Golden State Warriors were finally getting a taste of “the real NBA.”
“We’ve had such a charmed existence the last four seasons,” Kerr expanded. “This is the toughest stretch we’ve been in. This is the real NBA. We haven’t been in the real NBA the last few years. We’ve been in this dream. And so now we’re facing real adversity and we got to get out of it ourselves.”
Kerr’s point was fair enough. The final threads of the Kevin Durant era were fraying. Injuries were popping up. Perhaps the fairy tale part of the story was over. But that Warriors team, a bit of “adversity” notwithstanding, was still an all-time great squad. They were surely the best team in the league and the clear favorite to win it all.
At no point this season was that the case. I don’t care what the odds have said at various points, or even what they’ll say to open the Finals, whether against Boston or Miami. And yet here they are, in their sixth Finals in the last eight years. For the Warriors, this is the real NBA, where an imperfect team has to establish advantages on — or at least closer to — the margins because Durant is gone and the Splash Brother superpowers of the past have been stripped down and recycled into actual human parts.
It only makes this accomplishment more impressive.
You want adversity? Let’s start with Curry, who had, by far, the worst shooting regular season of his career before missing the final three weeks with a sprained foot ligament.
How about Draymond Green, who missed two months from early January to mid March with a bad disc in his back, a span during which the Warriors looked like a positively mediocre team.
Klay Thompson missed more than two calendar years with a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles and shot 38.5 percent from 3 over 32 regular-season games upon his return, which, like Curry, represents the lowest mark of his career.
These guys are not the players they used to be, or at least they weren’t this season. That’s not to say they aren’t still great. All of this is relative to the impossibly high standard they’ve set. Curry was second-team All-NBA. Green would’ve been Defensive Player of the Year had he not gotten hurt. But they are not the guys they were in the first few chapters of the dynasty.
Those 2014-19 guys were otherworldly. Those guys could wipe away all sins previously committed with one five-minute nuclear stretch of 3-point shooting that conjured images of Michael J. Fox turning into the Wolf.
They’re still a threat, on any given night, to have one of those nights. Thompson did it on Thursday, hitting eight 3s en route to 32 points. But you can no longer depend on it. The Warriors were the 16th ranked offense in the league this season.
Those first two postseason runs with Durant on board, the Warriors outscored opponents by a combined 23.6 points per 100 possessions. This Warriors team entered play in Game 5 on Friday with a plus-4.8 net rating, and that’s against a Denver team missing its second and third best player and a Grizzlies team who didn’t have Ja Morant for the final three games of the series.
Thompson isn’t near the defender, nor the consistent shooter, that he was pre-injuries. Curry is 34 years old. Gone are the days when Golden State was running out a borderline Hall of Famer in Andre Iguodala, at the height of his defensive and playmaking powers, as a sixth man. This version of Iggy is a shell of his former self and hasn’t played since Game 3 of the first round.
You hear people talk about “championship DNA” and this is what it looks like; a fireball pitcher continuing to win at an elite level after dropping from 100 mph on the radar gun to 94 or 95, which is still great, but it’s not 100.
I don’t necessarily want to say it’s easy to win when you have three of the greatest shooters in history chucking shots in from all over the building, or when an all-time defense can, and often does, smother the life out of opponents almost on call, but it’s certainly not the challenge that this team has faced this season, when the margin for error was smaller than at any other point in previous playoff runs.
The Warriors always were, and still are, a supremely skilled team, but this team has had to find other, less spectacular ways to win. Curry has compensated for his 3-point struggles by penetrating — and finishing in — the paint at better than a 60-percent clip from 3-10 feet in the playoffs, by far the best number of his career. Kevon Looney had 22 rebounds in the Game 6 clincher over Memphis, and 18 boards in the Game 5 clincher over Dallas. Jordan Poole is shooting 53 percent through the first three playoff series of his career.
And what could we possibly say about Andrew Wiggins? This is a guy who was considered to have one of the worst contracts in the league in Minnesota, and he’s become an All-Star for these Warriors, thriving as a secondary scorer and taking over for Thompson as a designated defender against elite perimeter scorers.
This is how you win without superpowers. Everyone chips in. That includes the front office, which traded for Wiggins and made some key signings. They uncovered a gem in Gary Payton II. They resisted the urge to trade Poole or Jonathan Kuminga, or even a Moses Moody or James Wiseman, building their bridge to the next era without sacrificing the championship potential of the current core. At the end of the day, the Warriors, albeit with fewer fireworks, are putting up a postseason offensive rating in line with the Durant years.
The Warriors still need four more wins for a fourth championship in the Kerr era, and indeed, this is an organization that expects to win it all. If they lose in the Finals, they won’t consider this season a success. But from the outside, it’s impossible not to rank this achievement right up there with the best of this era regardless of how this next series goes.
When Durant left and Thompson came back super rusty and Curry and Green started showing signs of aging, it was, at least to me, beginning to look like the Warriors needed a big trade to get back in the championship conversation. How dare I question any team with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, let alone one coached by Steve Kerr. For years the mesmerizing skill of this team largely masked its gritty, tough-minded, fiercely proud and competitive nature, but now those traits are more evident, and necessary, than ever. These dudes are just winners. Plain and simple. And they’re not done yet.