With their 120-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, the Golden State Warriors clinched the Western Conference championship and booked a sixth NBA finals appearance in the last eight years. History will remember this season as a continuation of the Golden State dynasty, especially if they go on to claim their fourth NBA title in less than a decade.
But the Warriors have been through a lot in the 1,079 days since their last finals appearance.
Two-time finals MVP Kevin Durant left. Klay Thompson was sidelined for two and a half years with injuries. Hand surgery meant Steph Curry missed all but five games of the 2019-20 season, in which Golden State finished with the worst record in the NBA. They were only marginally better the season after, creeping into the inaugural postseason play-in tournament, where they were dumped out by a young Memphis Grizzlies team.
The story of the Warriors’ 2022 finals run has not been one of a simple continuation of previous success. It has been a remarkable feat of regeneration and rejuvenation.
Golden State began this season with the clear intent to end their two-year playoff drought. They posted a league-best 17-3 record through the first 20 games, powered by the MVP-level form of Curry. The eight-time All-Star, who turned 34 in March, was the NBA’s leading scorer through that stretch, averaging 28.6 points per game while shooting 42.3% from three-point range.
Not that this is a one-man team. The Warriors’ resurgence has been founded on typically stout defense. Steve Kerr has alternated schemes to keep opponents unsettled, as well as adopting an intuitive approach to pick-and-roll defense, utilising hedges and drops to force opponents into poor shots. Draymond Green was a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year award before a two-month injury absence and Golden State finished the regular season with the NBA’s best defensive rating (106.9), equalled only by the Celtics, who may well join them in the finals.
The Warriors’ return to the summit was not accomplished off the backs of their veteran stars Curry and Green alone, though.
Gary Payton II, the son of a former Defensive Player of the Year, had experienced a nomadic career before signing with Golden State last year. The 29-year-old’s journey has included spells at G-League teams such as the Wisconsin Herd and Capital City Go-Go, never holding down regular minutes in any one destination. But he has found a home at Chase Center. Payton has emerged as an elite one-on-one defender and leads the Warriors in steals per game this season (1.4) despite only averaging 17.6 minute per appearance. Had it not been for a fractured left elbow suffered in the previous round against Memphis, he would likely have been deployed to guard Luka Doncic in the Conference finals.
On offense, Jordan Poole has been a revelation. The 28th pick of the 2019 draft was splitting his time between the Warriors and their G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, just last season. In 2021-22, he became a Most Improved Player candidate, playing 30 minutes per game and averaging 18.5 points and four assists, acting as an invaluable bench scorer and Curry stand-in.
Still, the regular season wasn’t all smooth sailing. Curry’s initial form tailed off as he finished with the lowest three-point percentage (38%) of any full season in his career and his lowest scoring average (25.5 points per game) since 2016-2017. Thompson returned mid-season from a two-and-a-half-year layoff but hasn’t yet looked the All-Star of old. Injuries appear to have hampered the athleticism that once made him one of the league’s best wing defenders and, like Curry, he shot under 40% from three for the first time.
Injuries to Green and Curry saw the Warriors leapfrogged for the West’s second seed by the Grizzlies towards the end of the season. But, looking back now, Curry’s absence from the final 12 games of the season might have been a blessing in disguise. Poole further blossomed in his place and the two-time MVP returned refreshed in time for the playoffs, first acting as superstar sixth man against Denver in the first round and then resuming his starting role.
One of the biggest reasons behind the Warriors’ improvement this year has been Andrew Wiggins’ emergence as a key contributor. The former No 1 overall pick was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves in a trade for D’Angelo Russell in 2020. His selection as an All-Star back in February was perhaps more indicative of the dearth of elite forwards in the West with LA Clippers duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out, but Wiggins has fully acclimated to the Warriors’ defensive set-up and their constant-motion offense this year. The Canadian has thrived in the postseason, too, drawing primary-defender duty on Doncic and providing perhaps the highlight of the playoffs so far when he dunked over the Slovenian superstar in Game 3 of the Conference finals.
The postseason has also seen Kerr trust teenage rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody with significant minutes, which points to a bright future for the franchise.
This incarnation of the Warriors is not perfect by any means. They are not the dominant juggernaut that battled (and mostly beat) LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in four-straight NBA finals – as evidenced by their 39-point Game 5 loss to Memphis in round two; had Ja Morant not gotten injured mid-series, Golden State’s path to the Conference finals might have been more fraught.
But through their regeneration, the new-look Warriors have the pieces to play in a style distinctly of the Golden State dynasty, whether that’s going small with Curry and Poole sharing the back court or stifling opponents with their Green-led defense. And this playoff run has shown they have maintained all of their winning edge.
Meet the new Warriors. Same as the old Warriors.
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