Inside the Golden State Warriors’ return to glory
They’d done this celebratory dance before, the steps were familiar, the rhythm changing: first, with a joyfulness and then with a chest-thumping exuberance. This time, they were filled with tears, defiance, and a renewed appreciation of the journey.
The Warriors of Golden State reclaimed their preeminence Thursday night, dispatching the Celtics in a six-game NBA Finals, earning their fourth championship in eight years and cementing them among the greatest dynasties of all time. It bore all the familiar features–all the Stephen Curry threes (and shimmies), all the Klay Thompson shooting flourishes, all the Draymond Green bravado and defensive brilliance that carried this team to glory in 2015 and ’17 and ’18. It was a lot like none of them and maybe a little sweeter. It was not more important, but it was more satisfying. Because the Warriors of 2022 don’t have the youthful legs they did in ’15, or the sheer, overwhelming firepower they did in ’17 and ’18. They have lost some high-powered talent, had to say goodbye to friends, suffered from broken bones and shredded ligaments, and are now forced to think twice about whether they can do it again.
So when the final seconds were expiring Thursday on a 103-90 victory, Curry did not whoop or hop or pump his fists. He got misty-eyed. He placed his hands on his head. He fell to the ground. He let the tears roll .
“These last two months of the playoffs, these last three years, this last 48 hours, every bit of it has been an emotional roller coaster, on and off the floor,” Curry said later. Curry said, “And you’re carrying that every day to try and realize a dream or a goal like we did tonight.” And you get goosebumps just thinking about all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively.”
And that, Curry said, is why “this championship hits different.” And why the emotions were so strong–“just because of what it took to get back here.”
It took Curry having the best June run of his career–with averages of 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists, and a . 437 success rate from the arc, all against the NBA’s top-rated defense–a performance that earned him his first Finals MVP.
It took steady contributions from old hands like Thompson and Green, and newcomers like Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. It took Thompson returning from ACL and Achilles surgeries, and Andre Iguodala returning from a temporary exile. It took some of the best defense the Warriors have played, as they repeatedly flustered Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, holding Boston under 100 points in each of their four wins.
” That’s been a constant,” Green stated. “You can’t win a championship if you don’t have a great defense. We understand that. We understand that.”
The first three titles certified the Curry-era Warriors as a dynasty. This one, the most unlikely of the bunch, puts them on another plane. They’re the first team since the 1990s Bulls to win at least four titles in an eight-year span, and the first since the Bulls to make six Finals over eight seasons. Golden State has won six titles more than the Bulls since their reign ended. The Spurs had five and the Lakers had six.
Curry now has more rings than Shaquille Olson and LeBron James. He also has one more than Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant. Whatever skepticism might have lingered–about Curry’s greatness, his will, his worthiness of a top-15 all-time billing–should rightfully have been shattered over the last two weeks.
If the 2015 run was, as the Warriors framed it, a “Strength in Numbers” campaign, and the ’17 and ’18 titles were stamped by Kevin Durant, then this one was clearly, indisputably Curry’s. I think he has established himself as the best point guard in history, not just today but throughout his career,” Iguodala stated.
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In winning it all again, the Warriors defied everything about this dizzying NBA era, where superpowers rise and fall faster than the crypto market. Three years ago, the Warriors looked set for a similar fate: Thompson was injured, Durant left, Iguodala was traded, and Thompson was out. This championship grew the dynasty, building on the foundations of the previous edition.
There was Wiggins–acquired by turning Durant into D’Angelo Russell and Russell into a key trade chip–averaging 18.3 points and throttling Tatum all series. There was Poole–taken with the 28th pick, seven days after the Warriors crashed in the 2019 Finals–hitting key threes and averaging 13.2 points.
There was Green–written off a dozen times in the three years since their last Finals (and maybe a couple of times this postseason)–threading perfect scoring passes and infusing the defense with his energy. There was Thompson, who just started playing basketball again in January, after a two-and-a-half-year absence, averaging 17 points.
“Strength in numbers,” Thompson said, “is alive and well.”
That they were back on this stage at all was remarkable, given all the Warriors have endured since losing to the Raptors in the 2019 Finals. That they won this title, convincingly–defeating a Celtics team that was younger, deeper, more athletic and by some assessments more talented–almost feels miraculous.
No one believed it until it happened. Only the Warriors believed it. They had their doubts, but they were not alone.
The low point? The emotional low point? There were many to choose from.
Durant’s blown Achilles in the 2019 Finals. Three days later, Thompson has blown his ACL. Durant’s departure to Brooklyn a few months later. The trade of Iguodala, a foundational figure and ’15 Finals MVP, for salary-cap purposes. That was only one summer.
Then came Curry’s broken wrist, which was a freak accident in October. This happened in the fourth game in the new season.
“That was probably the emotional low point,” Kerr told Sports Illustrated earlier in the series. “We could sense it was going to be a difficult year without Klay and losing so many guys. … And then when we lost Steph, it was like, you gotta be kidding me. Like, what is happening?'”
It quickly got worse. By late December, the Warriors were 5-24, already out of the playoff race. Green was their only remaining All-Star. He was miserable and later admitted that he had briefly lost his love of the game.
“You play the highest level of basketball, and then you go to play at the lowest level,” Green reflects back. “That’s not fun. Curry was experiencing his own existential crisis. After surgery, Curry spent two months in Hermosa Beach working with a hand therapist and watching his team lose every game.
” Curry says that this was a low point. However, it was where he felt there was the most work to do to get to the next stage. You’re not even there, so you aren’t even with the team. It almost feels like you’re in another world watching the guys struggle. I know that there is a long road ahead of me to be able to play. Then the pandemic strikes, and you find yourself back on pause. So that was emotionally very difficult for a lot of reasons.”
It ended with another low: a 15-50 record, the Warriors’ worst winning percentage in nearly two decades. They hadn’t reached their bottom, according to some reports. That moment came on Nov. 19, 2020, when Thompson–having fully recovered from his ACL tear–ruptured his right Achilles, putting him back on the shelf for another 14 months. Thompson said, “Because it freakin’ hurt.” The entire franchise shook their heads with me as I was trying to get back in shape .”
Thompson is respected and highly valued, but he is also beloved by everyone. This was not only a blow to the Warriors’ roster, but also to their collective psyche. A second consecutive season without him would be difficult. This brings us to the bottom and the moment that some team officials felt their faith was waning.
It was December 2020, and the Warriors opened their COVID-19-delayed season by getting routed, in succession, in Brooklyn (125-99) and Milwaukee (138-99). We got crushed,” Warriors General Manager Bob Myers said. “I thought, This is pretty bad. This is terrible. This isn’t going to work. The problem is that executives are often blown out twice when they enter a season. Because you’ve made your decision, there’s not much recourse. … So I was sitting there thinking, I don’t know what we’re gonna do. That was probably the lowest point .”
“In your job, you know that you’re going to lose,” Myers stated. “But when you’re getting destroyed, it’s almost like there was a futility at the outset of that as an executive, thinking, I may have really screwed this up.”
But the Warriors weren’t over, just momentarily stalled out. Myers had not done anything wrong, he just hadn’t figured out how to move forward. The Warriors were brought back by belief and ambition.
There’s one transaction that still haunts Myers to this day, but it’s the one that made this entire revival possible: the trade that sent Iguodala (and his contract) to Memphis in July 2019. This deal allowed the Warriors execute the complex sign-and trade transactions that sent Durant from Brooklyn to exchange for Russell. They eventually turned Russell into Wiggins, who became the Warriors’ best wing defense and All-Star.
“It is the worst thing,” Myers said about the Iguodala agreement. “The worst thing. It felt immoral. It felt immoral. … That was the one where I was like, I don’t know if I can be in a business where I’ve got to do stuff like this to people like him. This isn’t how it should be.”
And yet those maneuvers were critical for the Warriors to infuse the roster with new talent.
” We had an immediate strategy to deal with this,” Joe Lacob, Warriors owner, says. “We didn’t just sit back and complain .”
Myers, Kerr and others knew this too: Change was inevitable. Dynasties become tired and stale. They need new energy. Kerr had lived it, as a member of the Bulls’ second three-peat in the 1990s. The Warriors were the first team in the modern era to make five straight Finals, and the toll was evident–even without the injuries.
” The hardest part was how exhausted we were after five years.” Kerr stated. “The absolute and utter exhaustion that is felt by all of us after five years of running .”
” Kerr said. Myers began to shuffle the deck, make calculated bets, and replenish the rotation. There were some misfires (Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore), but there were many more hits: Wiggins. Poole, Gary Payton II., Otto Porter Jr. were all key rotation members this year. Kerr stated that there was never a time when we felt it was over. “There was always the thought in the back of our minds, or even in the front, that when we get everybody back, we can make another push.”
The stars would eventually get healthy again. They wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere without the support they received when it all began. The Warriors made the bold, and some fans criticized, decision not to trade their top draft picks for veteran players. Instead, they would pursue a dual path: title contention now and player development to ensure their future.
These prospects, James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga, had a negligible effect on this run. Myers and Lacob could have been lit up by Warriors fans if the Warriors had lost. But the gambit worked.
“I know of no one who has done it. Lacob stated that we were criticized. “But this is what they’re doing. We believe in this plan. This is our plan. It’s not my intention to lie …”
They can now say it with confidence and maybe a little bit of smugness. They did it. The Warriors are again champions. Their future is bright and their present is secure. As Lacob sees it, with the benefits of modern sports science, Curry, Thompson and Green can play into their late 30s. The prospects will grow into greater roles and help ease their burden as the years advance.
” I didn’t think we were done,” Lacob stated. “Personally, I think we’re set up for the rest of the decade.”
From the owner’s suite to the locker room, the belief endures. The swagger is still there. It carried them through the crash-and-burn of the 2019 Finals, through all the physical and emotional trauma, through all the difficult goodbyes and calculated gambles, through all the tears of anguish until finally, standing on the historic parquet in Boston, they could shed tears of joy.
No one could predict that they would be here. The Warriors will tell you that they never gave up on their dreams.
“I thought about Draymond, Klay, and me,” Curry said. “When we’re healthy, we’re good. “When we’re healthy, we’re good.”
“So I wouldn’t say ‘doubt.’ Just patience.”
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.