OAKLAND, Calif. — Stephen Curry‘s hair was quite a bit longer when the Golden State Warriors‘ run of NBA Finals appearances started back in 2015. His body was quite a bit spryer back then too. But as the basketball world focuses intently on the Warriors’ future — with Kevin Durant approaching free agency — Curry and his teammates have been looking a lot like the original group that started this dynastic run.
“That’s when we first learned to play like this,” Curry told ESPN late Tuesday night after scoring 36 points in a 116-94 rout of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. “We’re in that flow again.”
That flow is what made the Warriors “the Warriors” all those years ago. More than Curry’s 3-point shooting or Draymond Green‘s positional versatility, Golden State’s identity was formed by its ability to flow. To move the ball. Make the extra pass. Run off screens. Create a collective energy that overwhelms defenses focused on individual matchups. When the Warriors are humming, it’s the basketball equivalent of a great jazz band. Each player has his solo moments to shine, but they have to harmonize and flow together to elevate as a group and win.
Over the five seasons, all sorts of things have disrupted this flow. Ego, hubris, complacency, fatigue. Some would point to Durant’s individual brilliance as another force that can disrupt. But that would be reductionist.
The Warriors can flow just fine with Durant. They just don’t have to.
“Kevin moves well too,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser explained. “But sometimes, he’s so good he doesn’t have to. You just throw him the ball.”
With Durant sidelined with a calf injury over the past two and a half games, the Warriors have had to go back to a simpler time. To the way they played before Durant changed the NBA landscape in 2016.
The Warriors won the 2015 title playing like this. Then they won a record 73 regular-season games in 2016. Curry won back-to-back MVP awards.
It was a hell of a run. The Warriors were fun and new and relatable to kids with Curry as their baby-faced assassin. Winning started to change that reputation. But really, it was adding Durant that turned the Warriors into the bully.
The Warriors have never particularly enjoyed being the villain. Their style is joyous, so it hurts their collective soul to find motivation elsewhere.
And with Durant out these past few games, they’ve been able to recapture what this used to feel like.
“You see the morale, like everybody’s shoulders are up and smiles,” Curry said. “Just aggressiveness all over the floor, whether that’s setting a screen or swing, swing or cutting hard, all that type of stuff. When you create good shots that way, it’s fun for everybody.”
Thirteen Warriors appeared in Tuesday’s game, and all 13 had a positive impact when they were on the floor. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala were plus-16, Green, Jonas Jerebko and Quinn Cook were plus-12, and Curry was plus-10.
After relying on their starters to play nearly 40 minutes a game in the previous series against the Houston Rockets, stealing this many minutes from their bench is critical for the Warriors. They are still loaded with star power, but they aren’t nearly as deep as previous iterations. So, as they go deeper into the playoffs, and the injuries to stars like Durant and DeMarcus Cousins mount, it’s critical not to overload the remaining stars.
When the Warriors play with the flow they found in Game 6 against the Rockets, and again Tuesday against a clearly fatigued Portland team, the rising tide lifts everyone.
“You have the capability to expand the bench and fill minutes with guys that are obviously capable, can help us on the floor on both ends,” Curry said. “And you see like the confidence that they play with, you know, regardless of what the situation is, that’s contagious, for sure.”
Watching that contagion over the past few games has been a pleasant throwback for those who have lived through this entire run. Like smelling cologne you used to love, it’ll never smell the same as it did in 2015, but sometimes that whiff is enough.
“That was my favorite game since I’ve owned the team — other than the championships,” Warriors owner Joe Lacob said of the Game 6 win in Houston. “I always put Oklahoma City, 2016, Game 6. I love that. But this was more of a team victory. So, I’ve actually decided that was my favorite game.”
And that feeling, that style of play, continued on Tuesday against the Blazers.
“In the Clippers series, the narrative was that [Durant] is the greatest player in the world, this is Kevin’s team. Now, it’s Steph’s team. I don’t view it that way. We’re a team. The word should be T-E-A-M,” Lacob said. “When we beat LeBron [James], three out of four times. When we go up against [James] Harden and Houston.
“It’s team, versus individual. It’s team, versus isolation. That is really the story.”