Yet despite an unprecedented run of success, the Warriors, undeniably, entered their own stretch run. Playoff series that used to require a meager four games, like the first round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, now take five or six. The Golden State core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala has played in four straight NBA Finals. The team has played more basketball than any group in recent memory. The end is in sight.
In Game 6 of the second round series against the Houston Rockets, everything seemingly came to a head. Durant was out of commission, having strained his left calf in the previous game. So was All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins, who injured his quad earlier this season.
The Rockets had reigning MVP James Harden, the revenge factor from a still-stinging playoff loss the previous season, and home court advantage in a must-win game. The Rockets were seven-point favorites in Vegas.
The Warriors also would’ve been forgiven for dropping the game in Houston and saving themselves for a Game 7 at home. Much like the Bulls of yore, they’re hardly playing against real, tangible opponents in jerseys anymore; They’re playing themselves, fighting off complacency, fatigue and the weight of dynasties past.
None of that mattered on Friday, though. The Warriors, evidently, didn’t feel like playing a Game 7. They cut the Rockets’ heads off. Demoralized them. Humiliated them, even.
The Warriors are the champs for a reason. They proved it in their 118-113 win to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
It wasn’t obvious from the opening jump. Curry put up a goose egg in the first half, and Golden State had to lean on Thompson’s 21 points before halftime to keep within striking distance.
Then the second half came, Curry played, in his words, “the best 18 minutes of my career,” dropping 33 points after the break and sinking a pair of backbreaking threes to pull ahead late.
Then with time winding down, it was Thompson's turn again. He nailed a dagger three to put his team up six with 36.1 seconds remaining, putting the game on ice and prompting an exultant Warriors celebration.
Indeed, the Warriors seemed to savor the chance to win without Durant, to prove their worth without the help of their best player and assert that no matter where he goes this summer, Golden State is a force to be reckoned with. From NBA analyst Bill Simmons before the game:
After the game, Harden claimed to have answers. “I know what we need to do. I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.” But when pressed further, he balked.
Harden didn’t really have the answers. Neither did Chris Paul, despite posting a spectacular 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Neither did Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni.
Only the Warriors have the answers.
Famously, the mark of a great team is finding a way to win when you aren’t playing your best. The Warriors were far from full strength – their best player and starting center were both out, and their second best player hadn’t scored halfway through the game. They found a way, just like Jordan's Bulls before them tended to do.
Invariably, the most interesting part of any dynasty is the end. No matter how talented the roster, it’s only a matter of time until the individual parts start to wear down, until the team’s milieu starts to rip at the seams. Players get old, or sustain injury, or leave for higher-paying situations.
Should the Warriors win it all, it would be their fourth title in five years. There would be little left to accomplish, and suitors will inevitably come calling for Durant, Thompson and Cousins, among others. Sooner or later, the end comes for every great team.
But sometimes, before all of that, they come together for one last championship, one final show of dominance.
Who knows; maybe all the integral Warriors will re-up, and the team will dominate the 2020s much like they did the 2010s. But if the probable comes to pass, and this is indeed the last title of the Warriors’ historic run, their 2019 series against the Rockets will be remembered as the moment they staked their claim – not as an all-time team; they’d already proved that – but as champions in the truest sense of the word. Champions who revel in long odds, are prideful to a fault and are eager to prove that they’re still, after years of dominance, the greatest.
That’s what Bill Russell’s Celtics did 50 years ago. That’s what Jordan’s Bulls did in 1998. And that’s what the Warriors are doing right now.
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