The new Golden State Warriors: relentless, ruthless … and oddly endearing

by 24britishtvJune 17, 2022, 3 p.m. 14
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The exterior drum of Chase Center, the Golden State Warriors’ shimmering new home on the western shore of San Francisco Bay, was apparently designed to resemble a reassembled apple peel. Last night Golden State completed an achievement to give that strange visual metaphor some semblance of sense. The Warriors’ sorry losers of 2019-21 have been reborn as champions. The discards have been repurposed, the wreckage of seasons past transformed into beautiful victory. The has-beens are now have-rings; the apple peel is reassembled. The Warriors are back.

But if the end of the story seems familiar, there’s also something different about this Warriors championship. “I didn’t learn anything about myself, I knew I was resilient,” said Draymond Green, on the victory podium at Boston’s TD Garden, when asked to reflect on how his understanding of himself and his teammates had changed over the course of these finals. And much, indeed, was recognizable about the way the Warriors closed the finals out last night: the lightning scoring sprees, electric offensive transitions, the lethal shooting from distance and collective intelligence off the ball, that trampolining energy and familiar, tentacular elusiveness. But if the Warriors already knew who they were, this series will be remembered for changing the way the rest of us see them. Just like the champion Golden State teams of 2015, 2017 and 2018, these Warriors were accurate, efficient, ruthless and relentless. But they were also curiously likable. This marks a real departure for a team that had, in recent years, come to seem like the embodiment of everything bad about the modern NBA. Though it may be a strange thing to say about a franchise that has now won exactly half of the rings on offer over the past eight seasons, the depth of the Warriors’ pandemic-era decline and the uncertainty that once surrounded their biggest stars’ prospects of revival are enough to make this championship a genuine feelgood story – not quite a victory for the underdog, but a glowing tribute to what tech billions, the greatest shooter in basketball history, and simple persistence can achieve together.

Narratives of redemption abound around finals time, of course. From Giannis’s vanquishing of the free-throw demons last year to LeBron’s conquest of his own hometown insecurity in 2016, the triumphs of most finals MVPs of recent years have been presented, in one way or another, as plucky victories against the odds. The difference this time around is that the championship team as a whole, rather than a single individual, had been written off: no one, really, gave this iteration of the Warriors, shorn of the ghostly authority of Kevin Durant and with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson coming back after long injury layoffs, much chance of adding a fourth title to the trio already bagged under Steve Kerr’s watch. The reasons for this near-universal dismissal are not hard to comprehend, since the Warriors over the previous two seasons have had the rare distinction of being both intensely disliked and very bad at basketball.

National hatred for the Warriors was born primarily of the team’s relentless success, in particular the two back-to-back titles secured by the Durant-adorned super-team of 2016-18. The Warriors – data-driven, unemotional, technocratic, bombing their opponents from beyond the three-point line, and drawn into an ever-deepening alliance with Silicon Valley – seemed to typify something about the distance that different elements of American society had taken from each other since the turn of the century. Defeat in the 2019 finals to Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors killed off the three-peat, but even bested the team won little sympathy. If anything the standout moment of that series was when Warriors investor Mark Stevens (current net worth: $4.5bn), part of the coterie of tech moguls and venture capitalists who own the team, shoved Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during a “frank” sideline exchange of views in Game 3 – a gesture that seemed to sum up the air of arrogant, moneyed entitlement that had settled over the team and its supporters since the breakthrough championship of 2014-15. With the move to a glittering new arena at the start of the 2019 season, the Warriors’ passage from a team of the people – the willing underdogs remembered most fondly for their “We Believe” upset over Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs – to the sport’s new establishment was complete. The team that had made Oakland its home turned its back on the “bad” side of the Bay and ran headlong into the puffer-vested embrace of the San Francisco tech elite.

More robotic success beckoned. But instead, the VC Warriors started to do something they were not accustomed to: they started to lose. A lot. Durant decamped to Brooklyn; Curry broke his hand and sat out a whole season; Thompson tore an anterior cruciate ligament, then an achilles tendon, and sat out two. The result was two years in the wilderness. The Warriors entered their flop era, finishing last in the Western Conference in 2019-20 (with a record of 15-50) and again failing to make the playoffs, despite a marginal regular season improvement, in 2020-21. The league adjusted, seemingly for good, to postseasons untouched by Golden State’s special brand of long-shot wizardry: teams built around big men muscling up in the paint – your Jameses, your Davises, your Antetokounmpos – came back into fashion. The likability of these Warriors, resurgent and resplendent once more, is mostly a function of how far they had fallen, how much they suffered, how deeply they – to use Green’s own term of art – “sucked.” But it also says something about the reconstitution of a team that has shown it can get it done with young talent, without needing to rely on the mercenary brilliance of an off-the-shelf superstar like Durant.

The backbone of the Warriors’ close-out victory in Game 6 was the soaring 21-0 run the team went on from 12-2 down after the first few minutes. It’s fitting that a series marked by the unusual volatility of its scoring patterns – Boston’s comeback in the final quarter of Game 1 will live long in the memory – was capped by the longest run in an NBA finals game in 50 years. But what was most striking about this devastating surge was the identity of its orchestrators: not Curry or Thompson but Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, who together put together a sequence of big threes, torrential dunks, and critical blocks to take the game – and the championship – definitively away from the Celtics. These rising Warriors are not only capable but personable, and the effect seems to be rubbing off on the team as a whole. Thompson, despite playing below his best in this series, showed enough to suggest he’s on the journey back to the peaks of 2015-18. Even Green, the team’s warhorse, seems somehow rejuvenated. The old belligerence is still there – the elbows, the shoves, the buttocks thrust aggressively across the lane – and the trash talk remains unrivaled, even in victory (there was a typically chesty description of the NBA as “the Warriors invitational” on the victory podium last night), but the effect is now curiously endearing: to see the man doing his thing again after these few years away is like watching an old uncle get mad at the TV remote for not working properly.

And then there’s Curry, still bouncy after 13 seasons in the NBA, still boyish at 34 – the man with the guard permanently hanging out of his mouth, and the ball perpetually on its way through the net. For all the brilliance of the Warriors’ next generation, this victory was built on the back of Curry’s monster hauls in Games 4 and 6. After a Game 5 devoid of a single Curry maximum – a true collector’s item – the maestro’s hands returned to him last night: not for the first time in the NBA finals, and surely not for the last, the game’s second half became its own kind of athletic weather system as a delicate, relentless rain of threes issued from the fingertips of Wardell Stephen Curry II. But Curry has also been deadly in these finals without the ball in hand, lifting his teammates even when he has shot poorly: in Game 5, Curry’s teammates shot 63% from the field when he was on the court v 22% when he was off, continuing a series-long trend. If these Warriors have suddenly become likable, it’s in part because they take such obvious delight in working for each other.

Much of the credit for this renewed, post-Durant sense of cohesion and solidarity among the Warriors should surely go to Kerr. It’s easy to make fun of Kerr’s political advocacy – the sense of pious duty that accompanies his frequent interventions on gun control, racial justice, or the presidency of Donald Trump. It’s equally easy to question the sincerity of these political commitments, given his cowardly neutrality at the height of the NBA’s tensions with China in 2019 (a position he’s since said he regrets). But in a country where several high-profile professional sports figures are actively antagonistic toward progressive causes, Kerr’s very public advertisement of his politics is far preferable to whatever the alternative on offer is. Quite apart from being an extraordinarily effective coach, Kerr remains an impressively articulate, even-tempered, and decent presence within the sport – the anchor who keeps a franchise peopled with super-egos moored to some vague notion of reality.

This Warriors championship crowns the third great team of the Kerr era. The 2014-15 champions were the team of revolution, a band of young perimeter radicals raiding basketball’s old order and forever changing the way the sport would be played. The two-time champions of 2016-18 were the team of domination, a death star grinding opponents to dust in a joyless, inevitable march to victory. This Warriors vintage is the team of rejuvenation, a group radiating in the collective joy of recovery from seemingly terminal illness. There are still, to be clear, plenty of reasons for neutrals to dislike the team from the reclaimed San Francisco waterfront. Their style of play remains unchanged, their collective mastery of the three-pointer infuriatingly undiminished. And they’re still a franchise built for the pleasure and enrichment of early-stage investors in Amazon and Palantir. But somehow, in spite of all that, this Warriors team feels distinct, less straightforwardly unsympathetic than the back-to-back champions of Durant and co. If the special genius of America is a gift for perpetual reinvention - a flair for the second act, adaptability married to innovation - this season’s Warriors may be the most quintessentially American NBA champions yet.

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