Memorable isn’t really the right word.
Painful, frustrating, demoralizing. That’s closer to how Draymond Green would describe the two seasons in between the Golden State Warriors‘ last NBA Finals appearance in 2019 and this season’s run to within one game of a return to the championship series after Sunday’s 109-100 win against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.
But there is one memory from the past two seasons that keeps coming back.
“None of these people really removed us from this space,” Green told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk of the team missing the playoffs the previous two seasons. “Toronto beat us, but no one really came and said, ‘All right, the Golden State Warriors’ time is up.'”
For all his bluster and swagger, it’s easy to forget Green has always been one of the most astute observers of the NBA.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title in 2020 while the Warriors stumbled to the worst record in the league with Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry missing all or significant portions of the season because of injuries. The Milwaukee Bucks won the title last season, while the Warriors were trying to groom their next generation of players to give their core another chance at reaching the biggest stage.
This season, young teams and superstars, like the three teams the Warriors have faced in these playoffs, began staking their claims on the NBA’s future. But no team or organization have come close to supplanting the Warriors from their dynastic perch.
In the first round, Golden State took down two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. In the second round they bested Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that’s often compared to them — even directly, as Dillon Brooks brashly did — during the early stages of their dynasty.
In these conference finals, the Warriors have given Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic the same type of attention and treatment they used to give to LeBron James: conceding his greatness and acknowledging he’s probably going to score 40-plus no matter what they throw at him defensively.
“Luka is incredible,” Green said of the Mavs’ All-Star, who scored 40 points Sunday but finished minus-19 in 40 minutes. “His time is now. His time is next. He’s a great player and he’s going to be great for a long time.”
The Warriors won, as they did in three out of four Finals’ matchups against James, by limiting everyone else. Sunday they held Doncic’s teammates to 36% shooting from the field and an atrocious 25% from 3.
It’s the third time in these playoffs Doncic has scored 40 or more points in a loss, tied with James (2009), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977) and Jerry West (1965) for most in a single postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Over the next few weeks, much will be written and said about how the Warriors recast and reinvented themselves to get back to this stage.
But maybe the better question is whether they ever really left it?
“We didn’t leave the space because we just got too old to do it,” Green told Youngmisuk. “We didn’t leave the space because all of us went our separate ways. We left the space because Klay Thompson was out and then he was out again, and Andre [Iguodala] wasn’t here.
“And then Steph Curry was out. We didn’t leave this space because we weren’t capable of being in the space anymore.”
There is one important figure from the Warriors dynasty Green left out of this analysis, of course. The guy who won back-to-back Finals MVPs in 2017 and 2018, who left as a free agent in 2019 to play for the Brooklyn Nets — Kevin Durant.
That could be an oversight on Green’s part, or a subtle reminder that the Warriors won a championship in 2014-15 and a single-season record 73 games in 2015-16 before Durant joined them.
That early Warriors style of play has been on full display in this series.
Those Warriors came to prominence by using their length, talent and intelligence to play suffocating defense and the NBA’s most democratic, aesthetically pleasing offense.
On Sunday night, Golden State turned a 48-47 halftime lead into a 78-68 cushion heading into the fourth quarter.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Warriors have out-scored the Mavericks by 10.3 points per game in the third quarter in this series. That is on pace to be their best such differential in any series under coach Steve Kerr — better than 9.7 points they outscored the Houston Rockets by in the third quarters of the 2018 conference finals.
That seven-game series was far closer than this or any of their subsequent conference finals games. Sunday’s win was Golden State’s ninth straight win in the conference finals, dating back to that Game 7 win in Houston in 2018.
“For us to get back to this stage and win one playoff series, let alone where we are now, it’s not motivation,” said Curry, who finished with 31 points, 11 assists and 5 rebounds. “It’s more of an excitement that we can do it a different way.”
“The motivation is that we’re back on this stage with an opportunity to chase the Finals appearance after a two-year hiatus with our core, and a new cast of characters.”
Those nine straight wins in the conference finals share a throughline, despite the two-season gap in between. The Warriors tend to get stronger as the series wears on, while simultaneously exploiting weaknesses they unearth in their opponents.
In this series, Golden State has identified the Mavericks’ lack of rim protection, which team sources told ESPN will be a point of emphasis for Dallas to address in the offseason.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Warriors are shooting 72.6% on layups and dunks this series — on pace to be the second-highest in a single series by any team since player tracking began in 2013-14.
Sunday they made 68.8% of their layup and dunks. Doncic was the closest defender on 11 of those and he was a sieve, yielding 10 layups or dunks, including Andrew Wiggins‘ tomahawk dunk on him with 6:38 remaining.
The 11 layup attempts are tied for second most in a game in Doncic’s career (most in his playoff career) and the 10 makes are the most he has allowed in any game.
That’s both an expression of Doncic’s individual issues on defense and the Warriors’ emphasis on forcing him to expend energy on that end of the floor.
“I’m still learning,” Doncic said. “I think after the season is done, whenever we are, I’m going to look back and learn a lot of things. This is my first conference finals in the NBA.”
The Warriors, though, have been here plenty of times before. The way they’re playing now, it’s like they never really left.