SAN ANTONIO — They made history and set records, they answered every run with crowd-silencing daggers, they sweated the small details like getting back on defense in the first quarter, they invented new maneuvers like blocking the same shot with the right hand and then the left, they proved too much for a legendary coach, they completely erased one opposing star, and they even pushed pause to properly honor another one.
The Warriors did all that while clinching their third straight trip to the Finals, and they weren’t the slightest bit impressed by any of it.
Yes, this organization—the one that embodied the perils of complacency, premature celebration and borderline arrogance last June—has pursued its redemption with a ludicrously talented roster. But its undefeated run through the Western Conference finals has been driven as much by its composure and discipline as by its unfair collection of All-Stars and well-fitting role players. The Warriors may get the last laugh after being the butt of 3–1 jokes for the past 11 months, but they weren’t about to get a head start on the yakking.
Golden State soundly defeated San Antonio 129-115 at the AT&T Center on Monday, sweeping Gregg Popovich and company out of the Western Conference finals. In so doing, the Warriors became the first team ever to advance to the Finals with a perfect 12-0 record. They posted +16.3 point differential along the way, also a pre-Finals record, and they joined the Lakers as just the second organization to be tabbed Western Conference champions in three straight years.
“They’re really talented, but that’s not the whole equation,” said Popovich, whose Spurs had only been swept out of the playoffs two previous times during his 21-year coaching tenure. “This is maybe the best defensive team in the league. On offense, no team is more unselfish finding the open man. Coaches are always trying to get their teams to do that. … They deserve a lot more credit than, ‘They’re talented and they’re supposed to win.’ That is disrespectful to them in my book. They’re way, way more than just their talent.”
Against an opponent that was severely weakened by multiple injuries, Golden State’s many virtues were plain to see, in tightly-cropped snapshots and wider angles.
Early, Stephen Curry (36 points and six assists) hit an impossible circus layup and crashed to the court. When the two-time MVP finally pulled himself up, Draymond Green was immediately barking at him about not hustling back. As San Antonio tried to mount second-half comebacks, Curry capitalized on a sliver of space from a sagging help defender to drain a three in front of San Antonio’s bench, eliciting a frustrated fist pump from Popovich. Moments later, Kevin Durant (29 points and 12 rebounds) nearly sent his defender to the deck with a brilliant dribble move before rising to swish a step back. Both shots hushed a roaring, hopeful crowd.
For the third straight game, the Warriors’ defense confounded LaMarcus Aldridge, the theoretical centerpiece of San Antonio’s attack with All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard sidelined with an ankle injury. Aldridge jogged silently onto the court without so much as a high five for one of his teammates as he took his spot in the lay-up line, and he was scarcely heard from again. Walled out of the paint and kept guessing by Golden State’s schemes, he finished with just eight points on 4-of-11 shooting and rode the bench for much of the second half.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the result all but determined, Curry joined the crowd in cheering Manu Ginobili in what could be his last game as a professional. The 39-year-old Argentinian guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup by Popovich and saluted with “Manu” and “Ole” chants throughout the night, headed to the bench as Curry clapped his appreciation. “I’m a Manu Ginobili fan,” Curry told reporters later. “I tried to do my best to give him that moment.”
If not for the commemorative Finals hats atop their heads, the Warriors would have appeared like a team wholly comfortable ceding, or at least delaying, their moment. “It’s still business as usual,” Green said. “We’re not finished.” Curry kept his focus on getting ready “for the gauntlet of winning four more games.” And Durant, who returns to the Finals for the first time since 2012, drew a clear distinction between his two trips. “This is a little different, definitely, I can’t lie,” he said. “I went when I was 23 years old [with Oklahoma City], and it felt like the Western Conference finals was almost like the championship. We have a bigger goal in mind.”
Warriors owner Joe Lacob said Monday what none of his stars would: That he has a “slight preference” of facing the Cavaliers, rather than the Celtics, in the Finals due to “unfinished business” from last season. But while Lacob’s “light years ahead” declaration in March 2016 came to represent the Warriors’ inflated pride before a fall engineered by LeBron James, even he struck a more measured tone Monday, noting that his team was “on a mission” but “not taking anything for granted.”
Mixed in with the spectacular highlights—Curry’s rainbow jumpers, Durant’s double block and Green’s gorgeous passes—were these other elements, some that have consistently defined the Steve Kerr era and some that have waned in key moments.
There was the unselfishness that Popovich praised: 30 assists to set up 11 different scorers. There was the defensive intensity that built an early lead and squelched Aldridge again. There was Curry’s humility in paying tribute to Ginobili. There was Green’s improved self-control, which has led to only two technical fouls, no flagrants and no noteworthy incidents through 12 playoff games. There was Durant’s easy-going, let-it-come approach to his offense and to all matters of pressure in the wake of his free-agency decision, marking a stark contrast to his force-it intensity with the Thunder.
Perhaps James will find again a way to pierce this bubble, to raze Shangri-La with his powerful drives and chasedown blocks, to disrupt these Silicon Valley disrupters. But it’s also possible that Golden State—which has racked up a 27-1 record since mid-March—now possesses the self-awareness that eluded it last year.
Popovich, in the end and in defeat, pinpointed what makes Golden State appear invincible when running on all cylinders. It’s not just talent, it’s not just that these Warriors are better than previous models.
It’s that these Warriors appear both better and wiser.