SAN FRANCISCO — The thrills come in waves: a cascade of threes, a thunderstorm of slam dunks, bodies cutting, passes flying and Steph Curry doing Steph Curry things while joyful bedlam erupts around him. If you blurred the names on the jerseys and the shiny new digs, you’d swear you were in Oakland in 2017 instead of San Francisco in '21.
The mighty Warriors of Golden State are back, same as they ever were and yet nothing like they’ve been. Kevin Durant is gone, Klay Thompson is in street clothes (for now), Shaun Livingston is retired and their No. 3 scorer is a skinny wing who was just finishing his sophomore year of high school when Curry led this team to its first championship in 2015.
Yet you glance at the Warriors’ record (a league-best 11–2 as of Monday), watch their third-ranked offense hum, see helpless defenders flail about while Curry shimmies upcourt … and you’d swear the dynasty is alive and well and thriving. Which, you know, it just might be—contrary to all conventional wisdom, prognostications and computer models.
No one saw this Warriors renaissance coming, certainly not this soon, not before Thompson could finish his two-year rehab from Achilles and knee surgeries and restore the greatest-shooting backcourt of all time. And no one is sure what to make of it. Skeptics are pointing to the Warriors’ home-heavy schedule, the dearth of quality opponents, the scarcity of proven talent around Curry, the miles on defensive maestro Draymond Green, the mystery of whether Klay Thompson is still Klay Thompson and casting doubts on the sustainability of it all.
“I love it,” Thompson told Sports Illustrated last week, through a defiant grin. “I love it. I hope people keep doubting us. I saw somebody on the TV the other day talking about, The Warriors aren’t contenders because they’ve had a soft schedule. Buddy, we got the MVP, a defensive player of the year. That kind of disrespect bothers me. We have so many champions, guys who have done it in the highest pressure moments, and you’re still gonna question our ability? I love it. But whatever. That’s what talking heads are paid to do.”
Soft schedule or not, there’s nothing ordinary about winning 11 of 12 games to start the season, as the Warriors just did, and they did crush some quality opponents along the way—taking down the Lakers and Clippers to open the season, and more recently beating the Hawks and Bulls amid a seven-game winning streak in which they won every game by double digits. The streak was snapped Sunday in Charlotte, the first stop of a four-game road trip.
If skeptics are demanding stiffer tests, they’re about to come.
The Warriors face Durant and James Harden in Brooklyn on Tuesday, in a game that now looks like a plausible Finals preview. They close out the trip with back-to-back games in Cleveland and Detroit, then return home to play the Raptors, Sixers and Trail Blazers, followed by a home-and-away set against the defending Western Conference champion Suns. A mid-December trip will take Curry & Co. to Philly, Indiana, New York, Boston and Toronto.
By then, the Warriors could have James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick of the 2020 draft, back in the rotation after a seven-month rehab from knee surgery. And Thompson’s return, while still unspecified, is somewhere on the horizon. In their absence, the Warriors have discovered a beautiful alchemy reminiscent of their '14–19 run, when they made five straight Finals and won three titles.
Curry is crafting another MVP campaign, averaging 28.1 points (second only to Durant), 6.7 assists and 6.2 rebounds while leading the league in three-pointers, at 5.2 per game. He’s already had games of 40, 45 and 50 points, all in victories. Green again looks like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, anchoring a lively defense that ranks No. 1 in the league. And though there are no other supreme scorers here—at least until Thompson returns—Curry is getting ample support from surprising places.
Jordan Poole—the 22-year-old wing who spent a chunk of last season in the G League—is averaging 17.5 points per game as Curry’s backcourt mate and could become a brilliant sixth man once Thompson returns. Andrew Wiggins, dismissed as a draft bust in Minnesota, has found a happy niche in Curry’s orbit, as a slasher/defender/rim-rattler, averaging 18 points and a career-best .574 true shooting percentage.
The rest of the rotation is an oddly productive assortment of castoffs and kids: Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica, Damion Lee, Kevon Looney, Juan Toscano-Anderson. Gary Payton II—the son of Oakland legend and Hall of Famer Gary Payton—has become a fan favorite with his relentless defense and his high-flying power dunks. Oh, and Andre Iguodala—2015 Finals MVP, staple of three Warriors titles—is back after a two-year exile, anchoring the second unit and making impactful plays at both ends at age 37.
“It's fun right now,” Curry said. “Everybody's bought into what we're doing. That's all you could ask for.”
True to form, the Warriors lead the league in assists per game (29.5), rank second in true shooting percentage (58.5) and are currently posting an insane net rating of 12.7 per 100 possessions, which not only leads the league but would be the highest in the 25-year database on NBA.com. They also lead the NBA in three-pointers made per game (15.7) while playing without Thompson, who is merely one of the greatest shooters of all time.
“We need Klay back,” Green said. “That will be a huge boost for us. But in the meantime, guys are stepping up, guys are playing well and we're in a good groove.”
What these Warriors lack in star power, they make up for in quality, depth and collective intelligence, an updated edition of the Strength in Numbers ethos that defined their first title run in 2014–15. Noteworthy: No one saw that team coming, either.
“I think the comparison is appropriate,” coach Steve Kerr said last week, noting that both teams got off to surprisingly strong starts. “From an exceeding expectations standpoint, the similarities are there.”
In truth, Kerr said, he’s felt confident about this season since training camp, and all through the Warriors’ 5–0 preseason. “Didn't feel like a mirage,” he said. “So this start has not really surprised me, because it just felt like this was gonna be a really good team.”
Curry, Green and Iguodala continue to set the pace and the tone with their steady, selfless play, providing a useful template for all the newcomers, who are doing their best to mimic the prior generation, with a nice blend of outside shooting and timely rim assaults. And if that weren’t enough, you can find the ghosts of Warriors past lurking around every corner at Chase Center, with Livingston and Zaza Pachulia working in the front office, and Leandro Barbosa on Kerr’s bench.
Was the schedule soft? Sure. Is the hot start sustainable? Not even the Warriors can say for sure. But they like where they are. And they relish the skepticism.
“I’m like Arya from Game of Thrones,” Kerr quipped, alluding to the vengeance-minded assassin. “Like, I have all the names of the media members who picked us to be outside the playoffs, and I'm just checking off the box. Every time I see one of those guys, I give them a little glare, and they know what that means.”
To Kerr, it’s all an enjoyable interlude, a chance to be underdogs again, at least for the moment. But for Thompson—antsy from a two-year layoff, and still irritated at his exclusion from the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team—all the caveats and qualifiers are just signs of disrespect, an insult to the NBA’s one reigning dynasty.
“You see what we’re doing to start this year?” Thompson said, not as a question but as a statement of defiance. “And I’m not even out there yet. I’m just so excited.”
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