It was a scene that has seemingly become all-too familiar among basketball fans. A late-game Stephen Curry dribble combo leading into an isolation three. Klay Thompson careening the baseline and curling around a hard-set screen before setting his feet and knocking down a trey. Steve Kerr flashing his masterful wizardry on the sideline, calling shots and directing traffic like an orchestra. And the Golden State Warriors sealing the deal on another series victory on their way to what looks to be another favorable run towards an NBA championship.
If they do lift up the Larry O’Brien trophy in San Francisco, it would be their 4th championship in 5 years, an unprecedented run that will cement their already solidified place among the league’s all time greatest teams, and place them in conversation with the likes of the great Bulls, Lakers and Celtics dynasties. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Igoudala, and of course Kevin Durant, make up a starting squad known as the “death lineup” that has completely obliterated NBA record books, and effectively changed the game forever. We have never seen a team, a run, or a system like that of these Golden State Warriors. They play hard, as any championship team has to, but it doesn’t just stop there. They hound opponents on defense, giving opposing guards fits as soon as they cross the half-court line. They set hard screens, they get to their spots and take good shots, they communicate, and they get up and down the floor. Their offense is, in the words of former coach Mark Jackson “a well-oiled machine”, and nothing has been more monumental for a team than their use of the three-pointer. Stephen Curry has the record for most threes in both a season, and game (among countless other records), while the tandem of Curry and Thompson has combined to create the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game, and going up against Golden State has to be aware of their effortless ability to score the ball (or “Stephortless” as Shaq would put it). No lead is safe against the Warriors, they can put up notorious double-digit runs in a hurry, and games against them have effectively turned to 48-minute extinguishing efforts in hopes to stop what most are aware is the likely possibility of an impending offensive barrage.
Curry’s first MVP came after a historic season in which he averaged 24 points per game along with over seven assists and two steals, leading the Dubs to their first championship since the 1970’s. His second was unanimous, the first of its kind in league history, and came after Curry’s leadership and shooting prowess propelled his team to a 73-9 campaign, the best ever. The Warriors would famously go on to blow a 3-1 Finals lead to Cleveland that year, before free agent Kevin Durant joined the already all-time great squad, fueling them to two more championships in the next two years, and since then, the rest of the league has been forced to watch as the Warriors have become the most formidable foe in recent memory, effectively dominating any outsiders who have tried to rain on their parade.
And for every other team in the league, that has been the mission: beat Golden State. They’ve established themselves as not only the team to beat, but the team to model after, and GMs and executives across the NBA landscape have expelled all of the resources in efforts to do just that.
So who does Golden State have to contend with this year?
Well, Houston was the favorite to contend with them this year, and after multiple close regular season bouts, including a thriller that ended on a James Harden game-winner, analysts and fans alike were picking the Rockets to be the ones that would end Golden States’ reign. Harden is one of the front runners in the MVP race, and put up multiple 50-point scoring outings en route to a 4 seed in the west. Harden, along with “point god” Chris Paul, who the Rockets traded for to top Golden State, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela had one of the best matchups with the Warriors on paper after they carried ions of momentum coming off a round one pounding of the Jazz. Their matchup began to look even better after Kevin Durant went down with a calf injury in game 5 with the series tied at 2-2, but Mike D’Antonis isolation-heavy style was no match for the Warriors’ ball movement, and they would end of dropping the series in 6.
Steph and Klay CALLED GAME pic.twitter.com/VoASFL1DFc
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 11, 2019
With Houston out of the fray, attention was turned to the East for possible Warrior-stoppers. A lack of star firepower with the remaining teams in the West (Portland and Denver), all but set the table for another Golden State western conference title. On the other side of the country, Boston was the favorite to defeat the East’s table and contend with them. Kyrie Irving’s highly publicized trade request out of Cleveland and away from Lebron James to Boston in efforts to become a team’s alpha dog resulted in extremely high expectations for the Celtics, especially after they went to the Eastern Conference Finals last year without him. Irving, along with young guns Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and veteran leaders Gordon Hayward and Al Horford looked to be the perfect mix of young and old, seasoned and new that could beat Golden State. The Celtics momentum began to falter though after the All-Star break, and they eventually fizzled out against Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs.
Speaking of Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and company put together the best record in the East, and it was no surprise that they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense was just what the doctor ordered for the “Greek Freak”, and turning him into a point forward in combination with his elite scoring ability, size and strength made the Bucks a force to be reckoned with in the East. Giannis alone would not be enough though, for a championship. His Robin, Khris Middleton was an All-Star this year, the relative Klay Thompson for the Bucks, and Eric Bledsoe, while undersized, plays an exceptional point guard. They knew they would need more to topple Golden State though, and more came in the form of trades for All-Star center Brook Lopez at the beginning of the season, and highly touted sixth man Nikola Mirotic in February to bolster their scoring efforts.
Their opponent in the Eastern Confernce finals: Toronto, who, weary of the Warriors’ dominance early in the season, shipped away longtime face Demar Derozan to San Antonio in a controversial move for Kawhi Leonard, a superstar who they thought could fulfill their mission of winning, and winning now. The move was a hard lesson to Derozan, who himself voiced his feelings of betrayal by the organization, and to the rest of the league, that the business of winning would be sought after at all costs, especially with the current spectrum of a one-team dominated league. Leonard proved to a worthy investment though, as his efforts (including a series sealing game-winner that will never be forgotten up north)
fueled the Raptors past the Sixers and resulted in just the second Eastern conference finals appearance in the teams’ history. Leonard, Kyle Lowry, newly traded for Marc Gasol, and likely most improved winner Pascal Siakam defeated Philadelphia, who themselves sported a Golden State-ready roster, including All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, sharpshooter JJ Redick, and mid-season championship acquisitions Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. It will be either Milwaukee or Toronto to come out of the East, but both are well aware of who’s sitting pretty perched on the throne awaiting their arrival.
The NBA is always full of constant speculation, and that won’t change this summer. Kyrie Irving could end up leaving Boston and making the trip north to New York City next year. It’s been said that Kevin Durant could join him. Something big is cooking down in NOLA with the predicted arrival of Zion Williamson and the potential pairing of him and Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, and Jimmy Butler are all impeding free agents this summer. And we can’t forget about the reigning king of the league, Lebron James, still the most agreed upon best player, who had become an NBA Finals regular before the Lakers’ lowly 2018-19 campaign, and will no doubt be pushing for some big moves this summer is Los Angeles. They won’t be able to rest easy, and know each team is doing what they can to gun for their top spot. As for now though, the Warriors have been just that; warriors of the league, the most brazen, battle tested, and unbeatable of them all, eagerly welcoming any and all challengers that think they can put together enough to knock them off their high pedestal.
Justin Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Justin_JM12.