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NBA Playoffs: Warriors headed back to NBA Finals

SAN FRANCISCO — In 2016, Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob boasted that his franchise was “light years ahead” of the NBA when it came to constructing a perennial championship contender. The Warriors were coming off the 2015 NBA title, their first since 1975, and were on their way to a historic 73-9 season when Lacob made that bold statement, one that drew some backlash. However, Golden State let a 3-1 series lead slip away and lost the 2016 Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The consolation prize was Kevin Durant, the former NBA MVP who surprisingly signed as a free agent. With Durant joining the All-Star trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors became a bona fide dynasty, winning two more NBA titles in Durant’s three seasons in the Bay Area. Golden State likely would have won a fourth championship in five seasons if Durant and Thompson had not suffered devastating leg injuries in the 2019 Finals against the Toronto Raptors.

The Warriors’ future was further altered that summer when Durant decided he was ready to move on. Rather than let the two-time Finals MVP leave for nothing in free agency, Golden State traded Durant to the Brooklyn Nets to recoup an asset in All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell. But when Curry broke his hand four games into the 2019-2020 season, the Warriors, with only Green healthy, reversed course in hopes of landing a high draft pick. They traded Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves for much-maligned 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. A 15-50 season resulted in the 2020 draft’s second overall selection, which Golden State used to choose center James Wiseman.

A knee injury limited Wiseman’s rookie season to 39 games. Thompson, on the day Wiseman was drafted, tore his Achilles’ tendon to keep him sidelined for another season. The Warriors gritted their way to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, but they lost both play-in games to miss the playoffs for a second straight year.

Pundits declared that the Dubs dynasty was dead.

All of that pain, suffering and heartbreak made Thursday night so remarkable and rewarding.

The Warriors defeated the Dallas Mavericks 120-110 to win the West finals in five games and advance to the NBA Finals, their sixth in the last eight years, a feat only the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls have achieved. This Finals trip — after all the Warriors have endured since the 2019 loss to Toronto — feels like their most gratifying.

“This is one is very sweet just because of where we were in 2019,” Curry said. “Obviously Klay, KD going down during that playoff run, being so close to winning three in a row. Again, adversity that hit you over the last two years.

“Like I said, we never lost faith, but you understand how hard of a process it was going to be to climb the mountain again.”

“After being counted out, ‘dynasty is over,’ all of those things — to get back here, it’s fantastic,” Green said. “It’s a testament to the hard work and dedication and to an incredible organization. We continue to stick with it (and) show what we’re capable of.”

Thompson was the catalyst in Golden State’s series-clinching victory, scoring a game-high 32 points, including eight 3-pointers. It wasn’t Game 6, historically the point in a playoff series when Thompson saves his most clutch efforts, but it was another big-time performance nonetheless.

“I’m satisfied with ‘Game 6 Klay,’” Thompson said jokingly of his Game 5 heroics. “I don’t need another nickname. It’s nice not having to bring him out yet.”

Curry didn’t have his typical game, shooting just 5-for-17 from the floor for 15 points to go with nine assists. But it didn’t matter as Curry became the first player to win the Western Conference Finals Magic Johnson MVP award for averaging 23.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series.

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Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry holds up the conference finals MVP trophy after the Warriors defeated the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of the NBA basketball playoffs Western Conference finals in San Francisco, Thursday, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Green posted his highest point total of the playoffs, recording 17 points with six rebounds and nine assists, and the Warriors’ role players stepped up as they have all postseason long. Wiggins had 18 points and 10 boards, Kevon Looney added 10 points while gobbling up 18 rebounds and Jordan Poole chipped in 16 points off the bench.

This season, head coach Steve Kerr and the Warriors have gotten the most out of Wiggins, who made his first All-Star Game last February as a starter but then slumped the rest of the regular season. He continued his resurgence in the playoffs against the Mavericks, averaging 18.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in the West finals.

“Man, it’s a lot from offensively to defensively,” said Wiggins, when asked what he has learned from playing with Curry, Thompson and Green. “Just playing with them in this type of system, an amazing system that works … it’s a winning system.”

Looney has enjoyed his own breakout postseason. Since pulling down a career-high 22 rebounds in a series-clinching Game 6 win against the Memphis Grizzlies in the West semifinals, the reliable, hard-working, do-it-all big man has been a consistent force in the middle for Golden State, averaging 10.6 points and 10.6 rebounds against Dallas.

“For our team, our guys, especially the core group — Dray and Steph, Klay, Loon, Andre (Iguodala) — to be part of that six times in eight years, I don’t even know what to say,” Kerr said. “It just takes an enormous amount of skill and determination and work.”

Poole’s journey from mistake-prone rookie to third-year breakout star parallels the Warriors’ struggles over the past two seasons.

Drafted 28th overall in 2019, Poole flashed moments of his potential but was sent to the G League after a rough start to the 2020-21 campaign. He returned a different player, averaging 12.0 points on 43.2% shooting for the season. He continued to raise his game this year, especially when Curry missed the last 12 games of the regular season with a sprained ligament in his left foot. Poole scored 28.5 points per game during that stretch and finished the season averaging 18.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists.

“From day one, (I was just trying) to put my imprint on the team in a positive way, whether it was in the locker room or on the court, asking questions and finding ways to fit in and learn,” Poole said. “Really thrived by being myself, you know, alongside these vets, basketball greats, from the coaching staff and all the way to the players.”

The postgame spotlight fell squarely on Thompson. His comeback deserved to be celebrated after all he endured the past 2 1/2 years to get back on the court and help return the Warriors to the NBA Finals.

“Just a surreal feeling. It’s hard to put into words, really,” Thompson said of everything he had to overcome. “This time last year, I was just starting to jog again and get up and down the court. Now, to be feeling like myself, feeling explosive, feeling sure in my movement, I’m just grateful.”

Green echoed that sentiment but acknowledged that Golden State’s mission is not complete. Basketball dynasties receive their full validation only one way, and that's by winning titles.

“This one feels great, but we got four more wins to go,” Green said. “I can’t say that I thought coming into this season like, ‘Yo, we’re going to win a championship or we’re going to be in the NBA Finals,' but I always believed with us three (Green, Curry and Thompson) that we have a chance.”

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Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green celebrates after scoring against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half in Game 5 of the NBA basketball playoffs Western Conference finals in San Francisco, Thursday, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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