Allow me to be upfront about this at the outset and kill whatever suspense there might have been in reading this round's series MVP post: Stephen Curry was the MVP of this series almost no matter how you slice it.
Any time you have a guy who has a team-high true shooting percentage (.680) on a team-high usage rate (29.7%) while putting out any sort of defensive effort, it's going to be really hard to make an argument against him for MVP. Beyond the numbers, Curry's very presence on the court opens up so much for everyone else because you have to account for him as soon as he crosses halfcourt and his ability to beat high traps with the pass has improved dramatically this season in Steve Kerr's offensive system that actually includes player movement.
Curry is a fire-throwing beast and, in trying to tame him, opponents leave the mere mortals playing with him room to operate.
Yet when looking back on GSoM's selections for Warrior Wonder in the five-game Western Conference Finals series against the Houston Rockets, something really interesting stood out: if I recall correctly, this was the first time in the last three years of playoff runs that the Warriors have had a different Warrior Wonder in every game. As good as Curry is and as much as we can point to his MVP season as the reason why the team was able to make a historic leap from 51 to 67 wins this season, we're just now starting to see this team mature into something approximating its full potential.
And imagining that this team still hasn't reached its peak feels just about as crazy as accepting that, yes, they will in fact be playing against LeBron in the NBA Finals (I still just can't even wrap my head around this).
So we'll review the heroes of the Western Conference Finals with an eye on the specific ways in which this Warriors team is still evolving as they enter the finals. As usual, I look at the Warrior Wonder voting in IQ's links and say a little something about the players that stood out to you. Then you can make you vote for series MVP.
Game 1: Warriors 110, Rockets 106
MVP: Shaun Livingston (37%)
Runner-up: Steph Curry (15%)
After Game 1, Kerr said, "What I like about our team is we tend to find somebody."
Perhaps nobody embodied that more than Shaun Livingston in the Western Conference Finals.
There has already been plenty written about Livingston's career story of resilience and recovery during the conference finals so I won't belabor that point further. But he was more than merely a feel good story in the WCF — he was one of the team's best players through the first two games and arguably one of the top Warriors in the series, depending on what numbers you look at.
That WCF series was odd. Curry shot incredibly (68% TS on 30% USG). Everyone else not so much for GSW. pic.twitter.com/Vxkrih5HH2— EvanZ (@thecity2) May 29, 2015
And as long as we're talking about Livingston, it bears repeating what Jeff Cheal noted about Game 1: "Speaking of Livingston, the Dray at Center is the best lineup of this series, and it’s not close...the Dray at the Five lineup was a dominant one, and tonight it showed up in big ways. The floor spacing, the defense, the all around play." As I wrote the other day, Livingston's versatility and ability to create as a ball handler at the top or out of the post makes this team so much more dynamic than they have been in past years.
But since Draymond Green nicely summarized Livingston's 18-point Game 1 performance well in a recap by Rusty Simmons of the SF Chronicle.
"Credit Shaun for coming in and saving the day, keeping us afloat when everybody else was struggling," Warriors power forward Draymond Green said. [...] on the defensive end, he’s been great — pressuring the ball and just always being in the right spot. Livingston, who has battled back from one of the league’s most gruesome knee injuries, has been with only three playoff teams and is playing in a conference final for the first time. Livingston finished with a postseason career-high 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 28½ minutes. "He was terrific," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said.
You just can't beat the kind of options he gives you offensively and defensively with this particular team — he might provide more value to this team than he does anyone else and it's really starting to come to full fruition in the playoffs.
Game 2: Warriors 99, Rockets 98
MVP: Andrew Bogut (12%)
Runner-up: Steph Curry (10%)
With the success of the Warriors' small ball lineup, a lineup that is so much better than any comparable lineup that you almost wonder if they should be starting that way, it would probably be easy to minimize Bogut's value to this team. As an example, you'll notice that Bogut was not even in the game for those critical final possessions.
Yet the center was the best of the Warriors' starters in Game 2 — with a +9 plus/minus — with a well-rounded line of 14 points, 8 boards, 5 blocks and 4 assists. His passing and ability to create at the top of the key is especially critical. As Brent Barry said in breaking down Bogut's game in NBA.com's recent Finals preview, "Not many centers are going to be able to do this: put the ball on the floor, turn around and make the play behind you."
But a lot of what he does is the kind of stuff that doesn't show up in the stats, as detailed well in the Reuters recap of that game.
Bogut was sensational at the start of the game and in the final minutes, dunking, throwing pinpoint passes, setting fortress-like screens for shooting guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and battling All-Star centre Dwight Howard...The Melbourne-born centre was a different player in game two, aggressively taking on Houston’s All-Star Howard from the opening jump ball. Just three minutes into the game Bogut performed a power one-handed alley oop dunk from a Curry pass and then ran down the court and took a charge on Houston’s Trevor Ariza. A few minutes later when Harden sliced to the basket for what looked like an easy layup Bogut came from behind and blocked the shot.
The key in that game, especially in comparison to Game 1, could really be summed up with one word: energy. When Bogut plays with that kind of energy, the Warriors are just a better team. What may even get taken for granted are all those sometimes-illegal screens he sets, boxing out opposing centers to keep them off the boards, and just refusing to take any mess from anyone.
Maybe the cost of that surplus energy was a few too many turnovers (four) from a center playing 30 minutes, but he's another guy who is just a great fit for this team with two of the most dynamic shooters ever to play.
Game 3: Warriors 115, Rockets 80
MVP: Steph Curry (43%)
Runner-up: Festus Ezeli (4%)
The 35-point win in Game 3 was all you need to know about Steph Curry as the league's MVP: when he's on, this team is not just "hard to beat" but almost invincible. He's the one that takes this team from good to historically great and we got a taste of that in Game 3.
Curry also did this in Game 3, which should automatically make him the MVP of the series for making like Kryptonite and owning Superman.
It's totally unfair of me to say this — and I'll welcome all criticism that comes my way for saying it — but Bram Kincheloe's words about that play perfectly summarize my feelings about Dwight Howard.
But, following Draymond Green's request and the GSoM WW vote mandate, let's talk a bit about Festus Ezeli, shall we?
I still don't understand how this man graduated from high school at 14, but both Jeff Faraudo of the Bay Area News Group and Nigeria Moment seem to have a decent handle of how that happened. But we're watching him grow up right in front of our eyes on the court.
One of the more interesting statistics from this series was that the Warriors managed to out-rebound the Rockets, which is something that you might not expect from a team ranked 21st in offensive rebounding and playing quite a bit of small ball to do.
Four Factors for the Western Conference Finals (via Basketball-Reference).
As Rusty Simmons described after Game 5 — arguably Ezeli's best all-around game of his career, given the circumstances — Bogut and Ezeli were a major part of that. Of the players who played in all five games, Ezeli led the team in offensive rebounding during the series (16%). That he added a true shooting percentage of .578 on a usage rate of 18.5% is an important sign of progress, even if we have to tolerate the occasional dropped ball. And as Kerr noted in Simmons' article, the Warriors didn't go small once in Game 5 and Ezeli recorded 12 points and 9 rebounds in 28 minutes.
By all accounts, Ezeli is still learning the game and he might end up being another real gem from the 2012 NBA Draft if he continues to progress at this rate.
Game 4: Warriors 115, Rockets 128
MVP: Draymond Green (8%)
Runner-up: Klay Thompson (4%)
Apricot did a great job of articulating Draymond Green's value to guarding James Harden in Game 3, which speaks volumes about Green's value to the team. And with 21 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 4 assists in Game 4, he was the statistical standout.
Of course, nothing really worked to stop Harden in Game 4, who dropped 45 points on the Warriors in a simply spectacular performance.
But Klay Thompson deserves some credit in an otherwise dismal performance from the Warriors: without his performance while Curry was out after that nasty fall, the Warriors might never have gotten back into this game. It's unfortunate that he suffered that concussion in Game 5 because that Game 4 performance really seemed to be the beginning of him finding a rhythm this postseason.
Anyway, we're getting too negative here — let's end this trip down memory lane on a high note.
Game 5: Warriors 104, Rockets 90
MVP: Harrison Barnes (42%)
Runner-up: Festus Ezeli (6%)
I already spent many words praising Harrison Barnes after last series, but Game 5 might have been peak playoff Barnes — with Thompson out due to what we would later find out was a concussion, Barnes stepped up to score 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. SB Nation's Tom Ziller described his performance and developmental trajectory perfectly.
Late-game Barnes was more than a spot-up shooter. Iguodala consistently looked for him, and the former Tar Heel did some ISO work and crashed the offensive boards. If given space to blossom into more full-time, he'd be a really good third option offensively and perhaps a decent second option. (Second and third options get paid a lot more than fourth options.) He has some Michael Finley in his game, but with the modern twist of longer range and physical length.
But that's a perfect way to end this thing: the one thing I hope people take away from the Warriors' Western Conference Finals performance is that this team is still evolving as multiple parts of this system are making strides to create an even stronger whole. As Warriors fans, it may be difficult to imagine that as we've watched our moribund franchise steamroll through the NBA this season while the Splash Brothers were able to sit out numerous fourth quarters, but it's absolutely true: we haven't seen the best of this team just yet. And that should be frightening for the rest of the league.