If you look back at the coverage of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, everything focused on how much the Golden State Warriors needed two-time MVP Stephen Curry to step up and lead the team if they wanted to overcome a daunting 3-1 deficit.
Of course, when you're the unanimous MVP that makes sense, even if it's still difficult to believe just how good he has become.
As Kevin Pelton of ESPN described earlier today, Curry is doing things we've never imagined, not only in terms of how good he has become but also in terms of how far he has come since being a high school recruit and even since entering the NBA as a lottery pick.
...from an NBA standpoint, James' development was relatively typical and to some extent even predictable. Curry's maturation from an overlooked high-school recruit and a good but fairly ordinary player as recently as four years ago into perhaps the league's brightest star is one of a kind.
"He's kind of always been the underdog, and all of a sudden he's the two-time MVP," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said to the media before the Finals. "That's a strange situation. Hardly any players have ever done that. I guess Steve Nash would be the other one that would come to mind right away."
Even Nash, a sure Hall of Famer who peaked after age 30, didn't reach the heights that Curry has already reached at age 28. And Curry's not done yet.
Pelton's article extended a point made by Christopher Reina of Real GM a couple of weeks ago when he wrote that, "Curry was 25 when he first became an All-Star so he’s a late bloomer when it comes to reaching his prime as a player just as he was older than most NBA players in his physical development. Because of his shooting and basketball IQ, Curry should have three or four more seasons of MVP-level production before a slow decline into his late 30s and possibly even 40s..."
I mean, as incredible as his ascent has been to watch, it's even more incredible when you really sit down and think about just how improbable it is. In the process, he has done "so many sensational things that his periodic flights of immortality have passed from legend to routine" as Paul Flannery of SB Nation wrote after Curry's performance in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
So naturally, when you're looking to overcome the odds, you look to the guy who has made a career of overcoming the odds...especially when the other MVP candidate is looking lost.
Warriors' night in a nutshell. Just watch Draymond the whole way. pic.twitter.com/gRRENjmd8U— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 23, 2016
Just about nobody was looking for Klay Thompson to do what he did to keep the Warriors alive in Game 6.
In fact, despite a stellar postseason up until the conference finals, Thompson was still a parenthetical afterthought in Flannery's article in the most fitting, rather than demeaning, manner: "(Klay Thompson, meanwhile, just keeps cranking shots. He may be the most ordinary member of the Warriors core, even if his talent is anything but mundane.)" Thompson has done so much this season, this playoffs as an All-NBA player that it's really difficult to consider the Thunder series as any kind of breakout performance, but it's hard to ignore that Game 6 of the WCF was the exclamation point on a postseason that has elevated his standing the pecking order of NBA stars.
Klay Thompson's time to shine
Matt Moore of CBS Sports touched on something in his analysis of the Warriors' battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder after the ugly Game 3 loss that really seemed to put the Warriors' style of play in perspective with a series of questions that I think many fans found themselves asking when the Warriors were down 3-1: "Do the Warriors need better shot selection? Or do they need to work a little harder to find rhythm shots? How do you remain confident while also playing with the right sense of urgency and attention?"
In short, has this team that won 73 games led by three All-NBA players — including a unanimous MVP — somehow gotten overconfident?
J.A. Adande of ESPN framed the Warriors' dilemma more concisely after they worked past possibly their lowest point in the last two postseasons with a win in Game 5 at home.
Here's the Warriors' dilemma: They like to play loose and free, while the Thunder's defense demands discipline and fundamentals. The Warriors are so dependent on finding the joy in the game (the word "fun" popped up eight times in the transcripts of their postgame comments) and feed off the adoration of their home crowd, and now they must win in one of the league's most hostile environments for opponents -- a place that made their lives so dreary in the middle of this series...Now, the challenge is "to bottle up that joy and take it with us on the plane." The moment reminded me of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden a few years ago, when Bruce Springsteen joined U2 on stage to perform "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Bono was in the midst of a sanctimonious speech about the history of rock and the people who came before him, how rock is about voices joining together and how rock is about liberation, when Springsteen felt the need to interject: "Let's have some fun with that."
Maybe that's exactly what someone should remind the Warriors.
But here's the interesting thing after all that talk about how the Warriors had lost their mojo: in the end, they didn't survive by getting their grove back or suddenly playing the right way. At their most desperate in Game 6, the Warriors' survival very much came down to a couple players turning in historically great performances when it mattered most.
Moore again invoked this balance of fun and fundamentals, or perhaps discipline and improvisation, in his summary of Game 6, which highlighted how Klay Thompson carried the team to victory and out of harm's way.
That might as well be etched on the shield hanging over the great Castle Splash Brother. Put on a show out there and have fun. "All Klay needs is a sliver of daylight," Curry said, and it's true. In the early going he was squaring up and hitting relatively open looks, but by the end he was hitting the kinds of moon balls only this team hits. Defenders in his face. Five feet behind the line. Off balance. Didn't matter. Everything was falling...this time it was Thompson's fire that helped ignite Curry as the defensive attention shifted to the less-heralded Splash Bro. Thompson has gotten lost a lot on this team. Curry is the transcendent force. Draymond Green is the team's "heart and soul." But it's been Thompson who has carried Golden State in these playoffs. He has been the team's best player, on both ends of the floor, night in and night out, since Curry went down in Game 1 vs. Houston.
In actually being the one credited with pulling fun out of a dark situation, the conversation has shifted slightly from how much the Warriors need Curry to how underappreciated Thompson is and how much more he might be capable of.
Michael Pina of Real GM wondered if Thompson has now become a top 10 player while making the strong case that he might be having the best postseason of any player in the NBA.
With all due respect to LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Thompson might be the best player in the 2015-16 playoffs. Without context, his numbers are mesmerizing: 71 made threes (J.R. Smith sits in second with 49), more points than everyone except Westbrook and Durant, a 60.2 True Shooting percentage and usage rate that’s 6.1 points higher than last year’s postseason...Thompson’s talent is irreplaceable. Nobody on Earth is a better shooter, short of his own teammate. But he can also guard multiple positions and rebound. And, best of all, he’s still improving. The days when we all wondered if Golden State was foolish for not exchanging Thompson for Kevin Love feel ancient. Two years later, Love is a glorified role player. Klay is the bonafide superstar.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss nicely described his own path to appreciating Thompson over the years in an interview with Josh Levin of Slate.
For all the grumbling that West does about analytics, he often talked about how the Warriors were last in passes per possession in Mark Jackson’s last season as head coach, and that if only they would get a coach who would move the ball, then Klay Thompson would break out. And he did. ...And this is a quality that’s more subjective: Klay Thompson might not be as good as James Harden, but Klay Thompson is totally OK with being Klay Thompson. That’s a big deal in the NBA, where people want their shots and want their fame, and Klay’s very much the good soldier. The coaching staff loves him. Upon exiting Game 6, the first thing said by Chris DeMarco, who’s on the coaching staff, was "Klay’s a fucking monster." It really sounds cliché, but he’s an incredibly hard worker, and that’s something I couldn’t have known to factor into it. And now he’s like … Reggie Miller with defense? That seems to be what he’s turning into.
Nevertheless, I thought John Cannon of The Comeback made a more prescient observation given the outcome of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
A great deal of immediate postgame commentary naturally zeroed in on Klay Thompson and his 11 3-pointers, which broke an NBA record. I understand that, but I didn't make that the centerpiece of this game report because this is a team, and Thompson is part of it. What the team accomplished Saturday night, while unquestionably impossible without Thompson continually keeping the game close, would also not have been possible without Andre Iguodala's defense, Draymond Green's tenacity, and (yes) Harrison Barnes's 3-pointer with 7 minutes to go, a triumph of process.
It sounds so cliche but it rings true now more than ever given the way the Warriors' playoff run has unfolded: this team's success isn't about the individuals, but the unit as a whole. Finally put to the test in the face of adversity, all those players who have been overshadowed for so long managed to take the spotlight by force.
The point: Thompson generally doesn't get enough shine for his role in Golden State's success. But maybe, with this series, that's changing.— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 29, 2016
The Warriors role players coming up big
- While there was a fair amount of focus on the Warriors losing their sense of "fun", Strauss also alluded to how Iguodala's demeanor complements the Splash Brothers after the Game 6 comeback: "the comeback was much like Iguodala himself: business like."
- Monte Poole of CSN reported that Iguodala reminds Warriors coach Steve Kerr of Scottie Pippen for, "His body type, his intelligence, his ability to read what's happening at both ends, but particularly on defense, the instinct is there."
- Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman nicely framed Iguodala's contribution to the Game 6 comeback as a "professional defender" slowing a "professional scorer", Kevin Durant.
- Andrew Culter of BBallBreakdown put together an excellent analysis of what the next big trend in pro basketball could be: offenses figuring out what to do with switching defenses. Naturally, Iguodala is at the forefront of that.
- Austin Peters of FanSided made the accurate prediction prior to the Finals that Shaun Livingston would play a big role for the Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
1) Andre's best skill is def elite wings so he should match up w opposing elite wings. 2) GSW should never play all-bench units in playoffs— Green Curry (@georgezchen) May 29, 2016
Undergirding the happy-go-lucky play of Steph Curry and the emotion-filled tenacity of Draymond Green is a business-like work ethic from the others who have to keep themselves ready to step up when called upon — that business-like approach might actually end up being considered the backbone of this team when we look back on this run.
Where would this team be without Thompson, Iguodala, and now Livingston to rescue them when Curry was off or absent and Green was stuck in a rut?
So with a championship structure in place, the next big question looming for the Warriors is whether to keep it all together.
Kevin Durant, Harrison Barnes, and free agency
I found it really hard not to imagine what Kevin Durant would look like in a Warriors uniform throughout the Thunder series. And yet, it's really hard to imagine that happening after the Thunder humbled the Warriors the way they did.
- Moore wrote that the Thunder's WCF performance probably should lead Durant to return rather than searching for greener pastures elsewhere.
- Sam Amick of USA Today flipped that fun narrative on its head by noting that the fun the Thunder had in mounting that 3-1 lead could inspire Durant to stick around in OKC.
- In the interest of good fun, Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group reported that Iguodala said of Durant: "It must be fun playing with a guy like that...Unless I'm not playing with him."
- In the event the Warriors don't end up landing Durant, the next big question is about Harrison Barnes' future. In response to a NBA.com report that Barnes would "love" to stay, Kurt Helin of NBC Sports reminds us that the value of continuity might contribute to Barnes getting a max contract.
- But Colin McGowan of Vice Sports wrote what might have been my favorite article about Harrison Barnes yet, charting his path from highly-touted high school recruit to unremarkable NBA player who will nevertheless find a max contract because, "...he's hitting the free agent market in the midst of a salary cap spike and because the league thirsts for 6-foot-7 guys who can shoot and defend."
It's amazing that I could still have my mind on the WCF and free agency when the Warriors are in the Finals, but Game 1 merely confirmed everything I thought about the matchup with the Cavs. But I will leave you with this to summarize how I think the Finals are going right now.