NBA playoffs: How the Warriors are rounding into championship form should put league on notice
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The familiar sound of silence was sweet for the champs, who feel rejuvenated after being whole for the first time in a long time.
The championship swagger and arrogance was accompanied by actual focus and determination, finding themselves on the road yet again, facing another test from the game Sacramento Kings.
And for the first time in a long time, they passed the test, doing so with the style that made them champions last June.
The Golden State Warriors marched into Golden 1 Center a determined bunch and walked out to throngs of happy fans who made the trek down the highway, taking a 3-2 lead with a 123-116 Game 5 win in their competitive first-round series.
There weren’t images of Draymond Green yelling and barking at Kings fans during timeouts, or any level of distraction that took away from the importance of this game. They’ve come close in the first two games but were undone by simple errors that usually occur early in seasons by far less experienced clubs.
On one hand, it was uncharacteristic of a team wanting to be taken seriously.
On the other, they were drawing closer than that putrid 11-30 road record illustrated.
But the number far more important to them was 28 — the number of consecutive series these Warriors have walked into someone else’s building and taken at least one game, an NBA record.
It was accomplished with the style that should downright make every other remaining participant in the playoff bracket fearful the Warriors have figured it out and will continue to do so, all the way to June.
“We know we’re gonna ride our guys, best two-way lineup,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “What we give up in spacing we gain in offensive rebounding and defense. And so that’s our lineup.”
Klay Thompson (25 points) going on random heaters to keep the Warriors close, then hitting one of those ridiculous leaning corner jumpers to hush a crowd.
Kevon Looney gobbling every rebound in sight, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond as the only Warriors to have two 20-rebound games in a playoff series. He was aided by Gary Payton II, who again played above his height to gain crucial offensive rebounds and defensive pressure that takes you beyond pesky.
Stephen Curry doing Steph-like things, even on an imperfect night by his standards.
And Green taking a step back into the wayback machine to the days where he was a big scorer, hitting a one-footer during a critical moment in the fourth that he probably only unleashed during practices.
It prompted his teammates to call him “Draymond Nowitzki” as an homage to the Hall of Famer’s signature shot.
His 21 points represented the first time he cracked the 20-point barrier since Christmas of 2019 — before the pandemic, during the Warriors’ so-called “gap year,” when Curry was out with a wrist injury and Thompson was nursing the first of his debilitating leg injuries.
Green came off the bench, hitting 8 of 10 and a 3-pointer while adding 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals. As disruptive as he was in Game 2 for myriad reasons, he gummed everything up for the Kings for the second straight game and could barely hear the boisterous crowd say much of anything to get under his skin.
“I don’t go chasing after some villain title. Being a villain isn’t fun, it’s not enjoyable,” Green said. “But, I’m also never ducking any smoke. You gotta take the good with the bad. It was great to play in Game 4 when I got the cheers. Super special.
“On the flip side of that, if you want to, if you’re gonna bask in that and appreciate that, but you have to appreciate the other side as well. You know, we pride ourselves on not being front-runners.”
They couldn’t be front-runners, not this season, not with the self-inflicted issues they’ve caused and the other circumstances out of their control.
It’s removed a little of the championship sheen, and it was slightly dented in the first two games of this series, when the youthful Kings ran wild all over them, making the champions look old and exhausted.
De’Aaron Fox was the head of that, and even though there was some doubt cast over his fractured index finger on his shooting hand, he put up 25 shots and hit his first three triples. Thompson flicked his left hand to mimic Fox’s shooting form, almost in admiration. He got in foul trouble trying his hand at defending some of those shape-shifting drives, and only late did it look like Fox’s injury was taking effect.
He scored 24 with 9 assists and 7 rebounds, but the NBA’s Mr. Clutch was more of a bystander in the fourth quarter as reserve Malik Monk took the lead guard spot and kept attacking the Warriors guards as they chipped away at a 12-point lead.
It was the type of instance the Warriors this season have folded — but even in the first quarter when those old bad habits resurfaced, giving up eight 3-pointers to the Kings, they were still within three.
They probably knew they had the game won, then.
“That’s our team with a healthy group, we can put two-way lineups out there,” Kerr said. “I thought Gary was fantastic tonight, made some big plays, gave us huge minutes. So having Gary back, having [Andrew Wiggins] back and having a healthy roster. You can see we’re a different team now.”
Perhaps it would feel more sustainable if this were a Curry masterpiece, but it was far from it. A couple boneheaded plays could’ve been costly, but like in Game 4 where he got his head back in the game to be involved in the critical stop in the final seconds, Curry put the finishing touches on a 31-point night with an old-fashioned 3-point play with 22.4 seconds left.
It put them up eight, dejecting the Kings and giving his teammates just enough validation that even though it’s late to be doing it, they’re finding their way with each other.
“The seasons can be so long, and like, it’s a lot of ups and downs, but this makes it all worth it,” Thompson said. “When you walk off that floor victorious, especially with guys you’ve been with for a decade-plus. I mean, that’s so rare in professional sports, and Draymond and Steph don’t take [it] for granted. Neither do I, neither does Loon.”
The series isn’t actually over, but it might as well be. The Kings are formidable and talented, but the Warriors are getting stronger with each day.
As battered and bruised as they might be, they’re sensing opportunity and shockingly, feel just as hungry as the most thirsty contenders.
Thirsty for silence.