NBA Finals 2022: The seven moments that supercharged the return of the Golden State Warriors' dyn...

ByKevin Arnovitz ESPN logo
Friday, June 17, 2022

Stephen Curry didn't know whether to laugh or cry when the seconds ticked down at TD Garden in Boston on Thursday night. He appeared to be ecstatic -- broad smile, giddy -- a natural reaction to winning a fourth NBA championship with theGolden State Warriors. Yet in an instant, Curry sank to the floor with two seconds remaining in the 2022 NBA Finals. He cradled himself, dropped his head, rested his knees on his elbows and cried.

Draymond Green said Curry would be livid as he took the court in Boston for Game 6 on Thursday, after an 0-for-9 performance from 3 in Game 5, and that prophecy was correct. Thirty-four points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds, 6-for-11 from distance is a proper expression of anger for a man who keeps his emotions guarded but knows how to shoot a basketball. As the buzzer sounded, teammates, opponents, photographers and family spilled onto the court. Curry rose to his feet, placed his hands on his head, then dropped it again as the tears flowed.

The Warriors restored their dynasty with a 103-90 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6, but not since Curry's first championship in 2015 had Golden State entered the season with less expectation. The Warriors endured a two-year hiatus in the NBA wilderness after the departure of Kevin Durant and the extended absence of Klay Thompson due to injury, while Curry dealt with his own spate of maladies. Given the Warriors' pedigree, their return to the top of the NBA isn't a surprise -- but it was improbable.

After another quick moment to himself, Curry was mobbed by Thompson, Jordan Poole, Damion Lee, and rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga (who was 12 years old when Curry won his first ring). Andre Iguodala marched from center court over to Curry, extracted him from the scrum and handed him the game ball. One of only three current teammates who have played alongside Curry on each of the Warriors' championship teams, Iguodala embraced his close friend.

Here are seven moments that shaped the Warriors' remarkable postseason run, from the opening round to the final buzzer in Boston, and revived a dynasty.

April 16: Curry comes off the bench to open the postseason

Curry got clearance to return for the Warriors' playoff run in April after missing the final month of the regular season because of a sprained ligament and bone bruise in his left foot, but he would be limited to between 20 and 25 minutes in Game 1 of Golden State's first-round series against the Denver Nuggets. The restriction presented Curry and Warriors coach Steve Kerr with a difficult exercise -- determining which 20-to-25 minutes Curry would play.

The Warriors had imposed a similar restriction whenThompson returned to action in January after two seasons away from the game. Thompson had chosen to assume his traditional spot in the starting lineup, then take lengthier breaks during the game. The plan proved awkward for Thompson, who found it difficult to maintain his rhythm after subbing out of the game, then spending 12 minutes on a stationary bike before taking the floor again.

Kerr presented Curry with two options. The first was similar to Thompson's: Curry would start but take longer stints on the bench than he was accustomed to. The second had Curry coming off the bench to start each half, which would reduce the length of his time on the bench between playing time.

"This might have been a daunting conversation with most other star players, but not the slightest bit daunting with Steph," Kerr says. "He makes everything easy."

Recognizing that of all his attributes as a basketball player, rhythm is among his most valued, Curry chose the second option.

When the Warriors, up 1-0, raised his restriction for Game 2 to 28 to 30 minutes, Curry opted again for the bench role, telling Kerr the arrangement was working well. As the Warriors prepared their rotation for Game 3 in Denver, Curry again told Kerr he'd be happy to come off the bench, even as his restriction had been moved up to 32 minutes. Kerr expressed his appreciation and called him the greatest sixth man of all time. The two agreed they'd carry on with the plan until the Warriors lost, which they did in Game 4.

As the public address announcer performed player introductions prior to each of the first four games against the Nuggets, Curry found himself in an unusual spot -- standing near Kerr on the bench whilePoole joined the four starters near center court. As the teams readied themselves for the opening tip, Kerr would turn to Curry and tell him, "If you work hard enough, one day you too can start an NBA playoff game."

May 3: Gary Payton II fractures his left elbow after being hit by Dillon Brooks

Payton is the Warriors' best perimeter stopper, but he's also a zippy athlete who can beat defenses in transition. That's precisely what Payton was doing early in the first quarter of Game 2 of the conference semis againstMemphiswhen he breezed past the backpedaling Grizzlies' defenders, andGreenhit him in stride with a pass. As Payton made his swift approach to the rim, Brooks caught him from behind, swatting him with a full windup of his right arm, nailing the soaring Warriors guard on the head.

Payton tumbled to the floor, just below the basket stanchion. He immediately grabbed his left arm and let out a ghastly moan. Brooks was assessed a flagrant foul 2, and Payton, who would later that night be diagnosed with a fractured elbow, would be consigned to recovery and rehab for five weeks. The incident enraged the Warriors. Kerr characterized the play as dirty.

"Dillon Brooks broke the code," Kerr said then.

When he arrived to the Warriors last season, Payton was the consummate basketball journeyman, one who'd struggled for years to find a home in the NBA. He'd even considered leaving a playing career behind to become a video coordinator. Being named a starter to take on one of the most difficult defensive assignments in the NBA, dynamic Memphis All-Star Ja Morant for the duration of the series, should've been the culmination of Payton's long journey.

But after being diagnosed with a fractured left elbow in the X-ray room of FedEx Forum and being fitted with a cast while his team continued to battle yards away, he'd have to put that trip on hold. Payton returned to the locker room, where he greeted the team following the Warriors' 106-101 loss in Game 2.

"The team was down after the game," he says. "We lost, but my teammates and Coach Kerr having my back after the game -- the way they felt about the play, the way they communicated that -- it meant a lot."

Payton returned in Game 2 of the Finals, draining all three of his shots in 25 minutes. A week later in the Warriors' pivotal Game 5 win, he scored 15 points with three steals while smothering Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smarton defense.

May 13: Kevon Looney inserted into the starting lineup

A 39-point playoff loss has a way of prompting a team to make some significant adjustments. After the Warriors dropped Game 5 to the Grizzlies 134-95 in the conference semifinals, assistant coach Mike Brown -- who had filled in as acting head coach during Games 4 and 5 for the COVID-19-positive Kerr -- texted Kerr with a suggestion:

The Warriors should start Looney in place of Jonathan Kumingafor Game 6.

The defensive brain of the Warriors' staff, Brown had watched the Grizzlies' size brutalize the Warriors in Game 5, as Memphis gobbled up 18 offensive rebounds, all the while the Warriors' defense was a sieve. Kerr appreciated the recommendation and told Brown to sleep on it until the staff met the following day.

As the staff gathered with Kerr in San Francisco the next morning, Brown relayed to the group that Curry and Green told him on the plane that Looney was the logical candidate to start Game 6. For a staff that enjoys thoughtful debate, there wasn't much else to discuss. Between Brown's defensive instincts and the endorsement of the team's two headiest players, the decision was clear: Looney would start.

The move wouldn't come without complication and risk. The Warriors had resisted playing their two big men together for extended stretches. Neither Green nor Looney shoots with range, and for all of Looney's strengths, he has never been a dynamic roller to the rim. Though he's agile, Looney might still find himself vulnerable out on the perimeter in pick-and-roll coverage.

Looney quelled any concerns immediately, acquitting himself well as a versatile defender and, most importantly, snagging 22 rebounds and dishing out five assists in the Warriors' series-clinching win. Since then, he has provided an endless supply of screens and grown into a whiz at the Warriors' hit-and-handback actions that generate so many shots for Curry, Thompson and Poole. For a team whose style of play and team ethic values selflessness, Looney is the embodiment of the principle.

May 18: Andrew Wiggins defends Luka Doncic

The "Ja Rules" governed the Warriors' coverage schemes against the Grizzlies' dynamic young point guard in the conference semifinals. Though it lacked the clever wordplay of its predecessor, the "Luka Rules," as devised by the Warriors' coaching staff, would be the single most important set of bylaws that would determine whether Golden State would return to the Finals for the first time since 2019.

"With Luka, there aren't many specific tactics like 'make him go left' or 'make him go right,' because he can beat you in either direction," says assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, who works closely with Wiggins on the finer details of the game plan. "With Luka, it starts with, 'Bother him for as long of the basketball game as you possibly can.'"

For Wiggins, that meant exerting full-court pressure on Doncic as tenaciously and persistently as possible. That meant turning Doncic repeatedly as he brought the ball upcourt. That meant, as an overriding principle, tire him out as much as possible. The strategy required of Wiggins an enormous amount of energy.

"Just make him work," Wiggins said following Game 1. "That was the main thing -- 94 feet to make him work."

Over the course of the series, Doncic logged an effective field goal percentage of 46.7, with an identical shot quality percentage, per Second Spectrum -- with 3.5 turnovers per 100 possessions against 4.6 assists -- when guarded by Wiggins.

"I thought he'd be able to do it for 30% of the game," Mahlalela says. "He did it for 85% of the game."

In addition to his distinction as the Warriors' best matchup defender during the postseason, Wiggins also has been an efficient shot creator on the wing for a team desperately in need of one, and has crashed the boards with authority. His performance in Game 5 of the series on a night when Curry endured one of his worst shooting efforts in recent history was the margin of victory for the Warriors.

For a player who, during his first six NBA seasons, was regarded as an overpaid supplier of empty calories and a player with a competitive deficit, Wiggins has emerged as one of the best redemption stories of the spring.

May 26: Thompson scores 32 in the clinching win to send Warriors back to Finals

Nine-hundred and forty-one days.

In Warriors' numerology, it's a familiar figure: The number of days between the moment Thompson tore his ACL in the 2019 Finals and the moment he returned to the floor on Jan. 9, 2022.

Thompson's postseason had its ebbs and flows. He'd entered Game 5 of conference finals shooting 29.2% from beyond the arc in the series, and hadn't posted a 20-point game. But it was Vintage Klay in the clincher. He scampered around perimeter screens for catch-and-shoot looks; he drove to a pleasant spot for a midrange jumper when the Mavs chased him off the arc; he fanned out to the wing in transition for easy opportunities. When it was over, he scored 32 points, including 8-for-16 from distance.

The Warriors' team and staff characterize Thompson as a man of profound self-possession who has an easy instinct for achieving contentment. The Warriors' roster has a collection of guys with varied interests, but Thompson is about sunshine, his bulldog, Rocco, and, above all, basketball. If Green is the Warriors' heartbeat -- as Steve Kerr frequently says -- and Curry their DNA, then Thompson is the team's soul.

From that long absence, Thompson developed a power of reflection and inner presence that many players don't cultivate until retirement. When he went down, he was a 29-year-old athlete in his prime. When he stepped up on the dais after Game 5, he was a 32-year-old vet still trying to recapture his muscle memory. But as the Warriors booked passage back to the NBA Finals, he conjured up the former Klay and joined him to the latter.

"I like to think that there aren't differences to who I was then and now," Thompson told ESPN a few days before the win against Dallas. "But there are."

Thompson is an introvert who requires ample time away from the din that surrounds an NBA dynasty. His outside life, which sustains him, needs feeding and caring. And in service of it, he has developed a love for free-diving in the waters of Richardson Bay off Marin County.

"It's magical," Thompson says. "50-foot kelp stringers you can swim through. You have these little rooms when you get under the kelp, and they're so silent and blocked-off -- except the sunshine. It feels like your own episode of NatGeo. It makes you feel small in the world."

June 10: Curry scores 43 points in the Warriors' win in Boston to knot the Finals at 2-2

The afternoon prior to Game 4 in Boston, with the Warriors coming off an ugly 116-100 loss the previous night, Curry arrived at TD Garden for a media session followed by practice. Typically, Curry would proceed through the kind of regimented shooting session that he's renowned for and has orchestrated thousands of times. But that day, Curry decided to double up on sessions and add a wrinkle to the routine.

In addition to his usual volume of rhythm shots at particular spots, Curry and assistant coach Bruce Fraser added a series of one-shot-at-a-time attempts run out of specific Warriors actions. With the help of head video coordinator Lainn Wilson, Fraser would call out a familiar set -- a split, a pindown, gaggle action -- and Curry would move through the choreography, catch the pass and put up a shot.

"It's different when you're only getting one shot out of one play rather than 10," Fraser said. "More weight is put on each individual shot. It flips the mentality a little bit."

Nobody can adequately explain how and why Curry can go off for 43 points, including 7-for-14 from deep, in a crucial game when the Warriors trailed in a series for the first time during the postseason. Perhaps it was the differentiation in his routine or the alkaline in his lunch. Only the basketball gods can divine that.

Whatever the cause or inspiration, Curry assembled one of his most exquisite Finals games on record. In addition to the seven makes from beyond the arc, he showed off all the sleight of hand, feathery touches, twisting contortions and uninterrupted movement that defines his game. On a night when the Celtics hunted him on the other side of the ball, Curry assumed a heavy burden in a Warriors offense that relied more than usual on his individual exploits as a one-on-one scorer. His pair of fourth-quarter field goals -- the driving, one-legged teardrop and clever step-back jumper with the slightest of shot fakes to buy just a modicum of space -- were signature Curry at the most precarious juncture of the Warriors' dynasty.

For all of Curry's memorial performances and singular gravity on the Finals court, he had never won Finals MVP honors in the previous three Warriors titles over the past eight years -- those awards went toIguodala in 2015, thenDurant in 2017 and 2018. On Thursday night, there was little suspense to the announcement. Though there were any number of individual moments to draw upon, Game 4 was the undisputed topline achievement.

June 16: Warriors defeat Celtics in Game 6 to win their fourth title in eight seasons

The Celtics couldn't have designed it this way, but with four minutes remaining and their hopes of salvaging the series fading, Smart handed teammate Al Horford the worst assignment in basketball -- guarding Curry in open space. In an era when mobile big men are valued for their ability to guard the perimeter, Horford is among the best, but this was asking a lot.

Curry, now 34 but forever America's little brother, had Horford on a string. With the Warriors leading 91-81 in another rugged defensive standoff, Curry faced up against Horford with a narrow band of staccato dribbles in a tight spot. But with each successive dribble, Curry widened the area of engagement -- a stutter-step right, a couple of crossovers, all the while he watched Horford's feet.

Pretty soon Curry was dancing in space. He subjected one of the league's classiest veterans to an outright indignity. The instant Horford committed his right foot, Curry lowered his left hip and drove hard right. In a flash, a hummingbird transformed into a bowling ball. Against the NBA's best defense, Curry made his approach to the basket, lurched forward and kissed the ball off the upper-right corner of the window for a layup. Eight years ago, the Warriors took prevailing trends like small ball and switch-heavy defenses and turbocharged them, pioneering a new brand of NBA basketball that put a premium on versatility and spacing. They borrowed pages from older playbooks, drawing on features of the triangle offense and the Spurs' motion sets, and designed an operating system around Curry.

The Warriors have updated that system over time. They accommodated Durant and were rewarded with a couple of titles. This season, they had to account for less artillery and the wear-and-tear that comes with age. Yet whatever the adjustments or contingencies, the Warriors had Curry. No player with such an ability to override a system has ever been more willing to thrive within it.

The Warriors' power as a dynasty is greater than the sum of its hardware. They've influenced how NBA basketball has been played for a generation, even as they've distinguished themselves with a singular style no other team in basketball can match. Because as much as rivals can appropriate defensive schemes or construct rosters of like-sized players with multiple skills, there's one element that can't be replicated: Those teams don't have Stephen Curry.

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