To reach their potential, Warriors had to own their identity

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Thursday, June 15, 2017

OAKLAND, Calif. -- By now the folks at Morton's The Steakhouse in Cleveland have the lavish postgame dinner spread for the Golden State Warriors down. There's steak, any way you'd want it. Gigantic platters of salad. A raw bar with jumbo shrimp, crab and lobster around a fancy ice sculpture.

The Warriors have done their team dinners at Morton's a half-dozen times over the past few years, as they've played the Cleveland Cavaliers in three straight NBA Finals. It's connected to their team hotel, and it has sentimental meaning -- the place where they celebrated their first NBA title in 40 years back in 2015.

Scenes from that first year of Golden State's run feel so innocent now. Back then, the Warriors were a pleasant surprise for the NBA. Their young, first-year head coach, Steve Kerr, and baby-faced superstar, Stephen Curry, stepped away from that first celebratory dinner to smoke cigars together outside and marvel at what they'd created together.

This year was very different. Once Golden State signed Kevin Durant as a free agent last July, it seemed like a coast-to-coast fast break with very little drama in between. The Warriors were dominant. Another celebratory dinner seemed inevitable. The challenge for them, and all of us, was in appreciating what it took to be so dominant, and brilliant every night.

There was still plenty that could have derailed this coronation. There were those few months where Curry and Durant were figuring out how to play together, without losing themselves. And the handful of games where the team got sloppy or came out flat and lost. The few hours in Washington, D.C., when everyone feared Durant would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. The first half of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs, before Kawhi Leonard got hurt, when it seemed like someone had finally found a formula for competing against this superteam. Cleveland's runaway Game 4 win, which saw the Cavs boarding a plane for San Francisco down 3-1 in the series -- just like last season.

The Warriors had planned to stay the night and have a team dinner after the game at Morton's in Cleveland regardless of the outcome of Game 4. If they'd won, it would've been a celebratory dinner just like they'd had two years ago. If they lost, it would be a regular postgame team dinner.

The restaurant was prepared either way. An ice sculpture congratulating the Warriors on the title was commissioned, just in case.

As the Cavs' lead swelled back to 20 in the fourth quarter, a waiter grabbed a saw and started hacking away at the top of the ice sculpture -- the part that read: "2017 NBA Champions."

History would have to wait one more game. One final reminder to this superteam that it had to earn its legacy before it could own it.

"We didn't deserve to win Game 4," Kerr says. "To close a team out, you have to compete your balls off, which we didn't do in Game 4. Every closeout game I've ever been in was like that.

"And really, it wouldn't have been as satisfying if you didn't have to earn it."

BY THE TIME Wanda Durant made it to the room inside the Oakland Coliseum where the Warriors were taking pictures with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy late Monday night, there was no use trying to dry her tears.

For three decades, Wanda Durant had given the best of herself to raise her two sons, Kevin and Tony. As a single mother in the Washington, D.C., area, she'd worked multiple jobs to keep them fed and clothed. She'd pushed them to choose extracurricular activities that would give them confidence and identity. Then she'd pushed Kevin to keep playing basketball, when he said he wanted to quit as a teenager.

This past year she'd pushed him again. Away from his comfort zone. Away, even, from her.

"When he first came out here [to the Bay Area], I didn't come out a lot," Wanda Durant says. "I didn't want him to have the comfortability of me being around. I wanted him to be in it himself."

To pundits, Durant's decision to leave the Thunder and sign with the Warriors as a free agent last summer was a watershed moment that will affect the balance of power in the NBA for years to come. For Durant and his family, it was an intensely personal decision that will be a part of his legacy forever.

There will always be people who criticize him for joining a team that had already won a title. There will always be questions about whether he could have won a championship with the team that drafted him; about Russell Westbrook and the dynasty they could've had together in Oklahoma City.

Durant and his mother ran through all of the consequences of his decision to leave Oklahoma months before he had to decide. If he wanted to play for -- and win with -- the guys from the Warriors, he had to accept the repercussions, and then transcend them.

That was the price for Durant's happiness. There was a price for the Warriors, too -- because by accepting Durant on their team, his story would become part of the theirs. They'd never know if they could've avenged their loss to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals without Durant. Or whether they even could've beaten the Durant-led Thunder again.

Curry would no longer be the best player on his own team. Klay Thompson would no longer be the best two-way player. Draymond Green would no longer even need to score. And yet they all accepted these consequences so willingly, and so joyfully.

"You know what the most fun thing is?" Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams asked, as a way of answering the question. "It's that we're doing this around people we love being around." This is why Durant came, and chose to take on all that baggage.

"To have teammates that encourage you, that lift you up, that's what we all need in life," he says. "It was amazing to just see that all year, and right now just to be here with these guys, it's amazing."

As she waited for her son to arrive in the trophy room for group photos, Wanda Durant scrolled through a few of her messages on social media. Some were nasty. Others were nice. The same as it has been all year, only amplified.

The tears welled up again. She was exhausted from the incredible night, the weight of this season, and everything that had gone into the past three decades. Her friend Shelbia Clark, the mother of Warriors guard Ian Clark, brought over a chair so she could rest a moment. She gnawed on a plate of chicken for a bit, then threw it away. Food wasn't satisfying on this night.

"I've never seen [Kevin] this happy," Wanda Durant said. "I'm just kind of overwhelmed and speechless, thinking back on everything.

"He came here to be happy, but it goes deeper than that. He came here to have the freedom to be Kevin Durant on the court. That doesn't mean scoring all the baskets or being the franchise player. That just means being Kevin. .... He's like, 'If you love me, you love me. If you don't, you don't. But I'm still going to be Kevin.'"

THERE'S THE THOUGHT floating around the NBA ether that the Warriors won this championship back on July 4 when they persuaded Durant to join them. It should have been as clear then as it is now, that this Golden State team is among the best teams ever. But for all the talk of the Warriors' inevitability this season and beyond, there was risk in adding a player of Durant's talent and star power to a group that had already begun a historic run with an NBA title in 2014-15 and a 73-win regular season in 2015-16.

More isn't always better. Especially with a team built on such a delicate alchemy of selflessness and swagger.

"My mom used to make chocolate chip cookies," Warriors minority owner Peter Guber jokes. "Then somebody added raisins to them, and they were still good. Then someone added walnuts to them, and they were still good. Then somebody added coconut, and it was mush. So more isn't better. Only when you have the right ingredients at the right time does more make it really wonderful."

Curry was keenly aware of the risks at hand as he flew home from the Warriors' now infamous recruiting meeting with Durant in the Hamptons last July. He knew Durant was, too. So Curry sent a text message to Durant directly to address the issues.

Curry wanted Durant to know that he didn't see this as sharing the spotlight. Shoe sales and individual shine didn't matter, Curry told him. If Durant came here and won an MVP (the award Curry had won in back-to-back years), he'd be in the front row of his news conference, cheering him on. "I only care about winning," Curry wrote. And "we're all going to win in the big picture."

Durant was moved. He replied, "Wow, that's real."

A few months later, after a preseason game in Las Vegas, Durant repeated the phrase to the Warriors coaches at a postgame dinner.

"You know how after you make a big life decision, and you start taking stock of it?" Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser says. "That's what Kevin was doing. He came over to our table and was like, 'This is real.'"

This Warriors culture he had heard so much about. The brotherhood he felt from a distance, and then in person when Curry, Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala flew out to recruit him in person. It all felt real, just a few months in.

Making it work on the court was another story. The first few months Durant and Curry were like two overly polite drivers on the freeway who end up causing a traffic jam because they keep waving for each other to go in front.

After the infamous Christmas Day game in Cleveland, Kerr knew the time had come for a heart-to-heart with his star point guard. He went over to Curry's house and stayed a few hours to talk things out. "It felt like Steph wasn't involved enough," Kerr says. "A lot of that was on me. I was calling a lot of plays for Kevin. I was kind of picking out matchups that I liked and I think Steph kind of got lost in the shuffle."

Curry told Kerr that he'd been doing a bunch of things to help Durant get acclimated to the Warriors' system, but it seemed like it was starting to affect his own aggressiveness and flow.

"I think what we both realized," Kerr says, "was that KD was going to be fine. That guy scores 25 in his sleep."

For this to work, Curry couldn't lose himself trying to help Durant. He didn't need to be the guy welcoming Durant to his team or even handing over its keys. His job was to play aggressively, so the system functioned as it was intended without artificial manipulations. "[Kerr] was really just telling me, 'I need you to be you,'" Curry says. "Whether I needed to hear it or not, it was a good time to hash it out and not look back."

Fraser has worked with Curry for three years now, to the point where words are mostly unnecessary. Fraser can tell by the way Curry walks or his facial expressions whether he's feeling confident heading into a game. He gets a feel for the point guard's mood by the way he sprints in from the court after warm-ups, or hoists up his practice shots.

So he knew, even when the pairing seemed at its worst on the court, that Curry didn't have regrets at adding Durant. He just had to work himself through this stage. "You don't talk someone through that," Fraser says. "You work someone through that."

Fraser waited for Curry outside the Warriors' locker room late into the night on Monday. As Curry came out of the champagne-soaked locker room, he locked eyes with his coach, whose white shirt was somehow relatively clean after all the night of revelry.

"We did it," Curry said. He ran toward Fraser and leapt up in the air to bump chests. "We did it. Yeeeeeeeeeah!"

WARRIORS MAJORITY OWNER Joe Lacob tends to take both wins and losses in stride. That's a common temperament among venture capitalists. Bet big, win or lose big. Move on to the next. After last year's Finals, Lacob says, it took him 30 minutes or an hour to move on from the loss. "I'm a little different that way," he says. "It's just my psyche. I'm always on to the future.

"I don't know if it's a good way to live or a bad way to live. But it's the way I am. But as soon as it was over, I'm on to how we get better."

Within a few weeks, the Warriors had landed Durant. The next day, and ever since, they became the heavies. Instead of appreciating this high-level selfless style of basketball, we wondered whether they could beat superteams from the past, or whether their success was actually "bad for basketball."

Privately the Warriors scoffed at the characterization that they were somehow more of a superteam than the Cavs. Durant and Shaun Livingston are the only Warriors who were drafted in the top five. Cleveland, on the other hand, has two No. 1 picks (James and Kyrie Irving), a No. 4 pick (Tristan Thompson) and a No. 5 pick (Kevin Love) on its roster.

But whether you believed Durant was passing James as the NBA's best player, or just closing the gap on Leonard as the league's second-best player, Durant's team had certainly vaulted ahead of James.' A sweep began to feel inevitable.

Even James started waxing poetic on Durant and the Warriors' place in history. "I think it's just part of my calling to go against teams in the midst of a dynasty," James said, referring to his 2007 Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs. "As it stands right now, they look pretty good as far as the future."

But the Cavs weren't dead yet. They crushed the Warriors in Game 4, spreading giddy "3-1" doubters and memes across the land. After the blowout, Lacob headed to the Jack Casino across the street from Quicken Loans Arena to blow off some steam. He was recognized immediately. When he sat down at a blackjack table, according to sources at the scene, the pit boss told him the casino would not allow him to play, and he moved onto a baccarat table -- where he won a five-figure amount.

Risk/reward. Try/fail. This is a venture capitalist's life. You learn to get comfortable with highs, lows and wild swings.

"I'm about taking risks," Lacob says. "I'm a venture capitalist. I start companies for a living. It's what I've done for 30 years. I always do what others think is not possible and I take my chances. Sometimes you fail. I've failed before. I've had companies that went under. Not many. But I'm not scared of failing. You can't be. If you want to be a leader or a change agent or have the ability to create something like this, you've got to take some chances."

In this case, that chance was signing Durant. After last year's loss, this team believed it needed Durant to beat the Cavs. Yes, last year Green was suspended for Game 5 and Curry wasn't 100 percent healthy coming back from a knee injury. But by Game 7, LeBron James and the Cavaliers had solved the Warriors -- and they were even better this year with the addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver.

"A lot of people looked at this like it was gravy. It wasn't. This was meat and potatoes," general manager Bob Myers says. "I told somebody that in the stands [during Game 5], 'If this isn't proof that this was necessary for us to win ...'"

"I don't like these kinds of like harsh phrases but, 'you're either getting better or you're getting worse,'" he adds. "No team, no business, we don't just flatline. So if you have a chance to get a guy like Kevin Durant ... it should be simple, 'Let's try to get better.'

"You don't have to be that smart to see what he can do."

MYCHAL THOMPSON SAT in the back of the trophy room, trying to stay out of sight as his son Klay posed for photos. The former Lakers center still has a daily sports talk show in Los Angeles, but he has learned when to stay quiet and let his son shine.

This team, he says, "is just getting started."

The elder Thompson had his day as part of the Showtime Lakers. After getting beat by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Spurs, Thompson was traded to the Lakers in 1987, meaning he caught the zenith and end of Showtime.

Like this year's Warriors, the Lakers swept through the first three rounds of the 1989 playoffs. Rather than sit around and wait for the Detroit Pistons to win the Eastern Conference, then-coach Pat Riley took the team to Hawaii for another training camp right before the Finals. "We were doing two-a-days," Thompson says. Riley's Lakers were known for pushing themselves when their opponents could not.

"I remember going out to a private party at the Roxy after we won," Thompson says. "But I left at midnight because I had to get up and work out at Gold's Gym at 8 a.m. the next day."

But this time, they pushed themselves too far. Starting guard Byron Scott injured his hamstring during practice before the Finals. Magic Johnson hurt his hamstring Game 1. The Pistons swept the gutted Lakers, and Kareem retired after the season.

Livingston listened in as Thompson recalled his glory days, and the secrets of another California dynasty.

"How many more years you think you've got, Shaun?" Thompson asks.

"Until they carry me out," Livingston, 31, jokes. "I'll play as long as they'll have me."

Livingston is one of the Warriors' key free agents this summer. He will command more on the open market than he would in Golden State. But if Durant is willing to take less than his maximum contract this summer, the Warriors will be able to use Bird rights to make more competitive offers to their own free agents such as Livingston and Iguodala.

In the modern-day NBA, this type of sacrifice is key to sustaining dynastic teams. But so much is unknown and uncontrollable.

As dominant as these Warriors have been the past three years, they are not invincible. Every day Kerr stands in front of his team, they are all reminded of how fragile one's health can be. For the better part of two years, he has been miserable with a spinal fluid leak that causes constant headaches, nausea and dizziness -- all mysterious complications from back surgery following the 2015 Finals with no cure in sight.

"Better" is always a relative term with Kerr's health. He's never actually better: He's just less awful or more awful than the day before.

"He's happy, but is he better? No," Fraser says after celebrating with Kerr in the Warriors coaches' room after Game 5. "He's super-happy right now, but he feels s---ty. He's not better. We know that. But he's happy."

Kerr was the last coach to leave Oracle Arena on Monday night. His hair was still wet from the champagne and beer. But he'd changed into a dry shirt for the walk out to his car with his wife and children.

"Can you believe the level of basketball that was played in this series?" Kerr asks, still reliving plays from the game. "I mean, both teams were just awesome."

It was the kind of thing a coach says to be classy at a postgame news conference, not hours later as he walks out of the arena for the last time this season. But so much has been taken from Kerr these past two years, he has learned to appreciate beauty, wherever he finds it.

"You take joy in what you can," Kerr says, headed toward his car. The pain on his face is never far away. He'll blink or try to clear his ears of pressure every few seconds.

What, in this moment, gives him joy?

"This team," he says. "And my family."

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