Before he lounged in a golden bathtub of half-drunk bottles of Moet champagne, before he took a selfie video during the postgame press conference, before he Googled himself to see that, yes, he was in fact a three-time NBA champion, Klay Thompson committed one of the most dire of sports faux pas after Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
“We worked too hard to get to this point,” Thompson said about his sprained ankle. “Even if I had a broken leg, I was going to play.”
Aghast, Kevin Durant’s eyes widened. Andre Iguodala uttered an obscenity. Draymond Green just stared at Thompson. Then Green started knocking. First on the table — it may have been formica, it may have been plastic, but as far as Green was concerned, it was solid oak — and then his own head.
“Oh, probably not, but — I would have tried to play,” Thompson said.
It was one lapse — committed after the confetti fell on the Golden State Warriors’ third NBA title in four years — but as they lazed their way through the regular season and to the Finals, they committed plenty of them. Lack of focus, a late-season defensive slump, a tightening talent gap and injuries made this dynasty-forging title the hardest yet, but after playing into June four straight years, Golden State isn’t standing pat. They can’t.
Knocking on wood is a superstition shared worldwide, but for our purposes, the most prescient origin is the one rooted in German folklore: Wood nymphs were thought to be protective spirits, and could be called upon for protection by knocking or tapping on or touching wood, should one deign to tempt fate.
A year ago, almost to the day, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told general manager Bob Myers that the 2017-18 season would be the most difficult since they both arrived in Oakland. They had won two titles in three years, won a single-season NBA-record 73 games and then brought in the greatest scorer of this generation in Durant. They proceeded to bum-rush their way through the postseason, losing just one playoff game in 2016-17.
Lo and behold, the Warriors suffered injury after injury after injury. Their four All-Stars missed a combined 66 games, led by 31 from Stephen Curry. At times, they had to field a starting backcourt of Nick Young and Quinn Cook. They played two games down the home stretch without any of Curry, Durant, Thompson or Green, and six more with only one All-Star available in the final month of the regular season.
“I think next year’s going to be harder than this year, to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” Myers said. “There’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of back-to-back champions. You certainly see less back-to-back-to-back.”
How could next year get harder? The Warriors have won with such ease that it’s easy to forget that they have played the equivalent of another full season’s worth of postseason games in the last four years. Golden State’s core — Curry, Thompson, Green, Iguodala and Shaun Livingston — has spent four years together under Kerr. Even a coach as dynamic as Kerr needs to find new ways to motivate and cajole.
Chris Paul could be healthy if the Houston Rockets once again meet the Warriors in the playoffs, for one. Or, Paul could entice LeBron James — who dragged the Cavaliers to the Finals by sheer force of will — to join him in Houston or elsewhere in the West (James Harden and LeBron James coexisting on the same team feels like it would be a slow-motion crash between a circus train and a truck hauling live poultry). Likewise, if James joins Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics, or partners with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, he’d have a better supporting cast than the one he sported on his broken right hand after Game 4.
So, how does a team as experienced as Golden State — including two-time Finals MVP Durant — ease their path? One solution is to go young, and that’s a direction that both Myers and Kerr mentioned exploring. After the conclusion of Game 4, Kerr put his arm around Damian Jones — who spent just 25 games up from Santa Cruz over the past two seasons — and told him that next year was his year.
“I think it’s good that we’re going to be relying on a lot of young guys like Damian Jones and Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook,” Kerr said. “That’s part of it, and part of it will be how we treat it as a staff. I’m a big believer in the game within the game. We’re going to have to have a lot of games within the game, next year.”
Players on the downsides of their careers — Zaza Pachulia and Nick Young — are likely gone. David West, at 37, may retire, or return on a minimum deal. JaVale McGee is a question mark, Kevon Looney may opt to go elsewhere and 22-year old Patrick McCaw is a restricted free agent.
“I think it feels easier on the ascent,” Myers said. “As you climb up, you don’t really know. You hope, and you can dream of a championship, looking back four years, but trying to maintain it has a different type of perseverance, a different type of grit.”
It won’t be wood nymphs protecting the Warriors next season, as they go for something only five NBA teams have accomplished: The Three-Peat. It will be something perhaps more insidious, but nonetheless delicious for fans who, before the start of this run, hadn’t seen an NBA title in more than a generation. It’s the very thing that will put whoever the Warriors pick No. 28 in the NBA Draft onto the floor early. It’s what will fuel the front office as it sets its sights on other complementary pieces to keep the Warriors winning titles through their transition across the bay to San Francisco. It’s Gordon Gekko’s favorite vice.
“For guys who’ve accomplished it three times, I think what keeps you coming back is greed,” Myers said. “Our guys, I don’t see that hunger diminishing, to try and do it again. If it’s in there, it’s in there, whether you see it or not. Clearly, you know Draymond’s competitiveness. Steph Curry’s one of the most competitive people. Steve Kerr, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, these guys, that’s not going to change.”