By Cyril Penn
Special to S.F. Examiner
The Golden State Warriors journey from lovable afterthought to villainous basketball tyrant may be finished. With the summer of 2019 expected to shake the foundations of the NBA, an exhausted team coming off five consecutive NBA Finals appearances is expected to go through myriad changes.
There’s no avoiding the big questions facing Golden State. How will the move across the Bay Bridge from “Roaracle” to San Francisco’s waterfront Chase Center change the home court dynamic? Who will be back among the Warriors’ bevy of star free agent talent? Can Golden State continue to contend, or will the Warriors fall swiftly from grace like other dynasties before them?
These questions will be asked ad naseum throughout the offseason, but rather than try to answer them now, it’s time to reflect on the games that have defined the Warriors’ dynasty, as the NBA approaches a tipping point, and the balance of power begins to shift for the first time in five years.
No. 5: June 1, 2017 — NBA Finals Game 1 vs Cleveland; 113-91 win
If any game truly exemplifies Golden State in peak “this isn’t fair” mode, it’s Game 1 of the 2017 Finals.
In his first Finals game with the Warriors, Kevin Durant led the way with 38 points as his squad built up an eight-point halftime advantage before their customary third quarter surge saw them open the second half on a 13-0 run.
They forced the Cavaliers into 20 turnovers, with LeBron James committing eight. With only four turnovers throughout the entire game, Golden State tied the record for fewest in a Finals contest.
The Warriors became the first team in NBA history to start the playoffs with 13 consecutive wins after sweeping through the Western Conference, ultimately finishing with the best winning percentage (.941) in NBA playoff history as they finished 16-1. While the team was expected to gel even more after another year of playing together, in hindsight, the 2017 playoff run was perhaps the most dictatorial of all-time.
No. 4: June 10, 2019 — NBA Finals Game 5 at Toronto; 106-105 win
This game will be remembered as the one in which Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon — a moment that may end up changing the course of NBA history as we know it.
Durant’s return to the court after a calf strain in the Western Conference Semifinals silenced his haters once and for all regarding the perception that he is “soft.”
He and Kevon Looney both returned from injuries to help their squad stave off elimination, and both showed how tough they were by gutting out gritty performances.
Without the aforementioned pair for most of the game, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 73 percent of the team’s total points as the Warriors overcame 10 straight fourth quarter points from Kawhi Leonard to narrowly steal a victory, with Draymond Green barely getting his fingers on Kyle Lowry’s potential game-winning shot.
This game had one of the most bizarre endings in recent memory, with the Warriors turning the ball over multiple times and DeMarcus Cousins nearly goaltending the team into elimination, yet they escaped with a win and forced one last game at Oracle Arena.
No. 3: June 19, 2016 — NBA Finals Game 7 vs Cleveland; 93-89 loss
Perhaps the most devastating loss in Golden State history, with Mike Breen shouting, “Blocked by James!” still haunts the nightmares of Bay Area fans who saw their team’s historic 73-9 season end in dramatic fashion.
After building a 3-1 series lead, Green’s Game 5 suspension began to turn the tide for Cleveland. His incredible Game 7 output of 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists brought the Warriors close, but with Curry and Thompson combining to go 12-for-36 from the field and Harrison Barnes shooting 3-for-10, Green’s effort was not quite enough.
“The Block” was followed by a dagger three from Kyrie Irving and Cleveland snatched away the championship.
An hour or so after the game, still fuming at his locker, Green sent a text to Durant.
“See what we’re missing,” Green texted his future teammate, according to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “We need you. Make it happen.” Less than a month later, Durant signed with Golden State.
No. 2: May 28, 2016 — Western Conference Finals Game 6 at Oklahoma City; 108-101 win
Often reffered to as “The Klay Game,” pundits consider this as one of the ultimate “What-If” games in recent NBA history.
Thompson set the record for 3-point makes in a playoff game, going 11-of-18 from beyond the arc on the way to a 41-point outing. Down by eight heading into the fourth quarter with a 3-2 series deficit against the last edition of the Durant-and-Russell-Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors got 22 fourth- quarter points from Thompson, including six 3-pointers.
His eleventh three? A go-ahead dagger from 25 feet that gave the Warriors a 104-101 lead with two minutes left.
The win at Cheasepeake Energy Arena gave Golden State the momentum to take Game 7 at home, and ultimately may have been the biggest factor between Durant leaving the Thunder in free agency in the offseason.
Had Thompson not propelled the Warriors to victory, Golden State likely never evolves into a true dynasty.
No. 1: June 11, 2015 — NBA Finals Game 4 at Cleveland; 103-82 win
The highlights of other games during the Warriors’ otherworldly run may stick out more, but no game has defined Golden State — or changed the course of NBA history — as much as Game 4 of the 2015 Finals.
It is known as the birth of the “Death Lineup,” but this contest also changed modern basketball as we know it, marginalizing the center position to make lumbering big men unplayable in certain playoff situations, while empowering skillful players and quick-footed defenders.
Special assistant to the head coach Nick U’Ren theorized that replacing Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup and sliding Draymond Green to a small-ball center position would limit the impact of Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.
Trusting his staff like few head coaches, Steve Kerr took U’Ren’s advice, and the fact that U’Ren now serves as Golden State’s Director of Basketball Operations tells you all you need to know about how well the move went.
Trailing 2-1 in the series, the Warriors blasted the Cavaliers in the final three games, and Iguodala was crowned as Finals MVP for his role in the newfound lineup and ability to slow down James at his peak.
The “Death Lineup,” which eventually evolved into the “The Hamptons Five,” turned throwback centers and back-to-the-basket forwards into relics of the past and birthed a new era of spacing and tempo that has overtaken the NBA landscape.
These Warriors have left a lasting legacy in multiple facets of basketball, but the implementation of the “Death Lineup” shows exactly how much a dynastic era can influence the perception of an entire sport.