By Mark Plumlee
Special to S.F. Examiner
PORTLAND — Since Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took over the job in 2014, one concept has defined and propelled the franchise. Through the incredible highs of winning three championships, and the devastating low of falling short in 2016, the Warriors have always emphasized the need to play with joy.
“These last two years, no question, have been arduous,” said Kerr back in April after a narrow win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “There is no other way to put it. It gets more difficult as you go.”
Two games into the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors seem to have found the joy once again. They have a 2-0 series lead over the Portland Trail Blazers after two impressive wins in Oracle. One of the main reasons for joy is the play of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who is positively rolling right now after struggling with his shot at times in the earlier rounds.
“Steph Curry always plays with joy and sets the tone for us,” said Kerr before Game 3. “It’s a dynamic that we believe in. We try to remind our guys how lucky we are to play this game for a living. Not only to make a living playing basketball, but to play together in this era, this special run that we’ve had.”
This series, Curry is averaging 36.5 points per game and 7.5 assists. He has blitzed the Blazers in the high pick and roll with Draymond Green, stretching the Blazers defense past its breaking point and then finding the open man. The combination of Curry’s deep threat and Green’s elite downhill play-making has led to a parade of layups and dunks, especially when the Warriors needed baskets the most at the end of Game 2.
The Warriors are still without two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who suffered a sprained right calf in Game 5 of the previous series and did not make the trip to Portland. He is not expected to return to the court this round.
With Durant sidelined, the rest of the Warriors have stepped up to collectively fill his scoring void. The team has assisted on 71.4% of their made baskets this series by making quick passes and decisive cuts, and then leveraging the threat of their shooting to turn good looks into great ones.
The Western Conference Finals has also seen a return of the Warriors’ second-favorite axiom, “Strength in numbers,” which was largely missing in their second-round series against the Houston Rockets. In those six games, Kerr shortened his bench to an eight-man rotation and leaned heavily on the starters, playing Curry over 42 minutes in 3-of-the-6 games.
“One of the things I learned from Phil Jackson while I was in Chicago,” said Kerr, “was how it important it was to engage guys on the end of the bench and keep them involved. There’s going to come a time when every player on the roster is going to have to contribute to help your team win.
In the first two games against Portland, at least twelve different Warriors have seen the court, and Curry has yet to play over 40 minutes. They have received timely contributions from unlikely sources, a trademark of the Kerr era. In Game 1, it was reserve guard Quinn Cook breaking loose for two 3-pointers. In Game 2, Jordan Bell scored 11 points in the first half to keep the game within striking distance. In Game 3, it could be Damian Jones, who is reportedly getting the start over Andrew Bogut. Jones has played a total of four minutes in this series.
The Warriors will be tested tonight in front of a hostile crowd that has been waiting 18 years for a Conference Finals game in Portland, against a hungry Blazers team that has shown an ability all-season to bounce back after tough defeats. If the Warriors are able to replicate the magic from their first two games and continue to find and play with joy, they good chance of leaving the Moda Center tonight with a commanding 3-game lead.