Wild three years culminates in Dubs' triumphant Finals return


SAN FRANCISCO -- As the final buzzer rang Thursday night with gold and blue streamers falling from the Chase Center rafters, the party was on. The Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks 120-110 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, completing their return to the NBA Finals. 

Steve Kerr tried his best to stay in the moment, but for a brief minute, his mind wandered. Not to who his team would face next as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat battle it out in the Eastern Conference finals, but to seven years ago when the Warriors reached the Finals in Kerr's first season as the franchise's new coach. 

"I kind of had a flashback tonight," Steve Kerr said after the win. "I guess it would have been seven years ago when we beat Houston to get to the Finals to beat Houston. We were up 10 or 12 with 30 seconds left. The place was just rocking and I looked through the arena and I couldn't believe we had gotten to the Finals. 

"Tonight was different because we've done it. It wasn't the first time. We've done it before. But in a different way it was incredibly meaningful given everything that we've been through organizationally over the last couple years." 

Nearly three years ago, Klay Thompson tore his ACL while attempting a dunk in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals against the Toronto Raptors, starting a grueling two-and-a-half year comeback after tearing his Achilles on the morning of the 2020 NBA Draft. The game before Thompson went down, Kevin Durant tore his Achilles. 

Three weeks after Durant went down at Scotiabank Arena, he ended his Warriors tenure after three dominant years and three straight trips to the NBA Finals, agreeing to sign with the Brooklyn Nets. 

The Warriors already were without Thompson, Durant's time had come to an end and only four games into the 2019-20 season, the Warriors went from tough luck to a season from hell. Steph Curry fractured his hand and wouldn't return until there were only three games remaining in the regular season. At that point, they were 14-48. 

They finished the regular season with the worst record in the NBA at 15-50 after reaching five straight Finals and winning three championships. 

But that lowly season also brought the Warriors perhaps their greatest trade in franchise history. Instead of letting Durant walk for free, general manager Bob Myers completed a sign-and-trade deal with the Nets that brought the Warriors All-Star point guard D'Angelo Russell. The fit seemed odd at first, but the decision from Myers and the front office was nothing short of genius. 

Russell lasted 33 games in a Warriors jersey. He was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 6, 2020 for Andrew Wiggins and a top-three protected first-round pick that turned into the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 draft, which the Warriors used on Jonathan Kuminga, seen as a raw prospect with untapped potential. 

Many questioned how Wiggins would work with the Warriors, and nobody thought the long-term project of Kuminga could contribute to Golden State this season. Wrong. 

Wiggins had his fourth double-double of these playoffs Thursday night in the Warriors' series-clinching win. While guarding Mavs superstar Luka Doncic all game long, Wiggins scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, made all four of his free throws and was a plus-9 in plus-minus. 

Kuminga has started three games in the playoffs at 19 years old. He scored 17 points to go with nine rebounds, almost propelling the Warriors to an improbable Game 4 comeback after being down by as many as 29 points two nights ago. 

"I'm just trying to win," Wiggins said following Game 5. "That's the most important thing. If they need me to score, I'm going to score. Need me to defend, I'm going to defend. Rebound, rebound. Whatever it is to help this team win, that's what I'm going to do."

Labeled as someone who didn't show up on a nightly basis and would forever be prone to put up big numbers on losing teams, Wiggins has erased any false narrative that outsiders placed upon him. These Warriors are full of stories like that. 

Kevon Looney isn't supposed to be here. He was held to only 20 games during that 2019-20 season to forget and was the only Warrior to play all 82 games this season. James Wiseman was understandably pronounced as the future of this franchise at center, but the 6-foot-9 Looney has kept working and working, and it's all paid off. The epitome of perseverance put up 10 points and 18 rebounds to help crown the Warriors as Western Conference champions, and snatched 22 rebounds to put away the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 of the second round. 

When the Warriors selected Jordan Poole with the No. 28 pick in the 2019 draft, some saw the decision as a reach and Poole had to spend time in the G League in each of his first two seasons. But he returned last season from the Orlando G League bubble as a new player and now is going to have some heavy pockets with the payday that he should have as soon as this upcoming offseason. He has been their primary scorer on some nights, spent this season fluctuating between the starting lineup and the bench and scored 16 points to go with six assists, six rebounds and two steals as the primary playmaker in reserve on Thursday night. 

"I think what makes us special is we always knew we had championship DNA," Poole said. "Maybe the pieces didn't fit at first, the first two years. You can tell that that was the core. Everything we did from practice to preparation was all championship-based.

"These guys have so much experience, so much knowledge that they're willing to share, it really helps."

In the end, it all comes back to the Warriors' Big Three of Steph, Klay and Draymond Green. The Warriors became the first franchise since the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s to reach six Finals in an eight-season span. But when those three are all healthy, they've now been to six Finals in a row. 

The realization is hard to even fathom. It couldn't happen without other pieces around them, but this is a whole different franchise if it weren't for that trio. 

"It's unbelievable," Thompson said. "We obviously had incredible help along the way. I mean, the years with KD, that was like the greatest team ever. Then now with the young bucks we got, they just really helped us feel more youthful again. We're still missing some really key players, so we got to get our guys [Otto Porter Jr.], [Andre Iguodala] and [Andre Iguodala] healthy, too.

"Give our front office a lot of credit too because they've filled in the extra slots with some real pros and some great players who have not only accepted their roles but excelled in them."

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For as much as he doesn't want another nickname, Game 5 Klay showed up at Chase Center, scoring a game-high 32 points while making eight 3-pointers after having to wait 941 days to make his return to the Warriors on Jan. 9, 2022. Curry let the game come to him and dished nine assists and scored 15 points as he won the first Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP award. Green saved his best for last, scoring a season-high 17 points and the point-forward again stuffed the stat sheet with nine assists and six rebounds. 

Led by a historically great season from Curry, the Warriors scratched and clawed all the way to the NBA play-in tournament last season before dropping two straight and failing to reach the playoffs as they waited for Thompson's eventual return. 

This season, they got off to red-hot 18-2 start. Curry looked like he could be on his way to a third MVP award and Green had his eyes on a second Defensive Player of the Year award. Adversity hit along the way, Green missed two months to a back injury and Curry missed the final month of the season to a foot injury. They always knew they would have to improve as the playoffs went on, and here they are, four wins away from yet another title to their names. 

"Like I've said over and over again, and I'm going to keep saying it: No one has proven they can take us off that spot," Green said of he, Curry and Thompson. "That's the mindset we came into this thing with. We understand what it takes to win a championship." 

Starting one week from now, whether it be against the Celtics or the Heat, those three again will exert their championship will and continue to do whatever it takes to have it trickle down to their teammates. Draymond doesn't even remember the last time he saw his three championship rings. 

All that matters is the fourth.

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