PORTLAND, Ore. — Beautiful. Dazzling. Frenetic. Unfair.
A lot of adjectives have been used to describe the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run since Steve Kerr took over as coach before the 2014-15 season. Here’s one that you don’t often hear: Tough.
But after watching this team rattle off four straight wins since Kevin Durant’s injury, including sending the starving Houston Rockets home for the summer without any dinner and becoming the first NBA team to overcome back-to-back second-half deficits of at least 13 points in Saturday’s 110-99 Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State’s toughness should be the first thing on our minds.
Often when the Warriors go on their patented third-quarter runs, the response is something to the tune of, “well, they finally decided to start playing.” The default, because of the team’s roster, style and success, is that if they’re losing then they’re not trying. People forget just how hard it is to win — particularly in the playoffs — and how good every single NBA player is. Hell, we saw Meyers Leonard look like the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki for about a five-minute stretch of Game 3.
“Maybe [our toughness is] just not highlighted but, you know, it’s so hard to win a championship in this league,” Kerr said after Game 3. “The competition is so fierce and it’s a two-month journey once the playoffs start. You know, they have been to the Finals four times, so that tells you all you need to know about their toughness and their competitive desire.”
Kerr is right — it should speak for itself. But, just as Stephen Curry tends to get overlooked as one of the greatest players of all time (it should be unquestionable at this point), Golden State can sometimes be characterized as a fast-paced, 3-point-happy team that has overwhelmed with talent, rather than grit. Curry and Klay Thompson, the poster boys for the 3-point revolution who obliterated the antiquated yet ubiquitous notion that a jump-shooting team would never win a championship, look more like guys you’d want to go to brunch with than players you fear.
Jordan. Kobe. Bird. These are guys we view as tough. But just because Curry and Thompson aren’t punching teammates, snarling after game-winners or getting into fights, doesn’t mean they’re not just as competitive. Out of all the Warriors, Draymond Green is the only one who you can even suggest has a reputation as a tough guy — and even he was voted as the most overrated player in the NBA (tied with Russell Westbrook) by his peers in a player survey conducted by The Athletic earlier this season.
You don’t erase a 2-1 deficit as a young wide-eyed team against the rough-and-tumble Memphis Grizzlies in 2015 by rattling off three straight wins without toughness. Meme culture immortalized the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead against the Cavaliers in 2016, but willfully ignores the fact that Golden State came back from a 3-1 deficit against future teammate Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to even get to the Finals. And then there was last postseason, when the Warriors trailed by 10 and 11 at halftime, respectively, in Games 6 and 7 — both elimination games — against Houston, only to come back and win with their legacy on the line.
“We know our team is tough. We’ve got a lot of grit,” Warriors big man Kevon Looney said after Game 3. “If we lock in and execute the game plan, we can get back into any game with our scoring. When we go down 10 or 15, we never get worried. We just know that we’ve got to play extra hard and we’ve got to push the pace and just lock in on the small things.”
So, no, every game hasn’t been sunshine and lollipops for the Warriors despite winning three titles in four years. They make it look easy sometimes, and that works to their detriment. We think of “tough” teams as slow-paced, grind-it-out, win-with-their-defense type of squads. Visually, the Warriors don’t fit the bill. But their track record and ability to respond to numerous obstacles — injuries, fatigue, LeBron James — shows a singular focus on winning, no matter how it happens.
“You don’t win without that competitiveness and that killer instinct and just finding different ways to win games in different styles,” Curry said after the Warriors’ Game 3 win, before once again lauding the bench for its performance since Durant’s injury. “Everybody, when they set foot on the floor, they can help us play, and we got to play that way, you know, shorthanded and you know, doing it by committee and having each other’s back. So it requires a certain amount of toughness to do that for sure.”
That desire, that “killer instinct,” as Curry called it, was on display in the fourth quarter of Game 3. With the game well in hand, the Warriors up by 11 with a minute and a half left, about to take a 3-0 lead, all but assuring their fifth straight NBA Finals appearance, Evan Turner went to the rim for what would have been a meaningless basket. Instead, in a full sprint, Thompson raced down the court for a thunderous block that incensed a Portland fan so much that they threw an object toward the very spot where Thompson had punctuated the win.
This team is tough. It has been for years. And it’s time we put that quality on par with the talent, beauty and dominance with which the Warriors play the game.
“The playoffs are extremely hard. Our record might be great the last four or five years, but it’s really hard,” Thompson said after Game 3. “Like Draymond said, the game gets bogged down and gets way more physical and we are just grateful to be here, and we don’t try to take any games off at this point in the year because we know one slip-up can cost you a series. Just because we’re up 3-0, the mission is far from finished. We still have 48 minutes of basketball to play to get to a fifth straight Finals, which just gets me excited thinking about it.”