Golden State will return to the N.B.A. finals for the first time since 2019 after defeating the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.
Golden State won the series, 4-1, with a 120-110 victory in Game 5 on Thursday in San Francisco.
Because of injuries, the Warriors had spent a couple of seasons wandering through the N.B.A. wilderness. But their celebrated core — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — is together again and playing some of its best basketball, no small achievement considering the team’s triumphant past.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing our guys compete and stay connected and improve and succeed,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said this week. “We’ve been through a lot the last couple of years, so it’s wonderful to be back in this position.”
Golden State won three championships and advanced to five straight finals from 2015 to 2019, before it all began to come unglued. While falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 finals, Thompson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and Kevin Durant ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon.
It would get worse. A few weeks later, Durant, who had helped Golden State win two championships, left for the Nets. Four games into the subsequent season, Curry broke his left hand. Golden State finished with the worst record in the league, a humbling blow for a franchise that had seemed on the cusp of establishing itself as a dynasty.
Earlier this season, in a podcast interview with the former player JJ Redick, Green acknowledged his uncertainty about the future — both the team’s and his own — as Golden State labored through that listless 2019-20 season. Without Thompson, who spent much of his time rehabilitating away from the team, and Curry, who appeared in just five games, Green did little to hide his frustrations. He mentored some of the team’s younger players, but he also sulked and shot terribly.
“I couldn’t get myself going,” Green told Redick. “It was never a point where I felt that my window was closing because of my skills or because of what I bring to the table. But if we’re going to suck like this every year, then my window is closed because I can’t get up for these meaningless games.”
Thompson suffered another misfortune when he tore his right Achilles’ tendon in a private workout before the start of the 2020-21 season.
Behind the scenes, though, Golden State’s decision makers were building toward a future — one they hoped would resemble the team’s not-so-distant past. In February 2020, General Manager Bob Myers traded for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 draft pick in 2014 who had never quite fulfilled his seemingly vast potential with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With the Warriors, Wiggins would prove he could do a bit of everything: shoot, pass, rebound, defend. On Monday, Kerr described the trade for Wiggins as “the key to all of this.” Golden State’s depth at the wing position had evaporated after the 2019 finals. Thompson was injured. Shaun Livingston had retired. And Andre Iguodala had been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies.
“So the Wiggins trade allowed us to start to rebuild that wing defense,” Kerr said, “and Wiggs has just been so good. He’s gotten so much better over the last couple of years. He’s a perfect fit next to our guys.”
This season, Wiggins was a first-time All-Star as Golden State went 53-29, good for the third-best record in the West. There were other meaningful moments along the way. Curry broke the league record for career 3-pointers. Thompson, after 941 days away, made his long-anticipated return from injury, scoring 17 points — and even dunking — in a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But Golden State did not exactly race into the playoffs. It took time for Thompson to regain his familiar feel for the game, and Curry missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a sprained foot. Over one particularly lean stretch at the end of March, the Warriors lost seven of eight games. It was far from assured that they were capable of making a deep run in the playoffs.
But Golden State needed just five games to eliminate the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round, then six to take care of the second-seeded Grizzlies in the conference semifinals.
The Mavericks, despite the best efforts of Luka Doncic, were little more than a speed bump.
“I felt like we had a chance to be a lot better than we were in the regular season,” Kerr said this week, adding: “We believed from the beginning that we could be a pretty good team, and we’re catching some momentum now and trying to ride it out as best we can.”