As I draw ever closer to the end of life, I’ve become an utterly committed process geek, obsessively studying the way things work –– or don’t. This obsession is particularly acute in matters of group dynamics among striving humans, which is most often focused on the fates of actors and musicians coming together in pursuit of what they hope will be a transcendent outcome –– or on the fate of teams of athletes seeking the same.
That capacity for transcendence is greatly dependent on talent. But the years have taught that the enabling power of positive chemistry is every bit as critical as the accumulation of skill. You see this illustrated from time to time, usually in bursts and flashes, and for me it is always a cause for celebration. But when you see such transcendence ignited –– and sustained –– for long periods of time, it becomes the stuff of a soul–deep, literally life–affirming exultation.
Golden State Takes It All
The Golden State Warriors are once again the Champions of one of mankind’s greatest arbitrary metrics of excellent human endeavor –– the sport of basketball. And it’s made me (and those in my family who hold the Dubs in equally high respect) very, very happy.
Many so-called experts on the subject expected them to be a mediocre team this year. The team suffered a series of calamitous setbacks that begin in the NBA Finals of June of 2019 against the Raptors –– the Warriors fifth consecutive finals appearance.
In Game 2, key guard Klay Thompson suffered a strained left hamstring, landing awkwardly after he was hit while in the air by the Raptors’ Danny Green. Thompson would miss Game 3.
In Game 5, Kevin Durant ruptured his right Achilles tendon (he would soon leave the team) and in Game 6, Klay Thompson blew out his left knee, landing awkwardly after he was again hit while in the air by Danny Green.
Seventeen months later, in a pick-up game, Thompson would rupture his right Achilles tendon in a second consecutive catastrophic, potentially career-ending injury. In all, Thompson spent 900 days in rehabilitation before his return midway through this season.
In the throes of this disintegration, the Warriors went from a cumulative record of 69-33 in the season ending in 2019, to a cumulative record of 15-50 in 2020. They were the worst team in the NBA, and did not make the playoffs in the 2021 season either –– though signs of life were detected.
They had decided to stick with their core –– Thompson, Steph Curry and Draymond Green –– adding one high-priced free agent in the perennially ‘underachieving’ Andrew Wiggins, but refusing to trade away the teenagers they’ve recently drafted –– Jordan Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody –– for the services of other proven stars.
This strategy of sticking with a veteran core –– while simultaneously developing the next generation core –– has never been deemed a roadmap to success in the league.
And why –– despite the fact that Currry, Green and Thompson had spent a total of only 11 minutes together on the floor, over the last three seasons –– is it working?
(1) The Warriors’ unsurpassed capacity to teach, with cunning and specificity
(2) The ironclad commitment to a culture of mentoring, sharing, and putting the team first
(3) A precise system of accountability –– implemented this year by departing assistant coach Mike Brown –– whereby the progress of every single player’s commitment to the Harsh Brute Labor of Team Defense is measured, publicly divulged, and either lauded or criticized on a regular basis. There is literally no place to hide from one’s responsibilities on this team.
Coach Kerr’s 9th Ring
As Head Coach Steve Kerr (who now has four rings as a coach, and five as a player) put it after the game: “I have yet to see a team that wasn’t elite defensively win a championship…”
In this realm, the Great Savant Draymond Green stands in a special light. He is the Mad Dog in the Pack, the genius floor tactician and fearless irritant wrapped in a hairspring package of barely tolerable aggression. The returning Klay Thompson has always excelled as a two-way player, and his defense has come back to him more quickly than his offense, though he delivered key buckets on multiple occasions in this championship series. Andrew Wiggins guarded Jason Tatum so closely as to begin to seem like a part of his clothing. The emerging Kevon Looney was remarkably effective on the perimeter even as he passed brilliantly and rebounded like a beast –– 22 in a single game.
The Magic Of Steph Curry
And Curry, as the smallest of them and the one most necessary to break down –– if only to stifle his lethal shooting –– more than held his own through the constant attacks the Celtics launched against him. When last measured, his offensive opponent scored only three times in the twelve ‘isolations’ that were run against him…
Wiggins says, “Steph is truly a great leader.” Jordan Poole says, “Everyone on this team is selfless, from the top down.” Draymond says, “Coach Kerr is a guy who knows what he doesn’t know –– and that’s one of the best traits you can possess in this world –– being smart enough to know what you don’t know. Steve leans on [his fellow coaches] for their strengths… and carries himself with incredible confidence… you feel invincible.”
A Win In Boston For The Warriors
A key moment in the series was Game 3 in Boston –– Draymond’s most shaky game –– where the Celtics fans felt inspired to raise their voices in a heartfelt chant toward their serial tormentor. In full throat, they wailed at length: “Fuck you, Draymond! Fuck you, Draymond! Fuck you, Draymond!”
(In the Warriors victorious locker room after the final game, with the championship in hand, the winning team was heard to break out in a hearty rendition of its own “Fuck you, Draymond!” chant, delightfully trolling the Boston fans. Besides, as Kevon Looney put it: “Fun moment. Draymond been yelling at us all year, too.”)
But before that, the shockingly rude and sustained Game 3 outburst on the fans’ part –– even as it rattled Draymond, upset his wife and left who knows what kind of mark on his children –– seemed to serve as a Call to Arms in the Massive Heart of His Brother –– Mr. Curry.
The intimate bond that grows when extraordinary teammates have been tested together over the course of a decade, side-by-side in great public success and equally public, heart-breaking disappointment, is sometimes a bond best left unchallenged by those outside the arena.
In Game 4, following the night of curses raining down on his fellow Warrior –– as Draymond himself would later describe it –– Steph Curry ascended to “God Mode.” He dropped 43 points on the Celtics’ heads, including 7 three–pointers, distributed 5 assists, pulled down 10 rebounds and played wildly inspired defense.
In the very first quarter of the game, after sinking two triples to establish his intentions, Curry strode past the Boston bench and literally screamed in the faces of the Boston Garden crowd, pounding his chest. As he later put it; “It just felt like we had to let everybody know that we were here tonight.” Throughout the game, at every turn, no matter what the Celtics threw at them, the Curry-led Warriors executed a decisive counter.
Boston would not win again.
Oceans of commentary have called this outcome unlikely, given the superior “talent” of the Eastern Champs. But as any geek will know and love –– it’s always more than talent that will be measured in these rarified moments.
The cohesion born of generosity and humility, wisdom and accountability –– and sheer courage –– is waiting to be measured as well.
Congratulations to a still remarkable basketball team.
The parade will be on Monday.