The 2021-22 Warriors rose to their highest level of the season in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Boston. Then they went even higher in Game 5. And then once and for all, the Warriors elevated themselves again and were at their very best when they finished off the Celtics in Game 6.
Which is important. The Warriors peaked then peaked and peaked again a few more times specifically in the four rounds of this postseason on their way to the fourth championship of this era, which means there might not be much to stop them from continuing to go up, up, up into next season and yes, through next June.
They didn’t squeak through anything. They had to climb back up after two lost seasons to get here. In these playoffs, they didn’t only win at home (in fact, they were a very strong 5-5 on the road in this tournament). They won playing fast. They won playing slow. They won with offense. They won with defense. They can keep winning. There’s a trend here.
Just ask Steve Kerr, who has a bit of experience in the aftermath of championships, since he’s now won four coaching the Warriors added to his five previous titles as a player with the Bulls and Spurs.
Consider this championship the first of Phase 2 in the Warriors’ elongated dynasty. And the first ones can feel like a rocket burst for a well-positioned franchise, the way the 2015 championship — the first of the Stephen Curry era — propelled the Warriors for several more years.
“My experience with this stuff is that championship teams get better the next year,” Kerr told me on my podcast Tuesday. “We were definitely better in ’16 than we were in ’15, even though we didn’t win the whole thing. But going back to my days with the Bulls, I thought we were better in ’97 than we were in ’96.
“There’s just a deeper level of confidence that the group feels and maybe even a little pressure that’s taken off once you’ve won that one. But then as you go, then the exhaustion settles in. That’s why a three-peat is so difficult and getting to the finals five years in a row is insane …
“So I think we’re going to fly into next year with a lot of really good young talent, a lot of excitement, a lot of deep confidence within the group that we can do this again. And that’s exciting. It’s exciting for all of us. And we’re going to need all those young guys to help our older guys get through the long season. But I think we’re all feeling really, really excited about what the future has in store.”
This is part of why Kerr didn’t sound weary at all either immediately after last Thursday night’s closeout or during the big parade in San Francisco on Monday or talking with me on Tuesday. It was a marathon run, which essentially started in the days after last season ended with two Play-In defeats and the Warriors immediately started plotting for their return to this place.
A ton of things occurred. Players got hurt. Players came back. The roster was shuffled a little. Kerr coached his butt off. Bob Myers and Joe Lacob wheeled-and-dealed to keep bringing in talent, old and young. Curry was great and then great again and then really, really great. And the Warriors finished it off with three consecutive powerful victories over the younger, bigger Celtics and then Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson pounded their chests and told their doubters to be quiet, pretty please.
And Kerr, like all of his players, was energized by all of this. They were celebrating the championship but also what this specific championship could herald in the years to come.
How many championships can this team win? One more to get to five? Two more? Three?
“There’s no number, but the fact that the window’s still open is thrilling,” Kerr said. “Because over the last couple years it felt at times like the window was closed. And now, not only did that window open up wide enough for us to win another one, I think it’s still open because of the brilliance of Bob and Joe and what they’ve done roster-wise hanging on to all our young assets while keeping our veteran core intact.
“It worked. It never really had been done before, but it worked. And now we’re set up for the future. And from the looks of Steph and Klay and Draymond, they’ve still got plenty left in the tank. So the window’s wide open, and that’s what’s most exciting.”
The Warriors got better in every round. They were better at the end of the finals than they were at the beginning, when they lost Game 1 at Chase Center. Curry isn’t slowing down. Draymond figured things out in the middle of the finals and was very good throughout the playoffs. Klay is only going to get stronger the further removed he is from the two major leg injuries. And the Warriors have three recent lottery picks who have yet to make an imprint on this team.
But let’s circle back to the last few weeks, which were full of epic plays and fascinating momentum turns. I asked Kerr: What’s the moment from this postseason that stands out to you as you look back now?
“I think Steph’s Game 4 against Boston was the key moment,” Kerr said of Curry’s epic 43-point performance at TD Garden. “Usually, there is a game … one game that kind of shifts things, whether it was in ’15 when we moved Andre (Iguodala) into the starting lineup in Game 4 (of the finals) and that series changed. The only year it didn’t feel like we had that moment it’s when we went 16-1 because we were just so talented and so good. I guess that was ’17. And that was just total dominance. But that was the exception rather than the rule.
“The rule is you go through two months of a finals journey, there’s going to be a couple of key moments. And to me, it was Game 4 in Boston. You know, down 2-1, Celtics have a five-point lead in the fourth quarter and Steph just has one of his greatest games of his career to put us on his back. That was the key. Because we took over the series from there.”
Did Kerr know immediately once they won Game 4 that they were going to win the title?
“I felt pretty good at that point,” Kerr said. “Because Game 4 felt different. Even though we were trailing in the fourth quarter, it felt like we had a much better feel for Boston. I think earlier in the series we were struggling a little bit to find the right mix. Game 3, especially, I felt like we were chasing our tail a little bit.
“We fell behind early and I thought we needed to go smaller to get more spacing and that turned out to be the wrong choice. The right choice was to go bigger, and that’s when we decided to start Otto (Porter Jr.) to get a little spacing to start the game but to really match up their smaller lineup with our bigger one, with (Kevon) Looney and Draymond (midway through the first quarter). It felt like during that Game 4 we sort of found what we were looking for in terms of lineups and combinations. It was still so critical to win that game and Steph just carried us home. It was one of his all-time great performances. And as you know, that’s saying something, because he’s had so many of them.”
Curry, of course, won finals MVP for the first time, which was a nice honor for a 34-year-old who has been one of the league’s best players for almost a decade now. After all these years, nobody still puts more pressure on a defense than Curry. And nobody else but him could’ve created the Warriors’ culture and sustained it for so long.
Note: Curry, Draymond, Klay and Kerr are pretty sure this is going to be sustained a while longer, the way the Lakers’ dynasty was sustained with Magic Johnson in the middle of everything.
“There’s no doubt that Steph is the fulcrum of all of this,” Kerr said. “I guess maybe the analogy I would think of, especially growing up as a Laker fan, Steph is Magic. And Magic was the face of the Lakers. Steph is the face of the Warriors. But those Laker teams had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and James Worthy, incredible talent around Magic. Just like we’ve had with Draymond and Klay, and Kevin (Durant) was just so dominant while he was here, two finals MVP awards. Just an incredible run for him. But he was only here for three years. Steph is the face of the decade-long run with a lot of amazing talent that supported him along the way. In Kevin’s case, even more than that, dominated along the way …
“Steph’s the constant that’s been here for the entire decade. To be able to sustain this excellence, No. 1, it takes great ownership, which Joe and Peter (Guber) have provided. No. 2, it takes great management, and Bob has been incredible. But most importantly, you have to have great talent. And we’ve had that here. Steph is the guy who’s been here the entire run. Like I said, he’s sort of our version of Magic. When you think of the Warriors, you think of Steph.”
Here are more highlights from our conversation:
• Kerr said he didn’t think it was a huge deal when he pulled Draymond in the middle of the fourth quarter in Game 4. The team wasn’t playing well, Kerr wanted Looney in there for a bit, and then the Warriors went on a nice run, so he kept Draymond out for a little bit longer than usual. I asked if Kerr knew this was potentially big when Draymond reacted quite animatedly on the bench after the move.
“Actually, no. I literally did not see his reaction,” Kerr said. “I figured he wouldn’t be thrilled. But when I took him out, it was mainly because we were in a bad rut and we weren’t playing well. And he needed a little bit of a rest.
“I thought all right, let’s take him out, put Loon in and go with that other lineup and see where the game goes and probably get Draymond back in a minute or two, let him finish the last five. And it just so happened we went on a run. Even then, I think he was only out less than four minutes.
“But it was just the circumstances. We’ve never been without Draymond in a crucial juncture of the season of any big game. But we went on a run. And one thing that almost any coach in the NBA would tell you is, when you go on a run with a group, you let that run happen. You don’t stop that run. … And then it was a matter of getting Draymond back in there. And we just decided to do the offense/defense thing down the stretch with Jordan (Poole) and Draymond because we had some timeouts to work with. It all played out fine. But I was kind of surprised that it turned into as big a story as it did.”
• If you want an early hint about what’s possible for Klay next season, just look at his performances in Games 4-6 against Boston, when he played 41, 40 and 41 minutes, respectively, while often acting as a primary line of defense against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In fact, look at the entire postseason, when Thompson played more minutes than any other Warrior and looked stronger every game.
“Our training staff told us from the very beginning that he won’t truly be himself until the following season,” Kerr said. “And that’s so exciting, because I thought he got so much better as this season went on. I know everybody’s going to look at the shooting as the end-all, be-all, but it’s the defense that is so crucial.
“He was so good defensively the last three games of the series. Once he really got a better handle on Tatum and Brown and those guys, when he had to switch on them, I thought his mobility and aggressiveness increased. And he did a fantastic job. I think getting the summer underneath him and having a full training camp, I think Klay would be at a high level next year, and that’s really exciting.”
• Kerr wouldn’t quite go all the way and commit to major playing time for James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody next season, but there’s no doubt that he’ll want to rest his veterans as much as possible next season, and it’s probably time to see what the three lottery picks can do. At least in the regular season. (And if Wiseman, who missed all of this season with a knee injury, is healthy.)
“What JK projects athletically, you know, he can be a multi-position player,” Kerr said. “You can play him as a small-ball five, he can slide all the way down to the three. But it’s all projection, it’s all potential. He has to continue to work, which I know he’s going to do. He’s a really good worker for us this year. But he’s got this amazing ceiling but has to master the basics first before he can hope to reach that ceiling. He came so far this year from Day 1 until the end of the season, just dramatic improvement. But he needs to make another jump like that next year.
“Moses is just a guy who’s just ready. He doesn’t have the ceiling JK has, but he has the foundation already. You saw in that Dallas series when we went to him, he was productive, unafraid. He’s going to be a part of the rotation next season, I have no doubt about that. Just a perfect modern-day 3-and-D wing and also a great, great leader within the group. You don’t really say that about young guys, but he reminds me of Looney in that regard. Before too long, the whole roster’s going to have so much respect for him because of the way he carries himself. He has kind of a quiet strength.
“When you think of those two guys and you think of the possibilities, Warriors fans should be really excited and not only for the next decade but even for next year, because we’re going to need both of their help big time.”
• Kerr on assistant Kenny Atkinson’s change of mind to stay on the Warriors’ staff and not accept the head-coaching job with Charlotte: “For Kenny, I think it was just more a matter of realizing what was best for his family. I know they love it here. It was just really on a personal level I think he felt like he rushed into it and he’s excited to be back. And we’re thrilled to have him back. He’s a big-time coach. And especially losing Mike Brown, I think it’s huge that we can keep Kenny on our staff.”
Brown, officially hired by the Kings on Tuesday, had a pivotal role on the Warriors’ staff. He was Kerr’s rotation master (keeping tabs during games about when they wanted to sub guys in and out) and this season Brown took over the defensive coordinator role to rave reviews from the veterans. Note: Kerr likes having head-coach-types on his staff; don’t be surprised if he adds somebody with that kind of experience to replace Brown.
“Mike was just fantastic in his whole six years,” Kerr said. “I thought he had a fantastic year this year in particular running the defense, collaborating with Draymond and with me and the rest of the staff. There’s a certain credibility that you have as a former head coach. But it goes beyond that, Mike is a talented guy just like Kenny is a talented guy. There’s a level of communication and presence that is really important.”
• Let me add here that one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen in a while was Twitter speculation that Atkinson returning to the Warriors was a sign that Kerr told him the head-coaching spot could be open soon. No, that would not be a good read, folks. Kerr isn’t going anywhere. Atkinson’s decision was just about liking his current job and having second thoughts about the Charlotte situation.
Kerr poured his whole self into this season, especially the playoffs, and loved every single second of it. He believes this is his perfect role. And who would walk away from coaching Steph Curry? Not Kerr.
Also, he fought through excruciating pain for more than two seasons after his botched back surgery. He endured a lot to fight his way back to coach this team. So now that he’s feeling better (and has another ring), he’s not even thinking of stepping away. It was a sign, too, when Kerr took the assistant coaching role with Team USA for the last Olympics. And now he’s the head coach for the 2024 Olympics. He’s feeling great. He’s a born coach. He’s not going anywhere.
And if anybody was thinking like this (and nobody is, I repeat), the guy on staff that Kerr and others would’ve told, hey, don’t leave because maybe you’ll be the head coach soon … would’ve been Brown.
• Kerr is encouraged by the recent bipartisan Senate deal that could lead to modest new federal gun restrictions in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting massacre, which prompted Kerr’s landmark emotional, stirring statement before Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
“I do think that it’s monumental, even though it’s less than what most of us would like,” Kerr said of the Senate deal. “I read a lot about Chris Murphy, the Senator from Connecticut who’s really at the heart of the gun-violence prevention, gun-safety measures, in terms of the Senate is concerned. And he’s talked about how important incremental changes (are). Even though you don’t get something bigger, universal background checks, for example, you have to keep tipping the scales to the point where eventually you do get momentum to create some bigger change.
“Unfortunately, it really does come down to, I think, Senators, Congressmen and women understanding they can still win an election while voting for gun-safety measures, if that makes sense. A vast majority of people in this country want background checks, 90 percent of us regardless of party. …
“There’s just so much political pressure that I think the key is we just have to get these candidates to understand that they can still win elections even while voting for gun-safety laws. And if that can happen, then the scales can tip and we can get more significant laws in place. …. There’s a lot of people out there who want to see change. But in order to affect change, you’ve got to tip the scales. And that can come from a lot of different places, but we’ve got to keep pushing for incremental change so that the sentiment can become a consensus.
“The good thing is even the agreement that just was reached will save lives. It’s been proven that even these minor measures will save somebody’s life, in fact, a lot of people’s lives. But what we all want to do is protect as many people as possible. And that’s a ways off, but we’ve got to keep pushing.”
(Photo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)