SAN FRANCISCO — It wasn’t tears from Klay Thompson but the emotion was obvious, and Stephen Curry couldn’t contain his satisfaction as the night wore on, both from taking in the moment and the not-so-subtle gold-emblazoned cursive “trophy hunting” written across his pregame and postgame attire.
Draymond Green preened and flexed like a much younger man, then quickly handed off the Oscar Robertson Western Conference Trophy seconds after receiving it.
“I’m not one for holding trophies. Number one, it’s heavy,” Green said.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown — even if it’s three years later and so many twists and turns since their maiden voyage that resulted in the Warriors becoming a fixture in June.
The sixth month reveals which NBA teams outlast, outthink and outperform the competition. This the sixth time in eight years these Warriors — or some variation of them — have emerged as one of the last two standing.
The Dallas Mavericks were the most recent squad whose dreams were squashed by a blue and gold reality, a 120-110 coronation that felt less like a Game 5 competition but a chance to celebrate in the new building whose walls were built on the backs of sweat equity across the bridge.
The Warriors are back in the NBA Finals not just because they’re talented, but due to championship habits and standards built, fortified and reinforced through the darkness of the last three seasons — an almost stubborn or arrogant belief they could get back to this stage without changing who they were.
Controlling themselves in chaos and knowing they wouldn’t break while the opponents wilted draws from the eyes of Curry. He won the inaugural Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award, with his greatest contribution occurring from what happened around him, not from him.
The imprint he placed on this game was evident in the way others performed — Thompson shimmying after a triple from a behind-the-back pass from Green, Andrew Wiggins crashing in for a weakside dunk or Jordan Poole again displaying toddler-like feet in the small real estate underneath the basket.
Perhaps the closest thing to on-court magic since Earvin, Curry played on cruise control much of the night, preferring to cede the space to teammates who found a sweet spot and stayed there but danced to his groove.
“The new trophy is pretty cool, especially who it’s named after,” said Curry, who scored 15 with nine assists after coming into the night averaging 26 points, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists in the series. “The standard that Magic set in terms of being a champion and playing the point guard position [and] whatever other position he played.”
The secret Magic had, assisted by Jerry West and Pat Riley, was assimilating one’s self into the system — be it Showtime or whatever this will be called in the annals. Curry has found it, duplicated it, remixed it with the power of his presence.
“He’s our engine offensively,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Everything revolves around him. We got a lot of great players around him and guys who fit well together. It all starts with Steph.”
As the big joker goes, everyone follows suit — a lesson likely learned by Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic, who went through the gamut of on-floor expressions and emotions his teammates seemed to ride along with.
Riding the wave in an elimination game is dangerous, but even more so when the Warriors are committed to playing like themselves, and hungry to taste what the next round has to offer.
Thompson was eager to transfer the powers of Game 6 Klay to Game 5, not wanting to mess around any longer than he had to — not just because they need the rest before next Thursday’s final round begins, but leaving things to chance leaves room for interpretation, and he’d prefer to keep things simple.
Eight triples and bemoaning about missing two, scoring a series-high 32 points after totaling 31 the last two games combined.
That’s why the moment almost overwhelmed him, the journey of two major injuries and the cycle of NBA life settling around his feet in the meantime. The Warriors knew this wasn’t promised — not because of whatever threat posed by Dallas or Phoenix if they made it this far, but finding themselves back to this point lends itself to more satisfaction than your usual decorated champion.
“I dreamt about this every day,” Thompson said. “All those emotions kind of rushed through me, and I thought about our training staff, those days me and Rick [Celebrini, Director of Sports Medicine and Performance] were together in Santa Cruz. They would tell me it would pay off.”
Rehab is ugly, and rebuilding sure ain’t cute no matter how easy it is to press the button to relieve the tension, stress and fatigue of high-level competition. There’s a difference between playing to play, playoff basketball and championship ball.
Thompson went through grueling rehab and gaining appreciation just to walk again so he could get back to grueling, fatiguing, mentally challenging big-time basketball, knowing there was a strong chance he wouldn’t be as great as he was before.
You torture yourself so you can position yourself for heartbreak.
The daily decisions he made, the daily decisions Curry made to hold this team to championship standards with championship energy was intentional — making the choice to not chase the individual MVP-level season he had last year but to get lost in the process of (maybe) June is nearly impossible considering the odds.
So the joy in that moment, even not hoisting up the Larry O’Brien Trophy but the Oscar Robertson one, was special.
“I can pretty much drop myself into any series and know what it felt like because we rely on those experiences so much,” Curry said. “It’s like, kind of time stopped there where you kind of understand what real basketball is like in the playoffs.”
The memories are heavier than the trophies. He remembers not being his full self against Cleveland in 2016, or just starting to figure things out in 2014 when the then-nemesis Los Angeles Clippers put them out before the calendar turned to May.
He wants to break you, sitting comfortably behind the carefully crafted image. Being the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA has a goal — to leave you helpless and breathless while he’s being breathtaking and inertia-pressing.
“Understand over 48 [minutes], I’m going to find some gravity that you can show on the floor, getting other guys shots, getting off yourself,” Curry said. “It’s hard in terms of the work that it takes all summer, every day throughout the year in terms of how you take care of your body.”
It’s old hat and new hats for the Warriors, who found ways to stay motivated and disciplined when history and so many other factors make it hard to do so.
Damn right they celebrated.
“I think we’re very seasoned at this point in our careers,” Thompson said. “And we’re ready for this challenge because whoever comes out [of] that Eastern Conference is going to push us.”
Back to June, trophy hunting.