SAN FRANCISCO—The scene was familiar and foreign all at once.
We’ve seen the Golden State Warriors celebrating an NBA Finals appearance plenty of times in this era — five times in seven years at Oracle Arena before this one on Thursday night, to be exact. When you see the Ayesha Curry/Mary Babers-Green/Julie Thompson crowd having a good time long after the final whistle has blown like they were after the Game 5 win over Dallas, reveling in this renaissance that was led by the same Steph/Draymond /Klay core that began this dynastic run eight years ago, you know there’s likely a trophy of some sort involved.
But we’d never seen this group getting after it at Chase Center, where this gentlemen’s sweep affair was only necessary because they’d messed around in Game 4 in Dallas two days before and thus — per our Tim Kawakami — stumbled into another $10 million in revenue because of the added home game. The forthcoming Finals home games, by the way, are worth upwards of $15 million apiece.
Talk about a rich experience for all involved—in more ways than one.
Yet, from Golden State’s elation to Dallas’ elimination and all the fascinating sights and sounds in between, there was plenty to take in that didn’t show up on your television. The following is a behind-the-scenes look at the night the Warriors won the West.
Maybe it’s generational — OK, it’s definitely generational — but Klay Thompson’s mention of his Nintendo habits during his postgame press conference sparked a level of curiosity that far exceeded anything else he had to say about the game itself. Once upon a time, somewhere around 1985, this 44-year-old man was taking photographs of his victory over Mike Tyson in Punch-Out with the hopes of winning the award that turned out to be an urban legend.
So while it was quite impressive that Thompson hit eight 3-pointers in Game 5, thus surpassing Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Ray Allen to become the all-time leader in playoff games with at least eight 3s (five), it was his breakdown of the pregame video game routine that moved the needle (for me) even more.
“I don’t want to give away all my secrets,” Thompson said. “Before I even start my day, I get up, jump in my 65-degree pool to wake myself up. I’m so lucky to even have a pool.
“I just play with (my dog) Rocco. I play, maybe some Nintendo. I just try not to watch basketball or basketball media. That’s how I clear my mind, is just doing other things that occupy my time that are fun.”
I caught up with Thompson afterward to get to the bottom of the video-game portion of his existence. To be more specific, he plays on a Nintendo 64 and quotes “Super Mario World” and “Super Smash Bros.” as his games of choice.
Speaking of nostalgia, Thompson and I discussed the fact that some of the stars they’ve survived playing against in this playoff run were mere pups when it all began with a win over the Cavs in 2015.
First round against Denver: Nikola Jokic was just 20 years old when the Warriors first won it all.
Second round against Memphis: Ja Morant was 15.
Conference Finals: Luka Doncic was 16.
“It’s crazy,” Thompson told The Athletic. “We’re now like those guys I was talking about, like the Spurs team we played (in 2017), who were older but (good).”
A few blasts from the past who have long since been retired started to cross his mind.
“B-Rush,” he began by quoting former Warrior Brandon Rush. “David West. (Andrew) Bogut. Mo Speights. It’s crazy. I miss those guys. When you win a championship with somebody, you’ve got that bond forever. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
On Thompson’s way out, Warriors PR man Ray Ridder was escorting him to the court for pictures with the Western Conference championship trophy when his apathy said it all about the end game here.
“Ray, we want the big trophy,” Thompson said before he begrudgingly obliged to the request.
Staying with the trophies theme here, Curry wasn’t much for sartorial subtleties.
His green sweatsuit said it all about his state of mind these days: “Trophy Hunting,” the logo on his chest read.
As ESPN’s Nick DePaula pointed out on Twitter, the Warriors star had also chosen to wear the same Curry 5 shoe that he wore during the 2018 Finals in which Golden State swept Cleveland in the Finals en route to its last title. The outfit was there for all to see postgame, as Curry sat among reporters for approximately 15 minutes while Draymond Green held court with the press and his teammate waited for his turn at the podium.
And then, after winning the inaugural Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award despite his subpar outing in the closeout game, Curry found himself facing a question that he could have made far more uncomfortable than he allowed it to be. We highlighted the awkward part for you.
Last year there was probably a measure of maybe individual satisfaction for you getting back to that MVP level after the injury you had. How difficult is it to hold yourself to a championship mindset as opposed to just getting back, holding the franchise to that? Secondly, how does it feel to win a postseason MVP trophy?
The unspoken reality being referenced, of course, is that Curry’s lack of a Finals MVP trophy continues to be a point of focus when his legacy is debated. After addressing the first question, Curry took the second one in stride.
“Yeah, the new trophy is pretty cool, especially with who it’s named after (and) the standard that Magic set in terms of being a champion and playing the point guard position, whatever other position he played; just the excellence that he demonstrated throughout his entire career,” said Curry, who averaged 23.8 points, 7.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds in the series but missed 12 of 17 shots and had just 15 points in the finale (though he was plus-11) . “Definitely special. I appreciate the way the teammates celebrated with me. Like I said, that acknowledgment, six out of eight (Finals appearances), (the) ability to play in another Finals, I mean, what else could you want? I’m excited about another opportunity to go get one.”
On his way out, I asked Curry where he planned on watching Boston’s attempt to finish the East Finals against Miami in Game 6 on Friday.
“The crib,” he said with a smile.
To the victor goes the spoils, in other words. By avoiding a trip back to Dallas for Game 6 on Saturday, the Warriors earned a six-day break at home between the end of the Western Conference finals and the start of the Finals on Thursday.
Luka and the long view in Dallas
It’s easy to forget that Luka Dončić is 23 (as of Feb. 28). The Mavericks star is so elite, and his production so historic, that you’d wear he’d been doing this for a decade now in the NBA.
But with his fourth season coming to an end far deeper into the postseason than just about everyone predicted, it’s worth remembering that he’s (still) just getting started. And the fact that he is expressing great confidence in the Mavericks program — one in which he connected with coach Jason Kidd during their first season together — is a promising sign for all involved.
Especially considering the five-year, $207 million extension he signed last summer starts next season.
“I mean, great,” Dončić said when asked about his view on the Mavericks’ ability to eventually become NBA champions again. “Honestly, great. I think we are a young team. … I think this year we made a huge, huge step, maybe a couple of steps. I think we are in a great way. Obviously, there’s a lot of things to do, but I think, like I say, we made a huge step, and I think we are on a great path.”
In terms of the Mavs’ most pressing offseason questions, Jalen Brunson’s free agency looms largest of them all. But while team officials continued to express optimism on this front, Brunson himself didn’t give much of an indication as to how he sees it.
“When it’s time, it’s time,” he said of free agency. “For me, I’m just — when it happens, it happens. I’m not worried about it right now. Honestly, at this point, how I feel, I’m really happy that I got to play with these guys, and the things that we did this year, that’s all I’m focused on right now and thinking about. I’ll think about that later.”
From Dončić to Dirk and … Chet Holmgren?
If you threw a Mavs jersey on Dirk Nowitzki, I swear he could still give them 15 minutes or so. He looks almost the same as he did during that legendary playing career, which spanned two decades and has him Hall of Fame-bound. The Dončić and Dirk dynamic duo, perhaps?
Instead, the retired 43-year-old was on hand in street clothes as part of his role as a team special advisor that began last summer. And after he spent time talking with everyone from Mavs owner Mark Cuban to Dončić and the many others that surrounded them, Nowitzki took some time to meet a young player who might be on this sort of stage sometime soon: Gonzaga star and possible No. 1 pick in the June 23 draft, Chet Holmgren.
While Nowitzki told me that he doesn’t watch an exorbitant amount of college basketball, he said he was very familiar with Holmgren’s game.
“Super skilled,” said Nowitzki, whose Mavs are slated to pick 26th. “But I didn’t realize he was that tall.”
See for yourself.
Holmgren was on hand with his newly selected agent, Bill Duffy of BDA Sports, who also represents Dončić. We spoke briefly afterward about his conversation with Nowitzki and the anticipation that is building as he nears the start of his own NBA career.
“It was crazy to meet somebody of that importance to the game,” Holmgren said of Nowitzki. “I think he’s one of those guys who started to change the NBA game into what it is today with guys with size relying on skill, and playing so much on the perimeter. It was great to be able to meet somebody like that, and start a relationship to hopefully be able to speak with him a lot — Xs and Os — and be able to pick his brain. He’s one of the best to do it for sure.
“I got his contact (information), and I’m definitely going to be calling him to talk basketball and hopefully not bugging him too much.”
Holmgren, the slight seven-footer whose defensive prowess and versatile offensive game have him in the running for the top draft spot, found himself wishing he could take part in the NBA action now rather than watching from the sidelines.
“It definitely (makes) me want to be here with basketball shoes on instead of jeans and a hoodie,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, so for it to be right on the other side of the door — all I’ve got to do is walk through. It’s a hell of an opportunity.
“It’s just gonna come down to the work. It’s every single day, learning what I’ve got to work on and learning how to improve that.”
So, I asked, does he see himself as an impact player on Day One at the next level?
“I think I can lace ’em up and make basketball plays,” he said. “I’m a basketball player. I’m a hooper. That’s what I do.”
(Top photo of Luka Dončić and Klay Thompson: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)