Trailing 41-39 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Coach Steve Kerr reinserted Stephen Curry for Klay Thompson. Curry joined Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, David West and Andre Iguodala. Those five had never played as a unit before — not in the Finals, not in the playoffs, not in the regular season. Not ever. And then they went and clinched a championship together.
The lineup had been born organically, through foul trouble and a whim. In 4:58, the lineup outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers, 22-4, and turned a two-point deficit into enough of a cushion for a coronation, an eventual 129-120 victory. The outburst ended when West tussled with Tristan Thompson and drew a technical foul. By that point, 3:08 before halftime, the Warriors had taken a 61-45 lead.
All with a lineup the Warriors had never planned to employ.
“Wow,” West said. “I didn’t know that. We talk about just being a group. Whatever Steve says, we go with it. No egos. We run what he draws on the board. We were professional about it all year. It worked in our favor in that moment.”
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The lineup started coming together at the outset of the second quarter. Usually, Durant begins the second quarter on the bench and Green plays center. But referees called two fouls on Green in the first quarter, and so Kerr benched Green and started Durant to begin the second with a bench-heavy supporting cast.
The Warriors went cold, and when LeBron James slammed a breakaway dunk over Durant, Kerr called timeout with Golden State trailing 41-33. The Warriors had faced the cloud of blowing a 3-1 series lead for an entire year, and now the Cavaliers threatened to start in motion the same possibility. Tension filled Oracle Arena.
“Stay poised,” Kerr told players on the bench. “It’s a long game.”
Sensing the game slipping, Kerr gambled and sent Green back in for rookie Patrick McCaw. He had already shortened his rotation, keeping Ian Clark and JaVale McGee on the bench. The Warriors scored the next six points, with West emerging as a force, draining two baskets and playing forceful defense. Coaches decided to stick with him longer than usual.
“David just brought an element of toughness to the game,” Golden State assistant coach Chris DeMarco said. “We just thought that was important.”
With the lead cut to two, Kerr switched Curry for Thompson. He intended to give Thompson a short break and then put him back in quickly. When Curry entered, the Warriors revealed the new lineup.
“We had practiced together,” Iguodala said. “We all know each other’s games. We got a lot of veterans in there. So we were good with it.”
For their new unit, Golden State coaches called one of their steadfast plays: double drag with a cleared side.
Curry started with the ball on the wing, closer to the corner than the top of the key. Durant started on the wing, with West at the top of the key. Green stationed himself on the opposite wing, with Iguodala in the opposite corner. Curry initiated the play with a dribble around the perimeter, using both Durant and West as screeners. From there, Curry reacted to the defense.
“We made a lot of plays out of that simple action,” assistant coach Jarron Collins said.
Golden State hammered the Cavaliers over and over with the double drag. They also stifled Cleveland’s attack, thriving on the uncommon size of Durant, West and Green together. After James’s dunk on Durant, Cleveland missed nine of its next 11 shots.
“Once we get stops, we know we’re deadly in transition and flowing from there,” Iguodala said. “David West is tough. We had some length on the perimeter. We could switch real easy.”
As the lineup dominated together, Kerr changed his original plan — rather than putting Thompson back in for West, giving the Warriors their patented Death Lineup, he stayed with West. Coaches knew they had veered from their typical substitution pattern in the biggest game of the season, and they didn’t care.
“That group got rolling, and we just stuck with it,” DeMarco said. “We were getting stops. We were getting out and pushing. It was just one of those things, you could go with something else or stay with what’s working. David was great. We just had a lot of pace with that group. We stuck with it.”
The run ended when West’s toughness spilled over. He wrestled for a loose ball with Kyrie Irving, which turned into a shoving match with Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. He earned a technical and a spot on the bench. But his performance had been crucial, a fitting coda for a respected veteran.
West left significant money on the table to pursue a title with Golden State, as he had done a year prior, unsuccessfully, with San Antonio. In Game 5, West delivered — the Warriors outscored Cleveland by 16 points in his 11 minutes. In the Warriors’ locker room afterward, drenched in Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut, he screamed in joy.
“You can’t take it with you,” West said. “The Egyptians learned that! You can’t bury and take the treasures with you. It’s about the small things in life, the accomplishments. It’s about winning.”
The Warriors proved again that they can win in just about any fashion, even with a lineup they didn’t expect.