The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ championship DNA reap a beautiful renaissance

The Warriors' Stephen Curry celebrates with the conference finals MVP trophy Thursday night. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Stephen Curry wore white to the supposed funeral. It was Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, which the Toronto Raptors won to capture their first title, and everything about the night felt like somber finality for Golden State — except for seeing Curry in those threads.

Kevin Durant, who would soon depart for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, was in a New York hospital recovering from surgery. Klay Thompson was about to visit the operating table, too. Curry missed a three-pointer late in Game 6 that could have extended the series, and now the Warriors had to deal with the lights being turned out in every sense. It was the final game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., and many predicted it was the end of the Warriors’ dominance as well.

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Three long years later, the Warriors are back in the Finals. The ruptured tendons and shredded ligaments of 2019 didn’t turn out to be a gut-wrenching indicator it was time for Golden State’s greatness to expire. It was just the end of the Warriors as we knew them, the end of the Durant phase of an era still determined to become an all-time dynasty.

The most significant symbol of that 2019 finale turned out to be Curry, who looked disappointed but dressed as though he was going to a summer party in Miami. Actually, come to think of it, he wasn’t clad in all white. He wore a cream-colored blazer atop all the chalky garb. Devastation had never looked so sleek.

“Enjoy the champagne,” he told bubbly-drenched Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard as they greeted each other in the interview room that night.

It was a sincere gesture, but Curry was only conceding that moment to Leonard and the rest of the NBA. He and Draymond Green declared the Warriors would be back. It may have been the first time Curry used his favorite phrase of the past few years — “championship DNA” — as a verbal banner to remind all of what’s possible.

“Our DNA and who we are and the character that we have on this team, I wouldn’t bet against us,” Curry said that losing night.

Twenty minutes later, he put his nice suit to work, posing for pictures with family and friends at Oracle Arena one last time. For those happy moments, it didn’t seem as though the Warriors had lost it all — Durant (for good); Thompson (for the next 2½ seasons); a fourth title of the Curry era and a rare three-peat opportunity; and a loud, old building full of memories — because their franchise player refused to yield. That attitude alone didn’t resuscitate the Warriors. It was a process that included two years out of the playoffs and a league-worst 15-50 record in 2019-20.

But for the sixth time in eight seasons, Golden State has advanced to the championship round. Of those six iterations, this team finished with the worst regular season record (53-29), and in the playoffs the blowout-prone Warriors once trailed Memphis by 55 during a potential closeout game. But they’re here and ahead of schedule, considering what they went through to retool. And they’re formidable, with their great 30-something core of Curry, Thompson and Green, an emerging star in Jordan Poole, a reclaimed star in Andrew Wiggins and a cast of veteran role players to go with a few young, high-ceiling talents.

Even if this group doesn’t win the championship, it may go down as the most important one in the Warriors’ bid to sustain excellence. Impermanence is a reality in professional sports, and during this NBA period of heavy player movement, success is more fleeting than ever. However, Golden State is more in the mold of the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty of Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich than it is one of those short-lived championship squads that won a free agency bonanza.

As a player, Steve Kerr was a quality reserve for two dynasties and collected five championship rings — three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the Spurs. As a coach, he has taken the most pertinent lessons from all of his hoops experiences and won three more titles his own way. The Warriors play a distinct brand of beautiful basketball, harmonizing on offense and defense, blurring positional lines and amplifying all of the invaluable contributions players can make without hogging the ball. But they are sneakily adaptable within their identity.

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It’s fascinating that this is the Warriors’ third wave of contention under Kerr. He arrived for the 2014-15 season as a rookie coach, and Golden State won right away, capturing the 2015 crown and finishing with a league-record 73 victories the next year before losing to Cleveland in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Then, with good planning and a salary cap spike in 2016, General Manager Bob Myers landed a superstar free agent in Durant to add an unbeatable dimension to a team that already had three all-stars. In Durant’s three seasons, the Warriors won two more championships.

Sometimes, those seasons — five Finals appearances, three triumphs — are lumped together, but they shouldn’t be. The “Strength in Numbers” Warriors of unparalleled depth weren’t the same as the more streamlined and overpowering teams that tweaked things to allow for Durant to carry them in critical situations.

Now there’s this squad, still with room to grow despite the aging stars. These are very different Warriors within the same, enviable culture. They are attempting to do what traditionalists have long deemed impossible. They are locked into win-now mode and carving out time to develop a crop of young draft picks. They have guided Poole from the G League to stardom, and he has transformed the Warriors’ offense by marrying Splash Brother-worthy shooting with the ability to break down the defense off the dribble. They are doing a good job with rookie lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. They’re thriving in player development without injured center James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick of the 2020 draft, who has played only 39 games over two seasons.

It was assumed the Warriors wouldn’t be able to win a championship with two critical portions of the team on different timelines. It was assumed they would be willing to trade those lottery picks to acquire another star or high-level complementary player. So far, the Warriors have resisted the urge to think short term. If they continue to succeed, they will assemble a bridge from the current era to the next.

Three years ago, you looked at the clock and figured Leonard and the Raptors had done to the Warriors what he and the Spurs did to the Miami Heat’s Big Three in 2014 — another super team thwarted by an MVP performance from Fun Guy Kawhi. The league was poised to spin the superstar free agent wheel again and reset the balance of power.

That happened, but the Warriors continued to adjust to a rapidly changing league. They’re on their own time now, positioned to continue their run, expecting it to end only on their terms.

If the other teams didn’t enjoy the champagne, they had better start guzzling now.