With some time to reflect on the Golden State Warriors’ series against the Portland Trail Blazers, one thing kept coming back to me: Man, it’s a good thing they won that Game 5!
Much has been said and written about the closeness of the series and how it didn’t feel like a 4-1 series at all. The Warriors trailed by double-digits in three of their four wins, and came from behind in the fourth quarter in all three comebacks. Portland got on the bus to the airport feeling it could have won Games 2, 4 and 5, (not that they should have, according to coach Terry Stotts, but that they could have).
The difference in the series was clearly Steph Curry. His sprained right knee, which seemed to only affect him until Games 4 and 5 were on the line, is part of the reason the Game 5 closeout was so crucial to the Warriors’ title hopes.
When talking about the importance of Game 5, there are two main aspects to cover.
Part I: What Was At Stake.
The Warriors had a phenomenal regular season, but they were constantly questioned about how much that would mean if they didn’t win the championship. When their record-setting 24-game winning streak was over, they said all the right things about how they could get back to the regular rhythm of the season and prepare for the playoffs in defense of their crown. Only they kept winning, and suddenly they were 30-3, and then 40-4, and then 50 and freaking 5, and the prospect of winning 73 games started taking over the conversation.
When asked about breaking the Chicago Bulls’ record, the Warriors were of one voice. “It would be great.” the voice said, “but it won’t mean anything unless we repeat as NBA champions.”
Well, they came pretty close to finding out whether that was true in the Portland series.
They were one 6-3 point guard away from it.
Curry’s return, with the Warriors trailing 16-2 in Game 4, changed everything, and the quest to repeat lived for another round.
Part II: The Warriors’ Physical State.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find a team in the history of any American professional sport that has played more games under pressure than the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors.
Any team is going to be under the microscope when it tries to repeat, but when you start the season without losing a game, the pressure ramps up quickly. Eight of the Warriors’ first 10 wins were by double-digits, several by more than 20. Then, suddenly, they were down three to a 1-9 Brooklyn team at home with 10 seconds to play. Andre Iguodala hit a 3-pointer to tie the game and the Nets’ Brook Lopez missed a two-foot tip-in, and the Warriors won in overtime.
My point is that if you’re 9-1, that Brooklyn game is just a game. When you’re 10-0, just five games from the record to start a season, it’s much bigger. The more you win, the bigger it gets. Games 12 (Toronto) and 13 (Clippers) were narrow escapes, and then the Dubs started beating people by 20 again.
15-0 to tie the record. 16-0 to break it. Each win after that setting a new record.
The 33-game streak by the 1972 L.A. Lakers started to come into view, especially since the Warriors were credited with five wins at the end of the 2014-2015 season as part of their streak. The pressure built. Games in November and December in the NBA are not generally high-profile. It’s still football season in America, and the NBA doesn’t even have a national TV game on an over-the-air network until Christmas. The Warriors, though, because of the streak, were in everybody’s crosshairs every night. With apologies to Tiger Woods, they got every team’s “A” game.
Finally, on the second night of a back-to-back, they lost. They had flown to Milwaukee after an overtime win in Boston that was made much tougher because of a bad call by the referees, and the streak ended at 24. They improved the old record by 60 percent (the old record was 15, the new record nine games greater).
When people started talking about whether the Warriors should rest players rather than go after the Bulls’ win record, the point was actually moot. With Festus Ezeli and Andre Iguodala on the sidelines, and the team’s bench mostly made up of veteran players who couldn’t steal extra minutes, Steve Kerr didn’t have the luxury of resting Curry or Klay Thompson for 48 minutes. There was also the matter of the San Antonio Spurs, who doggedly pursued the Warriors throughout the season, only waving the white flag with a couple of weeks to go in the season. The Warriors had not won a regular season game in San Antonio in nearly 20 years, and home-court advantage was going to be very important when the two teams met in the playoffs.
Well, we all thought that, anyway.
The Warriors have constantly been immersed in a high-stress season filled with wire-to-wire pressure. Almost every game has been played in a playoff atmosphere. No games were just “games.” Every game meant something extra in the larger scope of NBA history and — because of the Spurs — nearly every game mattered in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West. It was nerve-wracking for the fans, let alone the players.
All of this was true when the ball went up for Game 5 against the Blazers.
When Andrew Bogut pulled a hamstring muscle and left the game in the first half, and Draymond Green rolled his ankle in the second, it became even more critical that the Warriors win that game and get a four- or six-game rest before the start of the Western Conference Finals. A loss meant a plane flight to Portland the next day; no Bogut and a hobbled Green for Game 6; and more stress for Curry’s recovering knee. Let’s also remember that Portland’s home building is one of the hardest places to play in the NBA, and after winning Game 5 to extend the series, the Blazers’ confidence would have soared. It’s very easy to see Portland winning Game 6 and forcing a Game 7, with a questionable Bogut, a still-hobbled Green, and a still-stressed Curry. Do the Warriors win Game 7 in that circumstance?
Most people who follow the team are glad we don’t have to find out.
The four days of rest before the West Finals have been a big help, and there’s a three-day hiatus between Games 2 and 3 of the WCF. The Warriors have the advantage now of being playoff-tested, not only this season and last year, but by a Portland team which resembles them in several ways. Curry’s absence forced other players to play key minutes and hit key shots, all of which will come in handy against Oklahoma City.
If the Warriors pull off this championship, remember Game 5 against Portland, in my opinion the most important conference-semifinal Game 5 closeout in NBA history.