Kawakami: Steph Curry’s window of opportunity and 4 other things we’ve learned about the Warriors this postseason

Kawakami: Steph Curry’s window of opportunity and 4 other things we’ve learned about the Warriors this postseason

Yes, the window is still open and will remain open whether the Warriors win the championship or not in about a week. That isn’t the most immediate issue in the next few days, of course, but it’s a big one for the short- and long-term health of this franchise and the state of play in the Western Conference.

Obviously, with the Warriors currently tied with Boston at 2-2 in the Finals and Game 5 coming up Monday at Chase Center, the championship window is wide open, current and urgent right now. And the larger point is that it will remain open for several more years, which is thanks to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (and Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney and Jordan Poole) doing so much to keep the darn thing from closing.

I mean, which group looked fresher and hungrier in Friday’s epic Game 4 in Boston — the 20-something Celtics core or Curry, who had just suffered a reaggravation of a foot injury, and Thompson, who missed the previous two seasons with massive leg injuries?

Or let’s just zero in on Curry, who is making this his personal this-will-be-a-great-documentary achievement at age 34, in his 13th NBA season, which is Michael Jordan-level stuff. Larry Bird won his last title when he was 29, Magic Johnson when he was 28 and Isiah Thomas when he was 29. Jordan’s last title came in 1998, when he was 35. (Oldest Finals MVP in history: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1985 at 38, No. 2 is LeBron James, who was 35 for his most recent title and also won MVP in 2020.)

So far through four games in the series, Curry is shooting 50 percent (47 for 94) from the field, 49 percent (25 for 51) from 3-point, 85.7 (18 for 21) on free throws and averaging 34.3 points.

Yes, Curry is verging on a hallowed 50-40-90 performance or even a 50-50-90 (overall field-goal percentage/3-point percentage/free-throw percentage) in the Finals while averaging 12.8 3-point attempts, 6.3 deep makes and 6.3 rebounds per game against a very, very good defense. Unbelievable. Even for a very veteran Curry observer like me, that’s just stunning.

Wins and titles matter far more than statistical milestones, of course. Curry would take going 0 for his next 30 if it guaranteed two more Warriors victories and a trophy ceremony after that. Also, this achievement will only happen if he maintains his overall FG%, stays relatively hot from 3 and goes at least 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. We’ll see if that happens.

But this is just a ridiculous achievement through four Finals games against the league’s best defense, which is lined up specifically to try to stop Curry. The 50-40-90 shooting holy grail has only been done nine times for a full season in the NBA, once by Curry in 2015-16.

The only player I can find who pulled this off in the Finals with any kind of 3-point volume is Kevin Durant with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018 when the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games and then four games.

In 2017, Durant went 55.6/47.4 (18 for 38)/92.7.

In 2018, Durant went 52.6/40.9 (9 for 22)/96.3.

Breaking news: Durant was incredible in those Finals. He also defended LeBron James and won Finals MVP both times. (Curry is playing very solid defense in this series, by the way.)

A close one: In the 1992 Finals against Portland, Jordan shot 52.6/42.9 (12 for 28 from 3)/89.1.

Anyway, it could switch up swiftly in Games 5, 6 and a potential Game 7. But Curry getting to this point, dragging the Warriors to this point, and creating so many opportunities for his teammates while the defense contorts to try to stop him … is all the evidence you need to know that Curry can keep doing this next season and probably a version of it for several seasons beyond that.

He’s one of one. Those guys don’t go away quietly or when the NBA actuarial tables say they should. And if Curry isn’t diminished, the Warriors will have every chance to keep doing this for a while, even if they lose this series. (And I don’t think they’re going to lose this series.)

“I’ve said it plenty of times: We have a lot left in the tank in terms of what we can do out there on the floor,” Curry said Sunday. “You bring up the age thing. It’s something to talk about, but it doesn’t really reflect how we approach this playoff journey and our confidence, what we can do going forward.

“But that doesn’t happen by accident. It’s just the work that you put into it. You know, Klay, especially, the fact that he was on a minutes restriction for like a month (during his midseason comeback), and slowly got to ramp it up every couple weeks leading up to the playoffs, and then he was so proud of himself when he first eclipsed 40 minutes in a regular-season game one time.

“Just the pride — he talked about it that like a year ago, he wasn’t even running. It just speaks to how much this matters and how much work goes on behind the scenes for being ready for whatever happens out there in the games that matter. We are obviously only worried about right now, but we definitely feel like we have a lot left in the tank.”

Speaking of the 32-year-old Thompson, he’s played the most minutes on the team in the postseason (711) and is averaging 35.6 minutes per game. In the Finals, he’s played 149 minutes (37.3 per), which is tied with Andrew Wiggins for most on the team and behind only the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum (160 minutes, 40 per game) overall.

Klay’s shot has come and gone, as usual, but he’s playing defense with a new style (mostly using his lower-body strength and hands on the mid-post) and with full-out energy, including those two huge steals late in the third quarter of Game 4. He just never looks tired, which is a perfect reminder of his younger days, back when he was the Warriors’ best perimeter defender.

And Game 6 Klay looms.

So … Curry’s prime years are nowhere close to over. And Klay looks stronger now than he did a few weeks or months ago, with every chance to be close to his best next season and beyond. Wiggins and Looney have been postseason revelations. Poole has been fine. Draymond is having a tough time against the Celtics’ length and athleticism, but he’s still the emotional heart of this team and probably will have a great game coming up soon.

If the Warriors lose this series, it will mean that Boston played tremendously starting Monday to win it and that the Warriors remain a threat to keep getting back here for several more years. If the Warriors win this series, well, watch out for the next few seasons.

That’s the main thing I’m thinking about the Warriors right now. Here are a few others:

Could the Celtics be wearing down a little?

Boston played back-to-back seven-game series to get to the Finals. The Warriors got through the previous two rounds in only 11 games, which earned them several extra days of rest before Game 1 of this series, while the Celtics flew back-and-forth up and down the East Coast to finish off the Miami Heat.

More: The Celtics have played 22 games so far this postseason, the Warriors have played 20; Tatum has played the most minutes in the postseason, with 898 total (40.8 minutes per game), Jaylen Brown is next at 832 (37.8 per), then Al Horford at 743.

Klay Thompson is fourth at 711 (35.6 per). Curry is seventh at 687 (34.3 per), then come Marcus Smart at 682 and Wiggins at 681.

Those are just numbers. I’m focusing on the Warriors outscoring Boston 58-43 in the second half at TD Garden on Friday. I’m thinking of that 17-3 run over the last five-plus minutes, right after the Celtics took a 94-90 lead on a Smart 3-pointer. I’m remembering that the Celtics just sort of stopped moving on offense and jacked up a series of rushed 3-pointers, making only 1 of their 7 long-distance attempts over the final stretch and only attempting one 2-pointer (a miss by Brown).

The Celtics had a golden opportunity at home to get an iron grip on this series. The Warriors played great, no doubt, to prevent that. But the way the Celtics faded was exactly how you’d expect a tired team to play when the opponent turns up the pressure.

No doubt, the Celtics are tremendously resilient. They haven’t lost consecutive games this postseason — they’re 7-0 in this situation, including Game 3 over the Warriors after losing Game 2. However, here’s a stat that’s less circulated: The Warriors are 6-0 after a loss this postseason, including two wins in that situation this series. Nobody’s getting a free winning streak in this series, basically.

But Robert Williams and Smart, who battled leg injuries last series, looked gimpy to me on Friday. I noted during the game that Smart was clearly laboring and didn’t run back to play transition defense several times in a row. Then I watched a bit of the second-half replay and it was even more clear — the Celtics put Derrick White on Curry and kept Smart on Draymond. That can’t be the main plan, even if it allows Smart to play free safety because he’s not really defending Draymond. That’s what set Curry loose. Again, that can’t be the Celtics’ main plan.

It’s also a credit to how swiftly the Warriors were able to get through the Western Conference tournament. That’s why you always want to end a series as swiftly as you can. Fatigue is a real thing and it might play a larger factor as this heads into the title rounds. It certainly was part of what happened in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

The Warriors are older. The Warriors are not looking like it.

The Warriors might have to keep managing Draymond’s playing time like they did in Game 4

Guess who leads the series in plus-minus: That would be Looney, who is a sterling plus-36 in 92 minutes. (Curry and Wiggins are next for the Warriors, both at plus-12.)

At the bottom of the Warriors’ main-rotation list: Draymond is minus-6, Andre Iguodala minus-7, Klay and Nemanja Bjelica minus-10, Andre Iguodala minus-7 and Poole minus-16.

(For the Celtics, it’s Payton Pritchard at plus-22 in 54 minutes — yes, I realize a lot of this is statistical noise! — then Robert Williams at plus-20 and Jaylen Brown at plus-7. Tatum is down toward the bottom of their list at minus-6, Al Horford is minus-10, Smart minus-11, Grant Williams minus-19 and White minus-23, which is rough when you consider he was plus-25 in Game 1; White is minus-48 in Games 2-4.)

This is just a practical way to underline that Looney was the better option at center for much of the fourth quarter on Friday when Kerr pulled Draymond for a long stretch. Looney might continue to be the better option in this series when Kerr is going with a small lineup. That doesn’t mean Draymond has lost it or is distracted, it just means that he can’t make it up in other areas against this team when the Celtics dare him to shoot and Draymond decides he’d better not.

Six years ago, Draymond figured it out in a very similar mid-series situation against Oklahoma City. I don’t know if that’s going to happen in this series. It might. He told me after Game 4 that he liked the shots he was getting and he plans on making them soon. I have learned to trust his instincts. Also, he was tremendous in Game 2. And Draymond still is a plus-90 overall in the postseason, fourth-best on the team (behind Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr. and Curry, in that order).

But if it doesn’t happen for Draymond starting Monday, or if Draymond’s contributions are limited strictly to defense, Kerr will probably have to return to the conclusion he made on Friday: Looney is the better option in key moments.

What does this mean for the future? Looney is a pending free agent and the Warriors have his Bird rights. Looney has hit the market on a hot streak in previous seasons, received almost no interest and returned to the Warriors at a relatively inexpensive price. That might not happen again, but I don’t think the Warriors will let Looney get away unless he gets an absolutely massive long-term offer to go elsewhere. I thought that before this series and I certainly think that now. And even if he gets a massive offer, the Warriors still might match anything he gets. This is the perfect place for Looney. I’m quite sure he knows that. So it’ll come down to the Warriors meeting the price.

They’re rich. The whole thing is built on contending for championships. Right now, Looney helps them do that as much or more than any big man on the roster.

Also, the Warriors drafted James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga in the past two years partly to change the way their frontline plays. These two potentially won’t pass up dunks or layups. They won’t be overly worried about opponent shot-blockers swooping in. They’ll just dunk the ball, if possible. Again, that’s very different for the Warriors and … adding that kind of talent on the frontcourt was done intentionally.

If you’re ready to give up on Wiseman at 22, after two mostly lost seasons, just remember that Robert Williams only played 32 games as a rookie, still was shaky into his second season and only has become a true difference-maker now, at 24, in his fourth season. Wiseman won’t be 24 until March 2024.

Big men sometimes take a while. The Warriors have some time to wait on Wiseman and Kuminga. They’re happy to wait knowing the potential that’s there. And oh, Kuminga won’t turn 24 until October 2026.

No, it’s not about Draymond’s podcasting

Draymond has gotten roasted for devoting so much time and energy to his postgame and other podcasts, and he had to know that was coming, whether he played well or not. And he has not played well in this series. So he put a target on his back and he’s getting pummeled.

He can live with it. But a couple of points from me: 1) He’s not distracted by this because he’s saying a lot of the same things he says in general media sessions and probably to his friends and family all of the time; you ask Draymond a question, he usually says what he thinks; the podcast is just an extension of that, which should not be overly wearying; 2) It’s not like he’d be resting or studying film every single second if he wasn’t recording the podcast. Just because you can see or hear it, that doesn’t mean it’s wearing a player down.

At some point, Draymond’s play will fall off. This is inevitable. He’s matched against a team that can frustrate him more than almost any other. That’s not about his podcasting or TV work or any off-the-court situation. It’s because he’s maximized every bit of his 6-foot-6 body through all these seasons and sometimes there’s a limit to that at the highest level.

Mike Brown and Kenny Atkinson’s scheduled departures aren’t distracting the coaching staff

Kerr won’t talk about how the Warriors plan to replace Brown, who is headed to take over the Kings, and Atkinson, who will be taking over the Hornets, until after this season. For now, Brown and Atkinson, Kerr’s Nos. 1 and 2 assistants, are with the team and in every meeting and barking instructions in every game.

You can tell by the adjustments the Warriors have made and the alert work on the sidelines during games that these are not coaches just counting down the days until they can leave. There’s a championship to try to win.

“We’re in the Finals, so everybody is just locked in,” Kerr said Sunday. “We’ll deal with that when we get to it.”

Several years ago, Willie Green left the Warriors’ staff to join Monty Williams in Phoenix; last offseason, Green got the top job with the Pelicans. Before that, Kerr lost Alvin Gentry and Luke Walton to top jobs.

The Warriors have been and will continue to be an attractive place for assistant coaches. This is a stable organization and the playoff runs get assistants on the fast track to head-coaching gigs. So I’m sure Kerr is getting besieged by applications, emails and text messages. The Warriors will not have any issues finding good candidates for these openings. And if any other assistants get hired away during any future long playoff runs, they’ll stick around like Brown and Atkinson have through this postseason, and they will contribute the same way they always have, as top coaches in this profession who are set to do bigger things.

It’s not a distraction for the Warriors; it’s a feature.

(Photo: David Butler II / USA Today)

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