The Warriors’ Perfect Basketball

Golden State's dominance could grow stale in the future, but for now the team presents nightly masterpieces in pursuit of excellence.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant celebrates with teammates after the Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-113 in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Cleveland, Wednesday, June 7, 2017.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant celebrates with teammates after the Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-113 in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Cleveland, Wednesday, June 7, 2017.  (Ron Schwane / AP)

Any seasoned watcher of the NBA knows that stockpiled talent brings its own drawbacks. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal won three consecutive titles together for Los Angeles in the 2000s, but they sniped at each other in the media and eventually presented an ultimatum to the front office: Choose one. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, when they joined forces in Miami in 2010, found that giving up some control to accommodate each other was not as simple as it sounded; they limped to a slow start in their first year together and lost that season’s Finals in dispiriting fashion. Basketball requires balance, and groups of superstars that look unbeatable on roster sheets can encounter conflicts of style or ego on the court.

The Golden State Warriors are the exception. The Warriors—who featured an MVP award winner (Stephen Curry) and two other All-Stars (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) before adding Kevin Durant, himself a former MVP, last summer—lead this year’s Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers three games to none. They have won all 15 of their playoff games over four rounds, and if they win Friday night’s contest they will become the only team in league history to complete a perfect postseason. Their key figures all solidly in their primes, they look ready to dominate the NBA for a half-decade.

More impressive than their collection of talent or their slate of results, though, is their approach to the sport. It is not just that they play without ego; their M.O. is too elegant to frame as an absence of something. Rather, they resemble distinct limbs of a larger organism, some mutant aspen grove rooted together under the hardwood. They have realized basketball equilibrium, or paradise.

During a break in Wednesday night’s third game, the sideline reporter Doris Burke asked the Warriors coach Steve Kerr about his team’s propensity for sharing. “It’s just who they are,” Kerr replied. “They all like to pass, they all like to move the ball, and it works pretty well for them.”

That evening, it worked well enough to produce a heart-stopping back-and-forth victory that made the best use of all of the Warriors’ gifts. Curry maneuvered around the court with piscine quickness, darting to the rim or behind screens, making long-range three-pointers and odd-angled layups. Thompson added six triples of his own. Green—the team’s bleeding heart—threw expert passes and feuded with referees. Durant jogged upcourt in the final minute, blinked at LeBron James, hoisted his 6’11” frame, and swished what would prove the game-winning shot. Each star leveraged his own talents for the benefit of his teammates; the ball went from player to player like a thought among telepaths. Were it not so obviously improvisational, responding to the circumstances of every moment, the display would have seemed scripted.

“It’s probably the most firepower I’ve played in my career,” James said of the Warriors following the game, referring to their sheer assemblage of skill. Comments from Mark Jackson, the former Golden State head coach announcing the Finals for ABC, got closer to the truth. “An underrated part of the Warriors team is their unselfish spirit,” he said. “It’s contagious.”

Fans might scoff at the idea that any part of the Warriors could be underrated; they are predicted not only to finish off the Cavaliers in short order but to dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future. Golden State’s supremacy has not hurt the league’s television ratings yet, but some fear it could if it continues. “I think it becomes very boring when you don’t see a great team challenged,” Jackson’s announcing partner Jeff Van Gundy said on a recent episode of ESPN’s Lowe Post podcast. Indeed, games like Wednesday’s have been rarities, the Warriors more often sprinting to comfortable blowouts. Of their 15 postseason wins to this point, 12 have been by double-digits.

What drama they have encountered has only ended up affirming their stability. Kerr, dealing with complications from a recent back surgery, missed 11 playoff games, but the team didn’t skip a beat under the assistant coach Mike Brown. Upon returning to the team, Kerr heaped praise on his assistant, saying, “The way he’s handled this whole thing is incredible—just the humility and yet the confidence with which he took the reins.” Brown, for his part, credited the team culture for which Kerr is largely responsible: “Just being a part of this organization is fun.”

The Warriors may dampen the NBA’s competitiveness going forward—already in this series, they have rendered the most extreme efforts of James, still the world’s best player, moot—but the sense of fun that Brown spoke of remains palpable. A few minutes before Durant’s Game 3 heroics, Curry dribbled the ball upcourt. He flicked a pass over to Durant, who before he had even caught it realized that two Cleveland defenders were running at him, leaving someone else free. The ball hit Durant’s hands and was gone in an instant, shuttled to a wide-open Thompson in the corner. Thompson made the three-pointer.

It looked like something better than a sport: geometric truth, musical harmony. The court seemed arranged by golden ratios and perfect fourths. The outcome might have been inevitable—as might be the shape of the league in the years to come—but it was beautiful to watch unfold nonetheless.