There was a time not too long ago when the Warriors were a novelty – something new and shocking to the NBA.
The Dubs’ 2015 title was a surprise, not just to the rest of the league but to the team as well. But after an offseason of hearing that they were a one-and-done fluke, they entered the 2015-16 regular season with something to prove.
And after they began that season 15-0 (en route to a record 24-0 start and 73 regular-season wins), then-Cavs forward LeBron James was asked what he thought about the Dubs’ unforeseen development into a juggernaut:
“They’ve been healthy. They’ve been the most healthy team I’ve ever seen in NBA history,” James said.
Four years later, this Warriors dynasty stands at the precipice of a fourth title in five years.
And, man, are they anything but healthy.
“It’s the most unfortunate part of sports, but it tests your character. And playing through pain makes it all worth it in the end, especially this time of the year,” Klay Thompson said Tuesday.
The NBA playoffs have been and always will be a war of attrition. And while the Warriors have “load managed” (another great LeBron line) themselves through at least the last two regular seasons, they played their 100th game of the 2018-19 campaign Sunday night in Toronto. It was their 511th game in the last five seasons.
During that stretch, Thompson has missed only 24 games – 95 percent of the time, he’s on the floor for the Warriors. Draymond Green has played 92 percent of games. Stephen Curry has seen action in 87 percent, and Andre Iguodala, who came to the Warriors after 10 years in the league, has played in 86 percent.
The Warriors’ athletic training staff has the full faith of the organization, but science can only go so far. Given that impressive workload – playoff minutes are far more strenuous than regular-season ones – is it any surprise this team is so banged up?
“We’re very proud of our group and lucky to have them,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the Warriors’ training staff, led by Rick Celebrini. “And our players have done a very good job of being engaged with them all year. You just try to stay as healthy as possible, but you have to be aware that stuff just is going to happen and there’s not much you can do about it.”
Here’s a quick run-down of the Warriors’ “stuff”:
Thompson has a hamstring injury that kept him out at the end of Game 2. Kevin Durant – who missed the first two years of the dynasty, but had been playing deep into the spring with Oklahoma City before his defection to the Bay – has been out for nearly a month with a calf injury that you can’t convince me had nothing to do with his 44-minutes-a-night diet against the Rockets in round two.
Iguodala is carrying more injuries than I have the space to write here – “I’m old” the 35-year-old announced before the Finals – and he claims the most troublesome of his injuries, the one to his calf, was, in part, a byproduct of Durant being out and him having to pick up the slack.
“We have a lot of guys who have played long, difficult seasons,” Kerr said. “They take great care of themselves. But there’s a certain amount of luck involved with this, too, and we know that. We have been on both sides of that. Some of our opponents have suffered injuries. We have suffered injuries. It’s just part of the deal. You just keep pushing forward.”
Add in some of that bad luck, like Kevon Looney injuring his collarbone in a collision with the antimatter-dense Kawhi Leonard, and the general nervousness that comes with playing a post-Achilles rupture DeMarcus Cousins, and the Warriors are in a bit of a pickle.
Yes, if you were wondering why these NBA Finals have been so damn weird so far, well, the injuries are a good place to start.
This series of all series might legitimately come down to which team has enough players for a Game 6 or 7. The Raptors, who run an eight-man rotation, are in better shape at the moment, but 102 games into the season, they’re relying on their legs to stay under them and Leonard, who is playing on at least one bum wheel, to stay healthy enough to control contests.
For the Warriors, Thompson’s injury is key. The Raptors were able to run a “janky” box-and-one zone defense against the Warriors when Thomspon was out for the cruch-time moments in Game 2 but defensively, his possible absence or limitation looms even larger.
Per NBA Second Spectrum data, Thompson is the second-best defender in the NBA against Leonard this season, and Kerr switching him onto Toronto’s star in Game 2 was an impetus for the Dubs’ 18-0 third-quarter run in Game 2. (The No. 1 defender, by the way: Iguodala.)
Thompson’s underrated strength also gives the Warriors the liberty to switch nearly anything on defense. But if Thompson’s hammy keeps him out of the fray, the Raptors might be able to pick-and-roll the Warriors to death.
Whether Thompson plays, is limited, or looks like he was never injured at all, with Durant and Looney out, it’s clear that the Warriors are going to have to call on their bench to provide solid minutes.
Given this team’s outlandish success, it’s fair to wonder if there might be some spiritual undertones to the “Strength in Numbers” slogan that’ll once again come into play Wednesday.
“The way that we play, everybody feels involved on both ends of the floor and has an opportunity to impact the game, not necessarily scoring every possession but just playing within the flow and sharing the ball, moving, playing unselfishly. Just a style where everybody is going to get touches and you just have to be confident and aggressive,” Curry said.
There might be something to that.
But if there is, indeed, something transcendental happening with Strength in Numbers, the Warriors better tap back into it.
Because even LeBron would admit that this team is in a tricky spot heading into the most important games of the year.