Warriors now focused on chasing rings, not records

OAKLAND, Calif. – A small crowd gathered on Monday around the most unlikely and – depending on how lethal it becomes – unholy alliance. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, the winners of the past three MVP awards, were together in their crisp home whites on the same side only months after an incredible playoff scrap, and suddenly it all felt real for the Golden State Warriors.

An offseason of speculation about how the league’s two most intimidating scorers would mesh is closer to coming to an end as Durant and Curry stood back-to-back, then side-to-side, with arms folded, and their faces never cracked from intimidating, furrowed brows. A photographer tried to get the two to smile by suggesting they not stand shoulder-to-shoulder but rather shoulder-to-elbow, given Durant’s considerable height advantage over Curry.

Neither player broke from his serious demeanor. Curry didn’t even bother looking up at the towering figure whose presence signifies the heightened expectations for a team that has won 140 games, and an NBA championship, over the past two seasons.

“Our expectations are really, really high, which they should be,” Curry said. “And we just have to kind of just get wrapped up in it. Like I say every year on this day, you can’t fast forward to April to the playoffs. You’ve got to stay in the moment. So for us that’s even more important with the changes that we made.”

Though criticized for supposedly taking the easier road to a title by joining the team he couldn’t beat, Durant believes the opposite is true because he attracted more scrutiny and resistance, while placing more urgency on his desire to win that elusive ring. Durant has already become adept at dodging the questions he has no interest in answering, such as an inquiry about whether he would be a Warrior if Golden State had defeated Cleveland for the second year in a row.

“They didn’t, so I don’t even want to talk about it,” Durant said, while adding that he doesn’t expect to make too much of an adjustment from his time with Oklahoma City. “I’m going to be who I am, and approach the game like I’ve always done it. Nothing’s changed on my end, except for my jersey.”

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are all business. (AP)
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are all business. (AP)

Before Durant arrived, the Warriors were a Lamborghini going 100 down the highway during the regular season, zooming past the rest of the league, until hitting a pothole in the playoffs in the form of Curry’s knee injury and eventually running out of gas short of the destination. Golden State’s historic collapse in the NBA Finals turned what should’ve been a leave-no-doubt campaign into a laughingstock summer.

As the first team to blow a 3-1 lead on that stage, the Warriors experienced a round of jokes from wannabe Internet comedians on social media. They learned that being a darling can foster resentment and being a failure can inspire ridicule. They responded to the memes with a fantasy team – thanks to Curry’s dumb-luck favorable contract and an unexpected salary-cap windfall. Durant joining a ready-made juggernaut is the greatest free-agent coup since LeBron James twice switched teams, and it might appear to be gluttony. But despite outside complaints of an unfair, bad-for-basketball union, members of the Warriors believe adding a four-time scoring champion to an already lethal offense was necessary.

“There were some holes and some weaknesses that we had,” Andre Iguodala said, “and we got a monster that filled them all. We got a monster on our team right now.”

An embarrassing end became the impetus for the Warriors to turn what could’ve been a two- or three-year run into a potential dynasty because Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all in their respective primes and the organization has been set up with the financial stability to keep them together. They swapped the inconsistency and unfulfilled potential of Harrison Barnes for one of the game’s three best players and also established a much more palatable roster hierarchy in terms of salary and shots.

“I’m not so sure how good we would be coming into this season with the same exact team because usually stuff starts gets to get old, starts to get boring,” Green said. “If you didn’t get any better, you get worse. Our team did some great things and possibly could’ve done more. We had a great run, but this is the start of a new thing.”

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Thompson told The Vertical last summer that he didn’t plan to sacrifice anything with Durant joining the Warriors, a comment that he believes was misconstrued as an act of defiance. Pressed to elaborate Monday, Thompson explained that the opportunity to consistently win negates the need for more shots or minutes. “We really got stronger,” Thompson said, “which is hard to imagine.”

Golden State hasn’t had a chance to be complacent since making that out-of-nowhere run to the 2015 NBA title. Fueled by a desire to prove that they were no fluke and won because of talent more than luck, the Warriors never let up during an 82-game annihilation of everything in their path. Moving on from humiliation presents another challenge to improve. But being better won’t be measured by winning 74 or more games; they merely have to finish a task that proved to be more difficult than toppling a regular-season wins record that once seemed as insurmountable as Michael Jordan’s aura.

“To be quite frank with you, I don’t want to win 74 games or 75 games,” Green said. “It’s brutal.”

Green said the Warriors can be better even if the record doesn’t reflect an improvement, adding that he’s already prepared for the nonstop comparisons to last season’s mark serving as a means to discredit what Golden State is able to accomplish. Setting a new wins record seems unlikely – especially because it took 20 years for the Chicago Bulls’ previous mark of 72 to fall – but Thompson won’t run away from making history.

“It’s not our main goal, but if it’s there at the end of the year, you might try to win as many as you can,” Thompson said. “Obviously you want to go 82-0, and that’s not realistic, but I think every team wants to do that. You don’t try and say you want to win this many games. You just want to try to win every game.”

The Warriors are about rings, not records but there is no shortage of inspiration for this season. Curry wasn’t healthy during the Finals and spent his offseason focused on making sure he had the strength to hold up for a nearly 100-game grind through June. Green wants to make up for a costly punch to LeBron James’ groin that he feels cost them back-to-back titles. Durant wants to win as part of a brotherhood and make worthwhile a controversial choice that will only be fulfilled with a Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“I don’t want to go out there and play upset with everybody else,” Durant said. “I want to play my game, and enjoy the game of basketball like I’ve always been enjoying it, and everything else will work itself out.”

After spending a season turning every slight into motivation, Golden State no longer has to be consumed with silencing or flipping off every detractor. “You can remember the experiences, but you can’t let that affect your mind, like how you prepare yourself going into this year,” Curry said. “How the Finals ended, it obviously did not go our way, it didn’t go my way. What are you going to do about it? What’s next? That’s all I really think about. I never got too wrapped up in the praise, either. It’s obviously a much better feeling, but I never feed off of that, because it doesn’t change how I play. It doesn’t change who I am. Criticism just … you hear it, having a human emotional reaction to it and because of how you channel it, you move on.”

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