As the Golden State Warriors have orchestrated their rapid rise to the top of the basketball world over the last two years - first leaping from a mere playoff team to a champion, then going from champion to "possible greatest team of all time" status in 2015-16 - it's been difficult to separate the team's overall greatness from the stellar individual performance of one Wardell Stephen Curry II.
How much of the team's success is Steph's doing, and how much credit goes to everyone else around him? It's been a nigh impossible question to answer. "Steph Curry and the Warriors" have been one single entity. There's been no such thing as a Golden State team without him; he's played mighty close to every meaningful minute of the last two years, getting most of his rest in fourth quarters with his team already up by 20-plus. We haven't had to figure out what the team's capable of without him. The whole question has been moot.
We've had ways of making educated guesses, to be sure. ESPN's real plus-minus statistic has Curry worth an adjusted total of 8.45 points per 100 possessions this season; subtract that from the Warriors' net rating and you get a team that outscores opponents by about 2.4 points each night, a modest total that puts them on par with a Utah or a Charlotte. Likewise, ESPN has Curry penciled in as a 21-win player; subtract that and you get a 52-win season instead of 73, nestling the Dubs right behind the Clippers for fourth in the Western Conference. In other words, they're good, but they're most definitely not '96 Bulls good.
This has all just been theoretical, though. We've yet to really get a good look at the Warriors in real life without their MVP - in a big game, against a competitive team, with the rest of their non-Curry star players getting heavy minutes. That last part is important - the Warriors were outscored by about 4 points per 100 possessions this season with Steph off the floor, but that's hardly fair considering most of those minutes came in garbage time with Ian Clark and Kevon Looney filling the roles of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. (Consider this: Draymond played 2,808 minutes for the Warriors this season, and of those, 2,460 of them included Steph as well. How does Dray perform without the Dubs' star shooter on the floor with him? We barely even have sufficient data to tell.)
All of this is to say that the last two weeks have been eye-opening. When Curry slipped and fell early in the Warriors' Game 4 win in the first round over the Houston Rockets on April 24, injuring his right knee, everything we used to know about Golden State went (if temporarily) out the window. Green, Thompson and the rest of the Warriors were no longer attached at the hip to their MVP. The onus was on them to lead the way themselves, and frankly, we had no idea how they'd handle it.
We now know they're doing just fine.
It's disappointing for the Blazers, who knew going into this second-round matchup with Golden State that they'd be dodging Curry for at least the first game or two, if not more. They had a golden opportunity to steal a game at Oracle Arena and make the series competitive before Curry's likely return; now, the series is headed back to Portland this weekend and that opportunity has passed. The Blazers are down 0-2 and headed for an extremely likely playoff exit.
So how are they doing it? How have they changed their identity with Steph out of the lineup - or have they needed to change it at all? What's their secret?
The answer begins, of course, with Klay Thompson, who settled comfortably into his role this season as the Warriors' second leading scorer but has been called upon this week to be the main man. He's performed admirably.
There have always been nagging doubts out there about Thompson, who is statistically on the very short list of the best shooters on Earth but has always prompted questions about how much of that is due to Steph's gravity on opposing defenses. Klay detractors have always had an obvious case - it's easy to shoot 42 percent from 3 when your teammate is even better and opponents are constantly overlooking you to shut him down instead.
Over the last couple of games, though, Thompson has silenced the doubters. He made a point of that early, coming out in Game 1 and immediately drilling a couple of 3s in the opening minutes to put the Blazers on their heels. One of Klay's jumpers, about two minutes into Game 1, was a 30-footer with a hand in his face. All this time we've talked about Damian Lillard as the most Steph-like player in today's NBA, but at that moment I wondered if maybe we were wrong. Klay from the very beginning of Game 1 looked an awful lot like his buddy Steph.
Of course, he's also more than that. Steph is a transcendent shooter, but he's a smaller guy who plays the point and operates mostly with the ball in his hands; Klay is bigger, plays the two and is fantastic at moving without the ball to create open shot opportunities.
Numerous times in these first two games, Klay has shown his ability to make things happen from the wing, but this is perhaps the most impressive. He starts the possession on the left wing, tied up by Maurice Harkless - after taking a dribble handoff from Harrison Barnes and using a Festus Ezeli screen to get free from Harkless for a moment, he's got a chance to square up for an open 3 right there. Instead, with 13 seconds still on the shot clock, he goes the perfectionist route, passing up a good shot in search of an even better one. He drives downhill, looks to the rim, then kicks back out to Barnes; then, in the final five seconds of the clock, he gets open on a Draymond drive-and-kick and destroys Harkless with a ball fake to get an open look. Boom.
This is the beauty of what Klay - and, well, all the Warriors, really - do. They don't need to force shots that are anything less than optimal. They're all so smart and so artful at moving both with and without the basketball, they're able to trust their ability to generate great looks with 24 seconds. Multiple times on this possession, Klay could have gone for the quick bucket if he wanted to - the 3 at the top of the key, the driving layup against Plumlee, the first look he gets from the corner before faking out Harkless. He passes them all up because he can. He's so skilled, and the players around him are so capable as well, that he can always afford to be patient.
This play also demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of Thompson's skill set. With Steph in the lineup, the versatility of the Warriors' second leading guy often goes overlooked, but it's on display here. Thompson isn't just a spot-up guy - he's a great cutter, a great passer and a brilliant decision maker with the ball in his hands. He's always moving, doing everything he can to create open shots, and even if he doesn't get open, he's got the size to fire clean shots over the outstretched arms of most wing defenders.
Thompson has thrice made seven 3-pointers and made five once during the four games that Curry has missed this postseason - these numbers sound eye-popping until you realize that this is pretty much what he does. It's forgotten amid Curry's greatness, but Thompson made 276 treys himself this season, a figure that ranks just above the former single-season record of 269 once held by Ray Allen. The four biggest 3-point shooting seasons in league history belong to Curry, Curry, Thompson and Curry.
It would be doing Thompson a disservice, though, to label him as just a 3-point shooter. The truth is he can do a whole lot more than that.
Very early in this series, the Blazers toyed with the idea of using Lillard as their primary defender on Thompson, which gave the the freedom to hide CJ McCollum on Shaun Livingston. The Warriors seized upon this mismatch between Thompson and Lillard quickly, though. Lillard's never been the best defender on the planet, but he especially struggles with a matchup like Klay because the Warriors' two-guard is 6-foot-7 to his 6-foot-3. He's also quite skilled in the post.
What you see above is a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario for the Blazers defensively. How do you handle Klay when they throw him the ball down low like this? The Warriors find a way to isolate the two all alone near the left block, a nightmare matchup for Lillard. Quickly, Harkless realizes his teammate might need some help, and he starts cheating a step or two away from his man Draymond Green to threaten a double-team down low. Then again - that's Draymond Green! The Warriors' Swiss army knife of a power forward shot almost 39 percent from deep this season, and he's deadly when left open. Thompson wisely kicks the ball out to Green to keep Harkless honest, then gets it back and goes to work on Lillard with a little more space. Easy bucket.
Again, this play demonstrates the Warriors' patience - the post, kickout, repost sequence is artfully done - but more importantly it shows how dangerous Klay is for opposing defenders. What kind of a player can you possibly use to shut this guy down one-on-one? If you use someone like Lillard, you just get destroyed in post-up situations like this one. Use a bigger wing player instead, like a McCollum or a Harkless, and you risk that guy getting lost around screens and surrendering wide-open 3s. Also, don't even think about doubling anyone - the Warriors' spacing is fantastic and they put good shooters all over the floor, so you're guaranteed to give up an easy look. There's just no solution. Credit the Blazers for working hard and continuing to search for one, but there doesn't appear to be anything to find.
Of course, the shooting isn't the only thing you need to replace when you lose Steph Curry. The other element to consider here is that Steph's your point guard, and without him you need a new ballhandler to conduct the offense. That responsibility has fallen largely not to the backup PG Livingston, but instead to Draymond Green.
Draymond has 18 assists so far in this series, leading all players. He fuels the Warriors' offense but not in a conventional point guard-y way, instead using a sophisticated system that incorporates tons and tons of motion. Dray often starts possessions at the top of the key, surveying his options - but once he finds one, he keeps it moving.
The play above is a great encapsulation of the full range of Draymond's capabilities as a point forward. He starts at the top of the key before dishing to Livingston; then he goes into the post, where he's always a threat to score against the undersized Blazers. He's got 20 pounds on Harkless, who's matched up with him here, so he's easy to back down. Instead of scoring in the post, though, Draymond waits, and a 1-2 pick-and-roll between Thompson and Livingston leads to Lillard getting burned on a switch. Draymond finds a cutting Thompson with a perfectly timed pass.
The Warriors have gotten plays like this out of Green all season, with Curry both on the court and not. He's the ultimate shapeshifting player offensively, going from distributor to post-up guy to distributor again in the blink of an eye while also lingering as a threat to shoot from anywhere. McCollum referred to Draymond in a postgame presser last week as "the head of the snake" for Golden State when Curry was out, and he wasn't wrong. Matter of fact, Dray has even been a great playmaker with Curry around, too - they've had a lot of success this year running backwards 1-4 pick-and-rolls with Green as the ballhandler and Curry as the roller. Now, we're finding that Green can make things happen as a passer even with Curry out.
Then you have Draymond's ability defensively - and his uncanny knack for dominating the glass. The two go hand-in-hand.
The brilliant thing about Draymond defensively is he has a great understanding of how much attention his man requires at all times - and also of how little. When he's matched up against an all-world player like a LeBron James, he does his best to lock him down, but it's equally important that he knows how to sag off of a Moe Harkless or an Al-Farouq Aminu.
Watch Draymond in the clip above. As the Blazers run a two-man game between Lillard and Mason Plumlee on the right side of the floor, Dray is "guarding" Harkless on the left. Because Harkless is standing well beyond the 3-point line and Dray knows Harkless is a 27.9 percent shooter from deep, he's able to drop back and effectively play zone instead of covering his man. This serves two purposes - one, it gives the Warriors an extra line of defense at the rim, deterring either Plumlee or Lillard from driving, and two, it gives him the inside track on the glass. When Lillard fires a 3 and misses, Draymond is all over it.
The Warriors "guard" opposing wings like this all the time, sometimes with Draymond in the rover role and sometimes with Andrew Bogut. They famously used Bogut on Tony Allen against Memphis in the playoffs last year when it became clear T.A. wasn't a threat offensively; that gamble won them a series. It's helping again this year. Green has sagged off of both Harkless and Aminu in various spots these last two games, and it's helped him seal off the paint and grab a series-high 27 rebounds.
This works because Green has a keen understanding of floor geometry and has the quickness and instincts needed to defend superbly well in space. He does a lot of things that show up on the stat sheet (as evidenced by his near-triple-double averages this series) but a lot of things that don't, too.
Of course, it's not just Klay and Draymond who are thriving in this series. Livingston is surprisingly the Warriors' third leading scorer; Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala have defended and rebounded well; Ezeli gave the Dubs quality minutes off the bench in Game 2 and may continue to have a role in this series. The Warriors have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that they're more than just Steph Curry.
Not that we ever should have doubted them. It's impossible to be a title contender in the NBA with just one star, and the Warriors have always had more than just the one. Curry's the engine that makes the Golden State machine run; he's not the only part. You need supporting players to succeed in this league. Sometimes help comes from the unlikeliest of places - remember, even David Lee stepped up and played a role when the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals last year.
The role players don't always get to shine; if they did, they wouldn't be role players. But on a team that wins 73 games and stands as the odds-on favorite to win a second championship, you can bet they're there and ready when called upon. Right now, the Warriors' secondary players are answering the call and then some.