The Golden State Warriors didn't play like they wanted to beat the Portland Trail Blazers Monday night. They played liked they needed to, as if a Western Conference Finals sweep was mission critical to winning their third straight championship, because, well, it just might be.
That urgency paid off. The Warriors got their Game 4 victory and their series sweep with a 119-117 overtime triumph. Now they'll get everything that comes with it: nine days of rest and, most importantly, the chance to enter the NBA Finals whole again.
Battling without key players isn't anything new for Golden State. Durant has missed each of the past five tilts, and Cousins hasn't taken the court since Game 2 of the first round. But losing Iguodala added even more strain, giving the Warriors rotation the look and feel of a skeleton crew.
They felt the personnel squeeze right away. Alfonzo McKinnie started in place of Iguodala, and head coach Steve Kerr went 11 players deep by the end of the first quarter:
At a time of the year when most teams shorten their rotations, the Warriors expanded theirs—not because they could, but because they didn't have a choice.
"We had to," Kerr told reporters afterward on NBA TV. "When you're missing Kevin Durant...you can't replace Kevin with one guy. You had to replace him with three or four night after night. And then tonight without Andre, we had to find more minutes."
Some of those minutes were found within Stephen Curry. He played the entire second half, including all of overtime, while Golden State sought to erase Portland's 17-point advantage.
It wasn't always pretty. Curry shot 4-of-16 from the floor over the final 29 minutes (2-of-9 from three) and was called for a travel late in the fourth quarter after inexplicably five-stepping his way out of an open two.
As usual, he still put pressure on the defense by way of sheer existence. He stayed in constant motion off the ball, dished out seven assists and grabbed 10 rebounds during his restless stretch. By the end of the night, he turned in 37 points and made a little history:
He was also completely gassed.
When Draymond Green buried a dagger three in overtime to put the Warriors up four inside 40 seconds to play, Curry needed to stop and catch his breath before continuing to bask in the revels of the moment. Logging over 47 minutes, the second-most of his postseason career, will do that to a player:
Going that hard after Game 4 looks much different if the Warriors lose. They wouldn't be in danger of forfeiting the series, but chasing a victory at full bore when you're down 17, already shorthanded and will get another three bites at the apple can be spun as reckless by the day-after revisionists.
It looks even more bizarre given how much energy the Warriors expended to get here. They overcame an 18-point deficit in Game 3 and a 17-point hole in Game 2, all without Cousins and Durant. This series sweep could very easily be a 2-2 deadlock—or, had Portland figured out how to score in the second half of Game 3, a 3-1 shortfall.
But the Warriors weren't in that situation. They were in this one, up 3-0 and in full control of their destiny despite all the injuries and hangups. They chose to assign actual stakes and potential implications to Game 4, and they deserve to be commended for it.
Never mind the win. The Warriors' logic supersedes their comfy position. It shows a larger understanding of what they're trying to do and how much they still need those they don't currently have.
Dispatching Portland might, on some level, suggest Golden State's missing persons are somehow inessential. Curry was masterful overall, averaging 36.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists while slashing 46.9/42.6/93.8 for the series. Green's triple-double in Game 4 was a microcosm of his activity since Durant went down.
Klay Thompson is still Klay Thompson—sometimes a little too thirsty at the offensive end, but a defensive gnat and momentum-shifting three waiting to happen. Kevon Looney has stepped up his presence on the glass and become integral to their defensive survival without Durant.
Jordan Bell, once a resident of Kerr's doghouse, has given the Warriors quality minutes the past few games. McKinnie grabbed a couple of pivotal offensive rebounds in Game 4. Shaun Livingston cannot play too many extended minutes, but his baby jumpers and runners are once again automatic.
Are the Warriors underrated without Durant? Maybe.
Dare we say they're better? Not at all.
This current model is not sustainable—not beyond doubt anyway. Either the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors await in the NBA Finals, and both pose tougher tasks than the Blazers. The Warriors need whatever advantages they can carve out.
Earning this next week-and-half of rest isn't just about giving Durant and Iguodala—and potentially Cousins—time to get right. It's about giving a much-needed break to the players who have carried the team in their absence.
Curry needs the time off. Ditto for Green and Thompson. Really, the entire team needs to come up for air.
Five consecutive NBA Finals appearances is a lot. And by busting their butts to take down the Blazers in four games, the Warriors have given themselves time to prepare for what's next—not just physically, and not just for the officially absent, but mentally, too.