LOS ANGELES — Stephen Curry sat on the Warriors’ bench, legs aching and mind finally beginning to settle on the reality of the night — no trip to June, no pointing at a ring finger to a shell-shocked crowd.
Instead, it was the up-and-down roar of the Crypto.com Arena crowd finally able to celebrate a deep playoff run with their Los Angeles Lakers in a venue outside of a Disney-sanctioned bubble in 2020.
The champions ran out of time, out of bodies and out of answers in their series-ending, season-ending 122-101 Game 6 loss to the Lakers on Friday night.
It was over before LeBron James had his best game of the playoffs, putting the finishing touches on what Anthony Davis and others started.
It was over before Austin Reaves heaved a last-second half-court shot to send the crowd into halftime delirium.
It was over before the weary champs walked into the building, hoping to find a signature night somewhere in that locker room to push the series to a decisive seventh game.
It was likely over in the preseason.
The evening seemed to encapsulate their entire season: Absorbing an early blow in the opening minutes, clawing back to respectability, then taking another shot before teetering on the edge of all-out disaster.
In the end, it was clear the champions ran out of gas as Curry — the best conditioned athlete in the NBA, by all accounts — was worn down by the relentless Lakers, shooting just 25.6% from 3-point range in the last three games of this series.
The night illustrated the underrated quality of this Warriors bunch for their entire run to date. Branded as front-runners who can outshoot and out-talent opponents, they are the most resilient bunch this league has had to offer in decades.
Worn down by internal forces in and out of the locker room, they’ve pulled off improbable comebacks time after time, snatching momentum from teams and confidence out of opposing buildings.
The 3-1 jokes from 2016 are all well and good, but they pulled out of a 3-1 hole right before that, and even in the years they fell short, they gave the eventual winners all they could handle.
This was the first year the final was decisive and left no doubt on the damage that was done — and the work yet to be done if this run is to extend beyond the present.
“I left my guys in the locker room and you could see the looks in their eyes, just the combination of fatigue and disappointment,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “And they think at the same time, just a level of you know we really gave it a push. They’re champions for a reason.”
They looked exhausted — even more exhausted than their 2019 season, their last with Kevin Durant. During that run, Kerr admitted to organizational fatigue reminiscent of “The Last Dance” Chicago Bulls. He made no such statement this time around, believing there’s more winning around the corner.
Curry’s slender shoulders had more responsibility on them than any other through this run, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t up to task. He had to rally the team together after Draymond Green’s incident with Jordan Poole in training camp, manage his own injuries that caused him to miss a chunk of time and handle the long absence of Andrew Wiggins. The usual task of defending a title came second to putting out fires in different rooms in a very decorated home.
The fact many were afraid to write this team off despite what our eyes told us says everything about the worldwide respect and fear for what Curry can do nightly, weekly, every June.
This team won nine road games and hardly anyone would fix their mouths aloud to bet against him.
“I think we found ourselves down the stretch and in the first round of the playoffs,” Kerr said. “And to be fair, I think this team probably, ultimately, maxed out.”
One could surmise he and James swapped narratives and realities in this series: James was the man who had strength in numbers, while Curry was the one who stood alone.
While it’s doubtful Curry will get the grace James had, he can certainly take a page from James — who presses the buttons of authority around him, seeking more help, more stars and if that plan doesn’t work, pressing the big, red eject button to start it all over.
James accepts nothing, even if his hands are on the throttle, and sooner or later, ownership and management capitulates to make moves. Those moves have put the Lakers in an unlikely position to advance to the NBA Finals after a 2-10 start, should the game and title-worthy Denver Nuggets succumb to the Lakers’ pressures in the Western Conference finals.
Davis is a Laker because of James, and Davis was the best player in the series, a two-way force to take pressure off James so he could apply his own in fits and spurts.
Curry’s splash brother, Klay Thompson, left him feeling like an only child after his own disastrous series. Thompson, who’s up for an extension this summer, missed open shot after open shot — with his legs looking dead after playing every other day for nearly a month now.
And that doesn’t miraculously heal itself with a summer off and more age coming. Same with Green, who wants to be a Warrior “for life” and has his own potential free agency to consider this summer.
Poole’s big deal doesn’t even begin until next season, but his struggles in the playoffs, particularly in this series where he had all the runway to make things his own, can’t be ignored. His future should at least be on the table if the Warriors are serious about maintaining a standard built on Curry’s sweat equity.
Perhaps four titles is enough for Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who has financial decisions to make not just on the roster but with chief executive decision-maker Bob Myers, who’ll be a free agent of his own this summer.
It’s easy to understand the Warriors being high off their own supply coming into the season, as they refused to leverage their younger pieces for proven vets to fortify themselves in the effort to repeat.
Little did they know the Western Conference would shake out the way it has, where it certainly appears the field was wide open for whomever had the gumption to make moves for the now as opposed to being infatuated with the future.
And with a more restrictive luxury-tax threshold that will prevent big-spending teams from going deeper into their coffers, it’ll be harder to maintain, let alone improve with vets who want to be paid for what they’ve done and what they still hope to do.
“This is not a championship team,” Kerr said. “You know, if we were, we’d be moving on. So you can look at the year and in total and see all the ups and downs, and there’s all kinds of stuff that went on and adversity that hit, but a group stayed together and competed together and made a pretty good run.”
They did it on Curry’s back, with his historic 50-point game against Sacramento powering them to the second round. As he approaches 36 years old for next season’s playoff run, his greatness demands his organization match it — with no vice other than winning.
“That’s the expectation,” Curry told Yahoo Sports after his news conference. “With the way the season ended out, it’s frustrating but also an opportunity to understand that can be corrected.
“Trying to win a championship, being serious about it. If we’re not doing that, then that’s when questions start to come up. You can’t win it every year, but you wanna be in the position to be serious contenders. Final eight, you can retool and be back.”
Final eight would be cause for celebration for plenty of franchises. At one point, it was the case for the Warriors.
But the final eight ain’t good enough now, and Curry may have to roar to have his presence felt.
“I’m active, always am,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “Just not loud about it, but I always am.”
That sprawling building on the water in San Francisco wouldn’t exist without his wizardry, or Green or Thompson — without Kerr and Myers, too. It’s easy to think organizations win championships, but this uniqueness can’t be bottled up, sold or duplicated.
“Yeah, the clock is ticking,” Green said. “I think you know when you have so much success, then people start like getting, really put you on that clock. For us, we don’t pay attention to the clock. We just work and try to win every year.”
One image endures from Friday night, when Curry kept dribbling and probing, trying to find an opening among the Lakers' defense determined to stop him. The Warriors were down big, but you couldn’t tell by the way Curry was going for it.
Never did he look so fatigued, yet so determined to make something happen.
“That’s a great way to put it,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the best way to put it.”