SAN FRANCISCO -- As Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr watched his team celebrate their 120-110 win over the Dallas Mavericks, he had a flashback to 2015. He was a rookie coach, and his team had just won the Western Conference finals, punching their ticket to the NBA Finals. That was the start of what would become a dynasty.
As his team hoisted the Conference finals trophy on Thursday, he looked throughout the crowd at Chase Center -- just as he did at Oracle Arena seven years ago -- and let the moment sink in.
It was the moment that the Warriors had made the NBA Finals for the first time since 2019 and for the sixth time in the past eight years.
"Tonight was different because we've done it before," Kerr said. "But in a different way, it was incredibly meaningful given everything that we've been through organizationally over the last couple of years."
Over the past two years, everything came crashing down for the Warriors. Just two seasons ago, Golden State had the worst record in the NBA. This time last year, Klay Thompson was just starting to run again after consecutive ACL and Achilles tears and repairs. But following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, which ended after two play-in game losses, Stephen Curry issued a warning: "You don't want to see us next year."
"It was more just a message for us," Curry said. "It wasn't for anybody else. It was a message for us to stay locked on the opportunity that was coming our way because we had built such a good momentum finishing the years, reestablishing what Warriors basketball was."
A big part of reestablishing Warriors basketball has been the return of Thompson. As the team was presented with their trophy, his emotions were palpable, even needing to cut his on-court interview short as he fought to hold back tears.
"I'm happy for everybody ... [but] it's hard not to be most excited for Klay," Kerr said. "The fight that he's been through to get back to this point. Just an incredible accomplishment for him. For him to be a part of it, he's so happy again. It's wonderful to see."
Thompson played his best game of the series, finishing with a game-high 32 points on 12-of-25 shooting, including 8 3-pointers. Thompson became the first player in NBA history to hit 8 3s in multiple series-clinching games in his career (he hit 8 in Game 6 against the Memphis Grizzlies).
"I dreamt about this day," Thompson said. "Just my appreciation for moving my body again, I thought about that. I thought about those days I couldn't run or jump, how lucky we are to do what we do. Just to be here again wearing this [Western Conference Champion] shirt, wear this [NBA Finals] hat, I mean, I dreamt of this."
Heading into this season, the most commonly heard phrase from the Warriors was, "Once Klay comes back ..."
From the start, the Warriors saw his return as the puzzle piece to make them not only whole again, but a title contender again.
"You can see how much he was missing over the last couple of years," Draymond Green said. "To have him back, still not 100 percent back to the Klay Thompson that we know, but working his way there, is special."
Green had his best scoring night of the postseason, finishing with 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting and nine assists. Curry, while he had a quiet night -- scoring 15 points with nine assists -- was named the inaugural Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP.
The trio of Green, Curry and Thompson -- the common denominator for each of the Warriors' Finals runs -- is now the first trio, who each have multiple All-NBA selections, to make the Finals six times together over the last 50 seasons.
But, that trio will be the first to say they aren't solely responsible for making it there. And their supporting cast is one of the reasons this run feels different.
Thompson likes to quote John Wooden when thinking about how the Warriors have accomplished what they have: "It's amazing what a team can do when nobody cares who gets the credit."
The Warriors have veteran players, such as Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, who are experiencing this for the first time. They also have young players -- Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody -- who seem to be bridging the gap between the Warriors' past and future. And journeymen like Gary Payton II who have finally found a home.
"The ability to set the table for anybody that comes in, be a part of the fold, find their way, elevate their game ... I think we pride ourselves on the more than what we do individually," Curry said. "To be able to do it on the biggest of stages, that's not easy to do."
"In my short three years, this team is extremely special," Poole said. "What makes that special is we always knew we had championship DNA. Maybe the pieces didn't fit at first, the first two years. But you can tell that was the core. Everything we did, from practice to preparation, was all championship-based ... even though the two years were tough, it obviously built up to this."
Golden State took control of Thursday night's Game 5 early, building an 18-point lead in the second quarter -- the largest first-half lead for the Warriors and the largest first-half deficit for the Mavericks this postseason.
Dallas made a run in the third period, outscoring the Warriors 15-2 in the final 3:51 of the frame to cut the Mavericks' once 25-point deficit down to seven.
But the start of the fourth quarter brought the Warriors their own small run to rebuild a comfortable lead, and they were able to keep the Mavericks at arm's length for the remainder of the game.
All five of the Warriors' starters finished in double digits, but Game 5 was also a showcase of the Warriors' depth, which was much needed with Porter sidelined with left foot soreness. Bjelica checked in first in place of Porter, and instantly provided strong defense, posting a plus-14 net rating in his first 11-minute spurt. Moody, who's been tapped to fill Payton's minutes, gave the Warriors an offensive boost, scoring seven points in his nine minutes.
The next-man-up mentality against the Mavericks was a microcosm of what the Warriors had to do all throughout the regular season.
Early in the year, Green sat at the podium and issued a similar warning that Curry cautioned a few months before.
"I said, 'Don't let us win a f---ing championship,'" Green recalled. Even without Thompson at the time, Green saw something in this group. Even when he was sidelined for two months with a back injury, he had faith. Even with Curry missing the last month of the regular season, he believed it would come together.
Now, it has.
"No one has proven that they can move us off that spot," Green said. "That's the mindset we come into this thing with. We understand what it takes to win a championship. We understand the process, how you have to get better throughout the course of the season."
He continued: "I can't say that I thought coming into this season, like, yo, we're going to win a championship or we're going to be in the NBA Finals. But I always believed with [Green, Curry and Thompson], we have a chance."
That feeling was pertinent throughout the Warriors organization, as has been for a decade.