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OAKLAND, Calif. — There was a span on Friday night, barely more than a minute, when Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant drained 3-pointers on three straight possessions against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was just an N.B.A. preseason game, but the check-your-phone-and-miss-it sequence sent the home crowd into a full-throated frenzy and made all the postgame highlights.
Those are not the plays that Warriors guard Stephen Curry will remember most from the preseason. His favorite came two nights earlier against the Los Angeles Lakers in San Diego.
The Warriors, aligned on the perimeter far from the basket, passed the ball six times with so much speed that the defenders helplessly scrambled a step or two behind. The Lakers were like cats chasing the red dot of a laser pointer. Durant did not hesitate to shoot an open 3-pointer when the ball came back to him.
“A play where the flow is perfect, the rhythm is perfect,” Curry said. That is how he defined beautiful basketball.
Durant’s shot missed. The only highlight reel it made was in Curry’s mind.
“We play a certain style where everybody’s involved,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of skill involved — skill that’s showcased by ball movement and flow. Based on the strength that we have on our roster, we try to highlight that.”
Beauty is subjective, of course, and there may be some who long for the days of one-on-one isolation plays, in-the-paint throw-downs and players smeared in bruises and floor burns.
But the era of blunt force as a playing style (think of the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons, or the low-scoring scrums of the late 1990s and early 2000s) has given way to something lighter and more optimistic, more free-flowing and imaginative.
No team does it like the Warriors. Overloaded with talent, they are basketball impressionists following a darker age of rugged realists.
And to many basketball purists and critics, what we are watching now is the highest form of basketball as art, in which style is the substance.
“They’re the team that everybody wants to be,” said Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford women’s coach and a Hall of Famer who records and watches all of Golden State’s games when she cannot see them in person. “They know what pretty looks like. It’s beautiful basketball, and I mean that as a compliment.”
The players are spread out. They are in constant motion. They expertly exhibit all the fundamentals of the game: dribbling, passing, shooting. They demonstrate teamwork, as if from the game’s earliest textbooks. The ball is rarely held long enough for its logo to be read. The game that the Warriors play is a cross between the Harlem Globetrotters and Hickory High on speed.
“The way they run the floor, the way they’re unselfish, the way they hit the open man — it’s a pleasure to watch,” said Pete Carril, another Hall of Famer whose offense during 29 years as coach at Princeton was heralded for its perpetual motion. “It’s just great. You’d have a hard time finding any critical analysis of the way they play.”
The 1980s are often considered a zenith in N.B.A. history, with its high scoring and fast breaks, the era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the emergence of Michael Jordan.
There is at least one major difference compared with today’s game: The 1985 Lakers, a championship team in the heyday of its “Showtime” era, made 90 3-point shots, while last season’s Warriors made a record 1,077. (Durant, playing for Oklahoma City, had 186.)
Having so many players along the 3-point arc today adds “spacing,” in coaching vernacular. It gives players, even when there is no fast break, more room to perform.
No team performs like the Warriors. They have capitalized on the 3-point shot and the diminution of the lumbering, back-to-the-basket center to herald an era of artistic play and teamwork.
Highlights from previous eras, including the 1980s pinnacle of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, look shrunken and straitjacketed in comparison.
Now Golden State is expected to be even better, even more entertaining, with the newly added Durant. After all, the Warriors were already the highest-scoring team, and Durant has averaged 27.4 points per game in his first nine seasons and is still just 28.
But as Curry noted about his favorite plays, the Warriors see their secret ingredient as passing, not shooting. Before Steve Kerr became coach in 2014, the Warriors were a dribble-first team, the league laggard in passes per game. Now they are in the top five, their ranking limited only by short possessions and their propensity to shoot open 3-pointers on the fast break.
Last season, the Warriors had nearly 500 more assists than the second-highest-scoring team in the league. Most of their field goals (68 percent last year, higher than the Lakers’ 65.2 percent in 1985) come off assists — an array of simple handoffs, tightfitting bounce passes, behind-the-back surprises and alley-oops.
That movement, those passes, those shots are what make the Warriors so aesthetically pleasing to so many.
“Basketball ballet,” VanDerveer called it.
But do aesthetics matter? Should beauty be a quest in basketball?
Jerry West, a Hall of Fame player for the Lakers who, as a team executive, built decades of championship rosters, is now a consultant to the Warriors.
“Aesthetics absolutely matter,” West said. “They matter because it usually means you’re more proficient in what you’re doing.”
In other words, these days, playing pretty is playing to win.
Kerr and the Warriors consider themselves merely the latest link in an evolutionary chain, direct descendants of teams coached by Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni.
Golden State’s belief in ball movement evokes Jackson’s Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. The Warriors’ selflessness is a reflection of Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, one of Golden State’s primary rivals and its opening-night opponent Tuesday. And their persistent speed and fearless long-range shooting echo D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns of a decade ago.
Kerr spent years with all three — as a player for Jackson and Popovich, and a general manager supplying talent for D’Antoni.
When Kerr accepted the Golden State head-coaching job in May 2014, the Spurs were on their way to the N.B.A. title.
“The most beautiful basketball I think I’ve ever seen,” Kerr said. “It was the combination of ball movement, the 3-point era and the floor spacing.”
Tied with the LeBron James and the Miami Heat at one game apiece in the 2014 N.B.A. finals, the Spurs sped things up. They ran the Heat dizzy with ball movement and 3-pointers. They won three straight games by an average of 19 points. During the five-game series, they passed the ball 472 times more than the Heat and had 51 more assists.
The Warriors embraced the high-speed, hot-potato formula and won the N.B.A. title the next spring. No one had done it better; Kerr is proud to note that the Warriors became the first team to win a championship while leading the league in pace, measured as possessions per 48 minutes, in the more than 40 years since the statistic was first tracked.
He is prouder to note that Golden State was the first team to lead the league in both pace and defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), long considered an improbable, if not impossible, combination.
“It was a perfect storm — the right time, the right place, and the team was perfectly poised to take the next step,” Kerr said. “They had a really good foundation beneath them on defense, and it all came together.”
The Warriors had the best regular-season record in history last season, at 73-9, but blew a three-games-to-one lead in the finals to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State was undone in the end by Cleveland’s old-school ways — a slower, more scripted pace and a bruising defense. (One new-age wrinkle, though: The Cavaliers were second in the league in 3-pointers made, which spread open the offensive floor for James.)
That motivated the Warriors to chase and sign Durant, an all-N.B.A. free agent looking for the championship he was unable to bring to Oklahoma City. As this season begins, plenty wonder if the constellation of stars assembled at Golden State can put egos and individual statistics aside in the quest for a title. There is, after all, still just one basketball.
In the preseason, the Warriors and Durant dazzled in spurts. On one play against the Lakers, Curry took a pass from Draymond Green, dribbled once along the 3-point line on the left wing and bounced a pass between two Lakers to center Zaza Pachulia, bursting toward the basket. Pachulia quickly flipped a pass around another Laker to Durant for a dunk. Four players, one dribble: 2 points.
As often, such sequences end up with an open 3-pointer, and the Warriors are not afraid to pass from under the basket if it means an open jumper. Curry recalled a play last season in which the Warriors threw seven passes — “everyone passing up a decent shot for a wide-open 3,” he said.
Those are the plays that make it look as if Golden State is toying with its opponent, and they tend to come in game-changing bursts.
“The defense is on a string, but the offense is one step ahead,” Kerr said. “It’s tick-tack-toe, open shot. The fans love that. You create the advantage, and it’s boom, boom, boom — open shot. And you do it again. And now you’re doing it in transition, and it takes on this beautiful quality that’s really fun to watch.”
No team makes the complex look so simple. VanDerveer used the simile of ducks, outwardly graceful but paddling like mad under the surface.
“When you watch a lot of American basketball, men and women, boys and girls, it’s so system-oriented,” VanDerveer said. “It’s running plays. They run plays, but a lot of kids don’t know how to play.”
The Warriors can look deceptively unscripted. They are not unrehearsed.
“The tricky part is, how much do you design and how much do you allow for freedom?” Kerr said. “We’re always trying to find that balance between chaos and freedom.”
When the Warriors do, the roof at Oracle Arena feels unhinged, and the people inside can aptly wonder if they are witnessing the most beautiful basketball played, maybe ever.
Just try telling any of those fans, the thousands with smiles of wonder on their faces, and their arms instinctively in the air, and their voices lost in the cacophony, that how basketball looks does not matter.
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