OAKLAND, Calif. —It’s different this time.
Surely over the last few days, you’ve been told to chew on that more times than Stephen Curry’s mouthpiece.
Different team, circumstances, luck, Draymond Green and year. Check, check, check (we think) and check. This 3-1 lead isn’t bringing along its evil twin that caused the biggest Bay Area 'quake since 1906 and sent the Golden State Warriors curled up in a ball and created a chant gone viral: “The Warriors Blew A 3-1 Lead.”
“C’mon, man,” said Green.
If not for that epic and historic collapse, the Warriors might not have signed Kevin Durant weeks later, the only silver lining from the 2016 NBA Finals, and he is Exhibit A when explaining what has changed. So, it’s very reasonable to expect the Warriors to close out a championship series, something they haven’t done now in four tries, perhaps Monday inside what will be a giddy yet tense Oracle Arena.
But what if they don’t?
Last summer it snowballed on Golden State at 3-1. That’s when Green reached the maximum allowable technicals and earned a one-game suspension, which he served next door at the Oakland A’s game. That was followed by a series-ending injury to center Andrew Bogut, whose defensive and interior presence irritated the Cavs and was very underrated. That was followed by Harrison Barnes falling into the deep freeze -- also known as a San Francisco summer -- and couldn’t make a bucket. That was followed by Curry throwing a sloppy behind-the-back pass, and "The Block" by LeBron James and "The Shot" by Kyrie Irving.
But suppose something nutty happens again?
The Warriors put themselves in this position by failing to sweep in Cleveland, which isn’t exactly a crime when you’re playing on the road and against the triple-double leader in NBA Finals history. But to lose for the first time in the post-season was still somewhat jarring and as expected, a painful reminder was thrown in their faces by the basketball world.
“You win 15 in a row during the playoffs and you think it’s going to happen, that you’re going to stay unbeaten,” said Green. “Then all of a sudden you get smacked in the face and you say, 'whoa.' You remember what happened.”
The man who jump-started the 2016 free-fall was rather confident on the eve of Game 5. Green will play in that game, which means he has kept his swinging foot to himself, and for the most part, his mouth as well. Although, Green being Green, he’s had a few close calls (Draymond always has something to say to the refs) and probably shouldn’t answer his cell if the caller ID shows a 216 area code.
A few days ago, in the aftermath of the Warriors’ only loss in the playoffs, Green said Cleveland fans aren’t “the sharpest” tools in the shed, Green wasn’t exactly wearing his walk-it-back shoes.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Because everything I say, I know what I’m saying. When I say something, I’ve thought about what I was going to say when I say it. Because I’m a lot smarter than people think.”
Follow that? More from Draymond:
“I’m just saying my thoughts. They boo me and thought I had a tech that I didn’t have, so they’re not sharp. They played 'Hit The Road Jack’ and I didn’t hit the road.”
He turned a bit more serious when asked to reflect on the suspension that perhaps cost the Warriors a repeat title. Barred from the arena that night, Green sat with Warriors general manager Bob Myers, who told Green that this couldn’t happen again. So far, so good: Green toned down the techs, or at least never put himself in position to cross the line between being an important piece of the Warriors or a spectator.
“It was a challenging time,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. You never forget something like that. And I haven’t.”
To hear the Cavs, Green indirectly helped them win Game 4 by supplying some bulletin-board material. Green scratched his head over that one and explained himself.
“I was asked how would it feel to celebrate on their court and I said that would be special. But if you need to find motivation in something like that, great, I don’t really care.
“I kind of always been this way. People want you to change but it’s gotten me here, why change now? I’m the emotional leader of this team, but it’s not like a put effort into that, like `I gotta do this or say this.’ I just be me.”
So, no, Green hasn’t been booted from a game; only foul trouble has kept him off the floor for extended stretches. And while the Warriors don’t have Bogut, their three-headed replacement (JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West) has been adequate. Of course, the major change is reflected in the Barnes upgrade. Durant has scored 30-plus points in every game of the series and has a chance to put a red bow on the Finals and feel the love from inside Oracle.
Keep in mind that in the Cavs’ three comeback wins last year, Curry’s efficiency fell off and the Warriors had no back-up plan. Well, they found one, and the back-up plan has become the game plan.
Durant: “We know the situation we’re in. We know that anything can happen in this league and we know champions down lay down and die. So, we have to take it slow. We can’t worry about what happened in the games before, or what will happen in the future. We just have to stay in the moment.”
We don’t look forward to Game 6. We got Game 5 in front of us and we’ll take care of that. I expect us to come out with a level of focus and intensity that we’ve had all season and all series.”
But what if they don’t?
Suppose LeBron and Irving combine for 70-plus points again, as they’ve done the last few games, and the Warriors are awash in turnovers once more? A 3-2 series that suddenly returns to Cleveland, nerves getting frazzled, the basketball world reminding the Warriors the cost of a second straight collapse … what could go wrong for Golden State?
“Look,” said Green. “You take care of home court, we did that. Then you go steal one on the road, we did that. So, I don’t see where all this `added pressure’ is coming from. We did what we wanted to do. We’re up 3-1 and a great position to close this out at home. This is the second opportunity to close this out so we got to come out with a killer instinct.
“There’s no added pressure. I don’t think too much about it. It’s the next game in line. The intensity level rises when a team’s back against the wall. We know and understand that. We don’t look forward to Game 6. We got Game 5 in front of us and we’ll take care of that. I expect us to come out with a level of focus and intensity that we’ve had all season and all series.”
And so there are incentives the Warriors will drag into Game 5. They have a chance to celebrate an NBA title in the East Bay, which hasn’t been done (the 1975 title winner and 2015 winner clinched in Washington and Cleveland, respectively). They obviously don’t what to catch another flight to Cleveland and hear non-stop chatter about tightness in their necks.
The longer the series lasts, the more chance that something freaky can happen, such as an injury (Bogut) or suspension (Green) or cold-shooting (Barnes, Curry, Klay Thompson), all of which conspired to drown the Warriors in the final three games in 2016. Oh, and LeBron had something to do with it, too.
“I’m confident, energetic and positive about the opportunity we have in front of us,” said Curry, while putting the past behind him, or doing his best, anyway.
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