OAKLAND -- A team designed specifically for this, for the grind, the excellence and durability required to win the final game of the NBA season suddenly proved fragile at the buzzer.
Oh, yes: As yellow and blue confetti helicoptered from the roof and littered the floor of Oracle Arena, the most formidable team in the NBA melted down. Stephen Curry ran and felt comfort in the tight arms of Kevin Durant. Andre Iguodala jumped on a table and screamed. And Steve Kerr, the coach who gritted his teeth for two months in springtime while battling the lingering effects of back surgery, had soggy eyes.
This is what a championship does. It turns otherwise strong men into mush. It allows a team that tore through the NBA postseason and suffered just a single scratch to, shall we say, lose it.
But not The NBA Finals. No, the Golden State Warriors, unlike last summer, did not lose that. They did not prove fragile before the final buzzer this time. They beat LeBron James at his very best, avenged a bad memory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and inserted themselves into the conversation for one of the best teams of this generation.
And they might just be getting started.
This is the third championship in franchise history, second in three years, giving them the rubber match in their three-series showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors are now holders of a pair of historic marks: A 73-win regular season and 16-1 postseason. Still, the nightmare of blowing a 3-1 lead in The 2016 Finals was a stain on that stretch and followed them into 2017. This was a team with an “S” on its chest and an “X” on its back.
Everything changed for the Warriors clear across the country, at a rented home in the Hamptons, where they convinced Durant to sign up. Not that they had to twist the arm of one of the league’s feared scorers; Durant wanted a change of scenery and admittedly better odds on tasting victory champagne.
The swirling controversy that began once he reached for an ink pen followed him and the Warriors for nearly 12 months. A superstar and former Kia MVP joining a team that was one win from two consecutive titles? For some people on the outside looking in, it was unfair ... bad for the NBA ... sending the wrong signal. Whatever.
But it was so right for the only person who mattered.
“I heard about how I was hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work, but that was far from the truth,” he said. “I came in and tried to help my team. I found the camaraderie, the togetherness of the whole organization. I definitely appreciate the people we have here from top to bottom. It feels amazing to win a championship with these guys.”
Durant was brilliant in the series and was the easy MVP choice by a panel of voters. He scored 30-plus points in all five games, with his final performance -- 39 points, seven rebounds, five assists -- being the red bow. He didn’t have a bad game, never disappeared, was always a pain in the rear for the Cavs and served as an emergency pull-cord whenever the Warriors needed it.
“He’s had an amazing career, but he just took it to the next level,” said Kerr.
With one minute left in the season and victory at hand, Durant — who constantly preached the importance of staying in the moment — allowed the moment to overwhelm him. While the game played on, he stopped, bent over, put his hands on his knees and eyeballed the floor.
“Is this really happening?” he asked himself, as shocked teammates pleaded for him to keep playing.
“Bro,” Durant told them, “we’re about to win the title.”
Certainly at that precise time, Durant, in his mind, considered the journey to reach this point. In 2012 he was on the other side of the score, losing to LeBron in The Finals, grabbing his mother and brother immediately afterward for a group hug and cried on her shoulder. He thought he’d return multiple times with the young and talented Oklahoma City Thunder. He thought wrong. They never returned to the championship series and soon splintered.
“Experience is the best teacher in life,” said LeBron. “He felt he needed to reassess his career and come here.”
There’s going to be a lot of teams trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that ... because they’re built to last for a few years.”
And why not? The chance to create a “super team” and win that championship was, in his mind, a no-brainer, one that had no downside.
The connection Durant forged with Curry all season long -- there was never the scent of an ego play between the former Kia MVPs -- was capsulized late in Game 5 when the Warriors pulled away for good. Durant threw a lob pass that Curry grabbed and flipped into the net. Curry turned, looked at Durant and posed, as if to say, yes, this works.
“You gotta call Kevin Durant a champ now,” said Curry.
Curry felt vindicated as well; his play dipped noticeably in the final three games of the 2016 series, all losses for the Warriors, and he was burned on the pivotal play by Kyrie Irving’s Game 7 jumper.
His pride pushed him through a terrific 2017 postseason, one in which Curry never played better, and he closed out with 34 points and 10 assists in the clincher. He also turned playful in the final minutes, shaking Irving off the dribble and dropping a 30-footer, just because he could.
What made the Warriors unique among “super teams” is their depth -- this wasn’t a one- or two-man sled pull. Andre Iguodala’s role slipped somewhat since he won Finals MVP two years ago, yet he was on the floor whenever it counted. Game 5 was a testament to the faith Kerr and his teammates have in Iguodala: he played the entire fourth quarter, scored seven of his 20 points (his most in the playoffs in almost two years) and made all the right plays.
Draymond Green grabbed 12 rebounds. Klay Thompson, charged with the task of guarding Irving, supplied the necessary defense once again. Patrick McCaw, Shaun Livingston, David West ... the Warriors reached down their roster and found solutions. The Warriors never trailed in the last 2 1/2 quarters and the series. While the Cavs trailed by only five entering the fourth quarter, Durant and Curry made sure to keep suspense from seeping into the outcome.
All season, and into the playoffs and Finals, the Warriors showed what happens when a solid-shooting team is able to spread the floor while moving the ball and rolling up the points. That, and playing good enough defense to run laps on the rest of the league. Their stars refused to fall into what legendary coach Pat Riley called “the disease of me”.
“I mean, come on, you’ve got a bunch of guys who can shoot and pass and dribble and they’re unselfish. There was never any question in my minds that this was going to work,” said Kerr. “This was the culmination of a year in which they grew together, learned each other’s games and got better and better.”
The Warriors’ stellar postseason was interrupted by Kerr’s health issue yet never suffered along with the coach. Assistant coach Mike Brown filled in without a hitch and when Kerr returned, all seemed normal. But given the physical discomfort and uncertainty he endured, this victory struck a cord with Kerr, perhaps more than the five titles he won as a player and his previous title as a coach.
“Tonight was a little different, just based on the things I’ve had to go through time,” he conceded.
LeBron is now 3-5 in The Finals, which stands as the counterargument to any debate that favors him over Michael Jordan (who was 6-0 in The Finals). Not all five losses can be pinned on LeBron and him getting the Cavs this far in 2007 and '15 were impressive feats because of his high level of importance those years. And Monday he played all but one minute, with 41 points, 13 rebounds and two assists shy of yet another Finals triple-double.
“This is my eighth trip and I’ve had some pretty good ones in my day,” he said. “If you feel you put in the work and left it all on the floor, then you can always push forward and not look backward.”
Not only did the Warriors win a title, they fired a warning shot to the rest of the NBA. Their legacy has longer legs than a supermodel, given that their core players are all under 30. All-Stars Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson are still in their prime. Should they remain healthy, this title-winning could be habit-forming and get streaky in a hurry.
In order for someone to square up with Golden State, they must bring a super team themselves ... and there aren’t any at the moment. None of the current contenders are expected to see seismic upgrades this summer unless free agent Chris Paul joins the San Antonio Spurs. However, Paul will likely re-up with the Clippers and cash in with the new “super-max” contract, since he pushed for it in the most recent labor agreement. Even if pigs fly and he does leave L.A. for the Spurs, who’s their third wheel? LaMarcus Aldridge?
And unless Russell Westbrook and Paul George hook up with LA’s other team, there won’t be a super team to challenge the Warriors in 2019, either.
“They’re going to be around for a while,” said LeBron. “Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s and showing no signs of slowing down. So there’s going to be a lot of teams trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that... because they’re built to last for a few years.”
The new labor agreement was designed to financially incentivize stars to stay put, making it increasingly likely that we’ll never see a stacked team like the Warriors unless a team Drafts and develops multiple stars. That formula takes time and luck.
How many true game-changers are in the NBA? A half-dozen? Maybe eight? In a league with 30 teams? Whatever the number, it’s small and the Warriors have two in Durant and Curry, plus two solid All-Stars in Green and Thompson. The rest of the league must compete with that.
“We’re obviously just getting started,” said Curry. “This is something we want to continue to do.”
A powerfully-built team lived up to the lofty expectations and refused to fold. In that sense, the Warriors kept all threats, and suspense, a safe distance away.
Where the Warriors rank with the all-time great teams is debatable. Where they rate today is undeniable. That question, along with the Cavs, was put to rest quickly, efficiently and emphatically in a championship series that left no doubt.
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