CLEVELAND — Focus for too long on what could have been or what might be in the future, and you’ll miss what these Golden State Warriors are right here and right now.
That title they coughed up in 2016 after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 is long gone now. Whatever the Warriors’ star-studded core group will do in the future has yet to be determined.
What they are now, however, after demolishing the Cavaliers 108-85 Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena, is exactly who and what we thought they would be this season: the most dominant team in basketball for the second straight season.
The Warriors defended their title, smashing the Cavaliers on their way to the first sweep in The Finals since the San Antonio Spurs did the same to a young LeBron James-led crew on this floor in 2007.
They looked as decisive, as dominant and as devastating as they have all season on this final night, running circles around the Cavaliers after halftime in a runaway affair. It was the ninth sweep in Finals history and the largest margin of victory (+60) in a sweep.
The Warriors wore the bullseye the rest of the league chased all season, the one the angry fans of other teams griped about all season and wore it well as the once lovable team people suddenly love to hate.
“That's how you know we're a great team is when everybody's coming after us,” Durant said. “Whether it's opponents, whether it's different coaches panning for us, whether it's the fans, the media that hate us, it feels good when you're the team that everybody's gunning for. It makes us better. It makes us come to work and try to play at that championship level every single day, and that's the hardest part.
“But, you know, I'm glad we were able to lock in, especially in the playoffs, and do what we were supposed to do to win this thing.”
The fourth straight time against a clearly overmatched James and this latest iteration of the Cavaliers, was over early in the Warriors’ favorite third quarter, that spot all season where they’ve separated themselves from the competition.
Kevin Durant won his second straight Finals MVP and finished with a 20-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. He’s gone from a superstar in search of a ring just two summers ago to a man with one for each ring finger.
Stephen Curry, the two-time Kia MVP who missed the first six games of the postseason recovering from a knee injury, capped this series off with a game-high 37 points, saving some of his very best work from distance for what might be the last twist with a LeBron-led Cavaliers team.
James heads off into free agency July 1 wearing a cast on his right arm, courtesy of a self-inflicted injury after the Cavaliers late-game meltdown in the opener. His future destination as uncertain right now as it was four years ago when he left Miami to return home.
There is no such uncertainty surrounding these Warriors. They have now shoved their way into the conversation about the best teams ever assembled. You don’t storm to three titles in four years, set the regular-season wins record at 73 two years ago, and not gain entry into that elite club.
The fact that their core group of Curry, Durant and All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are all 30 or younger and in the primes of their respective careers, is the most frightening part for the rest of the league.
They’re this good, this dominant now — James went to the bench for good with just over four minutes to play and the Warriors leading 102-77 — and could keep improving.
The Warriors are stacked for the foreseeable future and so long as they are reasonably healthy, they’ll continue to be a roadblock for any other team in the NBA with championship ambitions, including whatever team LeBron plays on.
LeBron has ruled the Eastern Conference for eight straight years, the first four in Miami and the last four here in his native Northeast Ohio.
He played all 82 games for the first time in his career, 15 years deep into his storied career. He delivered the Cavaliers from the brink of elimination in the first round against Indiana, swept top-seeded Toronto in the conference semifinals and then rescued the Cavaliers from the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, leading his team to a Game 7 win on the road to make it back here.
“To be the best player in the world and to give everything you've got in your 15th season, play all 82 games, probably one of the greatest playoff runs that we'll ever see from an individual, to carry this team the way he did all season and leading by example, it's just a testament to his character and who he is as a person and as a player,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “He had a lot of opportunities where he could have sat out of games and was going through a tough stretch and wasn't playing well, but he didn't want to do that. And a lot of guys would have folded under those circumstances, but he didn't. He's a bad boy, and I love having him on our team. He fights and competes to the end.
“Sometimes you can give everything you've got and still come up short. I thought that's what our group of guys did in this series. That's about it.”
Whatever James decides to do in free agency, whether that’s depart for a new opportunity elsewhere or remain here and try to mount yet another Finals run in wine and gold, the Warriors will still be waiting at the end of the line.
Because the thirst for more of this remains for Durant, Curry, Green, Thompson and the rest of the Warriors, who won their first title on this floor in 2015.
They've grown accustomed to celebrating these moments away from home.
They were on the brink of elimination in the Western Conference finals two weeks ago, down 3-2 to the Houston Rockets and without home court advantage against their new rivals, who added Chris Paul via trade last summer to a James-Harden-led cast specifically designed to take them down.
But with Paul out with a hamstring injury the final two games, the Warriors woke up and rebounded for a Game 6 win at Oracle Arena and a Game 7 romp at Toyota Center to lock down he fourth straight date with the Cavaliers in The Finals.
They survived Game 1, needing a George Hill missed free throw and a J.R. Smith gaffe at the end of regulation, to provide the space for their overtime win.
Curry went nuclear with a Finals record nine made 3-pointers to spark their Game 2 win in Oakland. And Durant did the honors here in Wednesday’s Game 3, roasting the Cavaliers for 43 points, including a decisive 3-pointer in what was a one-point game in the final minute, 13 rebounds and seven assists to set up Friday night’s clincher.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr talked all season long of this fourth campaign being the toughest. The Rockets passed them up in the standings during the regular season.
“Extremely difficult. Not just the playoff run, this entire season,” Green said of the heavy lifting it required to win it all again. “You're coming off a championship and you're expected to get back to that level for Game 1 of 82. Like it's tough. You know, he had time where he missed. Kevin, myself, Klay, Steph, Jordan Bell, like you name it, guys missed time. All the injuries we went through while going through that grind of trying to get back to this position was extremely tough.
“However, we pride ourselves on our depth, and at different times in the season, our depth stepped up. You know, even throughout the playoffs, Andre going down, Steph starting the playoffs out, like other guys stepped up, and that's what's important.”
And they looked mortal early on in the playoffs without Curry, after winning their first 15 playoff games with Durant en route to last season’s title.
The grind of playing to the final night of the season for a fourth straight year, the wear and tear accrued and the exhausting physical and emotional toll uninterrupted championship contention takes on any group can be overwhelming.
But not for this group.
“I remember sitting in this room three years ago, it seemed like a dream.,” Kerr said. “This feels more like reality. And I hope that doesn't sound arrogant. It's just that's the talent we have, and that's the experience we've gained. But it's a very different feeling. It's still euphoric, but three years ago was I can't believe this happened, and now it's I can definitely believe this happened, but it was hard, and it gets more and more difficult as you go through.
“Next year will be even tougher. I may not show up until All-Star break because they're not going to listen to me anyway. Thank you.”
Kerr was in a playful mood after the game and it was well-earned. The Warriors basked in the glow of this latest triumph. Durant dancing with both the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell trophies during the post-game celebration in the middle of the court, while Curry, Green, Thompson, 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and the rest of the crew followed suit as they posed for pictures.
“Get used to it,” Thompson said, “because we’re just getting started.”
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