(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
Worth the Wait
by Brian Witt
After 40 years of waiting, the Warriors are finally NBA champions once again.
So this is what it feels like.
This is what it feels like to vanquish four decades of pain, frustration and hopelessness. This is what it feels like to see generations of unrelenting loyalty and dedication finally pay off. This is what it feels like to reach the top after truly starting from the bottom.
And now, we’re here.
For the first time in 40 years, the Warriors woke up Wednesday morning as NBA champions. It’s a designation many people tied to this long-struggling franchise, to however large or small a degree, never honestly believed would belong to them. The seemingly endless combination of bad luck, poor decisions and lackluster play that came to define the Golden State franchise in the decades following their last championship celebration in 1975 seemed eternally insurmountable, toying with the hopes of multiple generations of Warriors fans that outsiders deemed too deliriously loyal for their own good. But all that is changed now. Those same dedicated hooligans of Dub Nation, through the events of last night, have been vindicated and cleansed of all the heartbreak that proved their fandom in the first place. This is no longer a team defined by fast, but ultimately faulted gimmicky entertainment, but rather, the ultimate achievement in the sport they revolutionized through their adept interweaving of skill and purpose. There is now an undeniable and impenetrable demarcation separating the Warriors’ downtrodden past from their beaming present, and the lengthy wait to get there has made the arrival all the more enjoyable.
It seems like ancient history, but it was merely 13 months ago that the Warriors had been dispatched in a seven game first round series by their ultimate rival, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tensions ran high following that defeat, as one would rightfully expect. The Dubs were forced to transition to the offseason far earlier than they desired, with a bitter taste in their mouths that would form the keystone of their now emboldened structure, upon which almost all other moves and developments that resulted in this championship were predicated. There’s a common axiom within NBA lore that a team must lose in the playoffs before it can win the ultimate prize, and the Warriors were no exception to the rule. That maddening early exit, as well as the two-round playoff expedition from the season prior, were essential building blocks of the plot that climaxed with a trophy presentation at center court Tuesday night.
Fast forward to November 11, 2014. That night, the Warriors got demolished on their own home court by the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. The 113-100 defeat doesn’t look all that ugly on the schedule now, but at the time, it stuck out like a sore thumb. After starting off the season with five-straight wins, the loss to the Spurs not only marked the latter of their first sequence of back-to-back defeats on the young season, but also served as a loud and rude awakening. If the Warriors were going to become a championship team, they were going to have to learn how to be one along the way, and the Spurs were more than willing to give them their first instructional lesson.
Well, lesson received. Following that loss, the Warriors didn’t suffer another defeat for the next five weeks, as the Dubs responded with a 16-game winning streak, the longest in franchise history. The fifth game of that streak was a 91-86 victory in Oklahoma City, after which the Warriors possessed the top defensive rating in the league, a status they would not relinquish for the remainder of the season. By the end of the streak, the Warriors sat at 21-2 on the season and had firmly defined the recipe by which they were ultimately able to win a championship. The intricate ball-movement oriented offense and staunch, fervent team defending that served the Warriors so well in the playoffs didn’t just come to be overnight. It was a process that began way back in training camp, and by the time the calendar had transitioned to 2015, we were seeing the abundant fruits of that labor.
After another sequence of back-to-back losses in late December, one to each of the L.A. teams, the Warriors once again righted the ship with a loud, prolonged statement of their superiority. The Dubs notched 14 wins in their next 15 games, the last of which gave them their 19th consecutive victory at Oracle Arena. It was the kind of response that came to define their season. Yes, the Warriors were fallible; they had their off nights and were susceptible to a loss every now and then. But they didn’t allow those down spells to linger. Only four times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs did the Warriors lose consecutive games, but never once did they suffer three losses in a row. In fact, in each instance that the Dubs lost back-to-back games, they followed them up with immediate win streaks of 16, 8, 3, 9, 6, and 3 games. The final two of those won playoff series in which the Dubs had trailed 2-1, and the last of which earned them the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
By mid-February, the Warriors had a 42-9 record on the season as the league took an intermission for the annual All-Star festivities in New York. Fittingly, after the best record through 51 games in franchise history, there proved to be no shortage of Golden State representatives at All-Star Weekend. First and foremost, Stephen Curry was voted by the fans to start the All-Star Game itself, giving him his second consecutive All-Star starting assignment. Curry led the league with 1,513,324 fan votes, becoming the first Warrior to lead the fan vote since Rick Barry in 1976 and the first Warrior to make back-to-back All-Star starts since Chris Mullin (1991-92). He wasn’t alone, though. Not by a long shot. He was joined by his all-too-familiar backcourt mate Klay Thompson in the West’s starting lineup, making the Splash Brothers the first pair of guards from the same team to start an All-Star Game since the Knicks’ Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe did so in 1975. And, as the head coach of the Western Conference team with best record, Steve Kerr and his staff had earned the right to man the sidelines for the West in the annual showcase Game. The joy of the moment was not lost on any of the Warriors’ representatives, and being there together meant just as much to them as it did to Warriors fans. Little did we know at the time, however, that it would soon pale in comparison to the sheer ecstasy that laid just months down the line.
Four games into the second half of the season, the Warriors faced off against the Cavs in Cleveland. It was the second and final regular season meeting between the two eventual Finals counterparts, and it offered a glimpse into the thrilling series that would eventually transpire less than four months down the road. In a 110-99 Cleveland victory, LeBron James lifted and carried his team on his shoulders to the tune of 42 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, as he led the Cavs in an impressive defeat of the team with the NBA’s best record. Few members of the Warriors played well that night, but best among them was likely Andre Iguodala. With nine points, six assists and five rebounds in 30 minutes predominantly matched up against James, Iguodala posted the best plus-minus and net ratings on the team, a faint but nonetheless true foreshadowing of the performance that would eventually garner him NBA Finals MVP. The Warriors, as it turned out, would play three more games at Quicken Loans Arena, the final two of which closed the book on one of the most impressive seasons in NBA history.
From March 4 to April 4, the Warriors fine tuned their dynamic machine in preparation for the playoffs, and demolished their regular season opponents in the process. The Warriors went 17-1 over that span, slowly but surely inching their record to an incomprehensible 50 games over .500. But they weren’t just winning; they were making a statement loud enough for all potential postseason opponents to hear. Over those 18 games, the Warriors shot 47.9 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three-point range, while averaging 28.4 assists and 9.5 steals per game. They averaged 109.3 points for and 96.6 points against per game, equating to a plus-12.7 point differential that somehow doesn’t do justice to just how dominant they were. To put it in better context, those games were so in hand by the end of the third quarter that no member of the Dubs’ starting lineup played in more than 12 fourth quarters over that stretch. In fact, if you exclude Curry and Harrison Barnes, no member of the starting lineup played more fourth quarters over those 18 games than Klay Thompson’s nine.
By the time that streak ended, the Warriors had done more than enough to sew up the top seed in not only the Western Conference, but the league as a whole. It guaranteed Golden State would have home court advantage in any postseason series, where their opponents would be forced to enter an environment at Oracle Arena where the Dubs had only lost two games all year. With a four-game win streak to close out the regular season, the Dubs entered the playoffs with a mind-blowing record of 67-15, placing them as just the 10th team in NBA history to win at least 67 regular season games. Of the nine teams that preceded them, seven had gone on to win the championship. So, in the process of placing themselves alongside the greatest regular season teams in league history, the Warriors had also established some lofty postseason expectations to live up to. It would take another two months to find out whether they’d be up to the task, but when all was said and done, they had left zero doubt.
A first round series against the upstart Pelicans proved to be tougher on the court than it looked on paper. After winning the first two games at Oracle by a total of 17 points, the series transitioned to the Big Easy where Anthony Davis and the Pellies would fight for their playoff lives. Through three quarters of Game 3, New Orleans had the Dubs on the ropes, holding a seemingly insurmountable 20-point lead heading into the final quarter. Then, it happened. Capped by a highlight reel three-point shot for the ages from Curry in the final seconds of regulation, the Warriors outscored the Pelicans 39-19 in the fourth quarter to send a game that should have been over, into overtime. New Orleans was deflated, the Warriors were reinvigorated, and the result was a 123-119 Golden State overtime victory to claim a commanding 3-0 lead in the series. Since the NBA instituted the shot clock, Golden State had been down 20 to start a fourth quarter 358 previous times, and won precisely zero of those games. Now, with arguably the biggest shot in franchise history, the Dubs were well on their way to the next step towards a championship.
The Warriors would finish off the sweep of the Pelicans in Game 4, advancing them to the second round for a matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis had long been one of the Warriors’ ‘bigger brothers’ over recent seasons, a team that always seemed to have Golden State’s number, no matter what they tried. And, as many suspected, the Grizzlies continued to give the Warriors trouble in their first ever playoff encounter. The series started off well for the entire Golden State franchise, as their Game 1 victory was sandwiched by the announcements that Bob Myers had been named NBA Executive of the Year, and Stephen Curry had won the league’s regular season MVP award. At that point, the Warriors were 5-0 in the playoffs, and Curry’s tremendous speech at his award ceremony was as close as the organization and its fans had come to cloud nine in a very, very long time. The euphoria was short-lived, however, as the Grizzlies placed the Warriors in their first postseason whole by winning the next two games of the series. Then, it happened. After the Grizzlies’ Tony Allen had proven to be the difference in Games 2 and 3, Steve Kerr made the most important adjustment of his young coaching career; that is, up to that point. Kerr made the decision to alter the defensive assignments so that Andrew Bogut was matched up against Allen, daring Allen to shoot uncontested jumpers, not necessarily his biggest individual strength. Allen took those open shots, and missed, forcing his own coach to pull him from the game. That swung the momentum to the Warriors side, and they carried it to three consecutive victories, closing out Memphis in six games.
While Stephen Curry had earned every right to that MVP trophy, the Houston Rockets had a fairly deserving candidate of their own in James Harden, and the Western Conference Finals offered NBA fans a chance to see the two dynamic guards go at it with a trip to the Finals on the line. The Warriors held serve in the series’ first two games, winning both but only by a combined total of five points, before the series transitioned to Houston for Games 3 and 4. And then, it happened. The Warriors, led by Curry, blew Game 3 open in the first half, dealing the crushing blow to the Rockets’ hopes of getting back into the series. The Dubs were up by 12 points at the end of the first quarter, but things got out of hand quickly when Curry started heating up. The now-MVP scored all but two of Golden State’s points during a 16-5 run over a three minute span to push their lead to 20 with just over three minutes left in the first half. The Dubs would increase that lead even further to 25 heading into halftime, and at that point, the Rockets were finished. No team in NBA history had ever come back from a 3-0 hole to win a seven-game playoff series, and the Dubs ensured Houston wouldn’t become the first. Golden State closed out the Rockets in Game 5 at Oracle, advancing them to their first NBA Finals series in four decades.
And man, what a Finals it would turn out to be.
It seemed impossible, but even after going through the likes of Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and James Harden, the Warriors encountered even more star power in the Finals, as LeBron James put on an individual performance the likes of which we’ve never seen. For the first time in Finals history, the first two games of the series went to overtime, with each side pulling out a victory. The Cavs had stolen home court advantage with their win in Game 2 at Oracle, and after withstanding the Warriors’ fervent fourth quarter comeback attempt in Game 3, found themselves halfway to the ultimate prize. And then, it happened. Kerr topped his adjustment of the Memphis series by inserting Andre Iguodala into Andrew Bogut’s spot in the starting lineup heading into Game 4. The switch made the Warriors smaller, and therefore even more susceptible to the superior height and length of Cleveland. But, it also made them faster, spaced them wider, and allowed them to throw Iguodala, their best 1-on-1 defensive option for the King, on James whenever he was out on the court. And as they say, the rest is history.
Iguodala sparked the Warriors to a crucial series-tying 21-point blowout win in Cleveland in Game 4, sending the series back to Oracle tied at two games apiece. The Dubs then rode that momentum to a pivotal 104-91 victory in Game 5, thanks in large part to Curry’s 37 points and seven 3-pointers, to place themselves on the brink of the goal they’d been striving for since training camp began nine months prior. As the series had worn on, it appeared more and more as if the Cavs, despite James’ heroic efforts, just didn’t have the depth and energy to defeat the Warriors over a full 48 minutes. The same depth that had allowed the Warriors to rest their stars throughout the regular season now allowed them to throw everything at the Cavs when it mattered most, and Cleveland just couldn’t match up. As Game 6 approached, it was Iguodala who motivated his team to focus everything on the task at hand, as nobody associated with Golden State wanted to see what a rested James could do in a winner-take-all Game 7. As it turned out, nobody would have a chance to find out. The Dubs raced out to a 28-15 lead at the end of the first quarter of Game 6, and although the Cavs trimmed that lead to just two points heading into halftime, the tone had been set and the damage had been done. The Dubs outscored the Cavs by 10 points in the third quarter, and then an incendiary display from three-point land put the Warriors up 15 points halfway through the fourth frame.
And then, it happened.
The clock hit zero. No time remained in the excruciatingly long journey that had brought the Warriors to this point. As the players and coaching staff erupted in celebration on the court, the realization of what had just happened finally began to set in. As Draymond Green exclaimed their new status as NBA champions in the direction of Stephen Curry as the two stars embraced, all Curry could say was, “What?!”, over and over again.
Now, two days later, it seems as if Curry’s sentiment still echoes. It’s been so long since an accomplishment like this was even considered theoretically possible, much less actually doable. And yet, it happened. It really happened. The Warriors are NBA champions, and the 40-year-old gorilla has finally been removed from the back of the longtime hopeless franchise.
Perhaps no one other than Bob Myers himself, in his first post-championship availability, put the incredulity still proliferating throughout the greater Bay Area in such relatable terms:
“I can’t believe it still. I really can’t believe that this actually happened. Because growing up here you know, and the people that have been raised here and reared here as Warriors fans, for some reason, it didn’t seem possible. I don’t know why, it just didn’t seem like it was ever going to happen. I think even making the playoffs seemed a goal that was insurmountable for awhile.”
Myers grew up in the Bay Area and has been a Warriors fan going back to the days of his early childhood. He still has the ticket from his first ever game at Oracle Arena, and he remembers fondly, now so more than ever, his night classes at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, in which he was frequently mocked for the Warriors sweatshirt he often wore to class.
It’s the kind of story that any long-time Warriors fan can relate to. Easy is the last word you would ever use to describe the trials and tribulations of life as a Golden State fan. As Myers related, it wasn’t just that the team went through extended periods of down years; it was more that there seemed to be some sort of symbolic rain cloud hovering over the franchise that would retreat temporarily, only to return soon after in even greater force. But now, the only rains emanating from Warriors’ land are the unconscious displays of three-point mastery of Curry and Thompson. The only shadows hovering over the organization are the ones created by Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green in the paint they so dominantly patrol. The only noteworthy symbolism is the image of Andre Iguodala, the most abundantly obvious case of the team-first mentality that proved absolutely essential to their attainment of the championship, hoisting the Finals MVP trophy after not starting a single game all year until that fateful Game 4 of the Finals.
The events of the past season have forever altered the arc of the Warriors’ franchise history and storyline, and also, what it means to be, and have been, a fan of it. No longer are the best memories simply the ones that provided brief relief from a prolonged existence of averageness, or worse. No longer will Golden State fans be mocked and chided for unrelentingly supporting a team deemed fun to watch, but faulted at the core. No, times have changed. Things are different now, and they will persist to be. And this championship means just as much to the players, coaches and executives that brought it to be as it does to the fans that invested their hearts and souls in dedication and support, year after disappointing year.
The Warriors are NBA champions. It may take awhile to settle in, but it will never come close to comparing to the 40-year wait that, for many fans, defined the only reality of being a Golden State supporter they’ve ever known.
The Warriors are NBA champions. Believe it now, and forever more.
The wait is finally over, and boy does it feel worth it.
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