Eighteen days ago, we all knew how this was going to end. The Golden State Warriors were an unstoppable juggernaut, the sole owners of the NBA’s best regular season record ever at 73-9 and Steph Curry, the unanimous MVP, leading the way. The Cleveland Cavaliers had rolled the Eastern Conference, but they were flawed, saddled with a lackluster defense and little sense of how they would stop up to a team as historically good as the Warriors. Generous souls called the Finals for the Warriors in six or seven games. Plenty called for a sweep.
I guess that’s why, as they say, they play the games.
The result we got instead – the Cavs becoming the first NBA team to come back from being down 3-1 in the Finals to win, the first team in Cleveland to win a title in 52 years – is going to take a while to fully unpack. But let’s start with the games themselves.
Although none of the first six games were particularly compelling in games in and of themselves – not one was decided by fewer than 10 points – the total number of points scored by each team headed into last night’s decisive Game 7 were actually even at 610-610. After blowing out the Cavs in the first two games before losing in Cleveland in Game 3 and then going up 3-1 after Game 4, the Warriors stumbled and – in hindsight – began to crumble after Draymond Green’s now-infamous blow to LeBron’s privates. The ensuing suspension not only threw the Warriors off their game, it lit a fire under James, who scored 41 points in both Games 5 and 6 and notched a triple double in Game 7 with 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. His averages across the board in the final three games of the series are mind-boggling:
LeBron James’ averages over his last three games of the series:
36.3 pts, 11.7 rebs, 9.7 asts, 3.0 blks, 3.0 stls 50.6% FG, 42.1% 3FG
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) June 20, 2016
For the series as a whole, he became the first player in NBA history to lead all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Stop. Go back and read that again. ALL PLAYERS. ON BOTH TEAMS. Had the Warriors somehow pulled Game 7 back from the brink, James should still have been crowned the MVP, joining Jerry West as the only other player to win Finals MVP in a losing effort.
The Warriors, of course, could not pull it back, and something needs to be said about that. First of all, the prevailing sentiment from all manner of former players who claimed their decent enough teams could beat the Warriors and fans of other teams, who couldn’t stand some of Golden State’s preening ways, was that the regular season record for most wins didn’t mean a thing without a ring. That, frankly, is complete and utter bullshit. Does it mean as much? No. Is its significance completely wiped away? Absolutely not.
The regular season and the postseason are simply completely different animals. The regular season is a marathon where teams have to deal with different opponents every night, sometimes on paltry rest, often in the middle of seemingly endless road trips. The fortitude and resilience required to do what the Warriors did in the regular season is stunning and impressive on its own, end of story.
The playoffs winnow your opponents down to one at a time, played with time for rest and adjustment. This is where the Warriors were truly a letdown and that disappointment falls squarely on three sets of shoulders: Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Steve Kerr.
Curry was a husk of the player he was in the regular season, and not because he couldn’t make shots. He often did, but throughout this series, whether the shots were falling or not, he just didn’t strike the same kind of fear into his opponent that he did in the regular season. Yes, the Cavs executed a lot of successful defense on him, but he also did a lot of – pardon me – dumb shit, especially in Game 7, where he threw a behind-the-back pass out of bounds and tried to answer Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing minute with system-breaking hero ball that didn’t get him a decent look.
We all know Curry has pulled off such stuff before and maybe that’s why he thought he could again, but we also saw all those cavalier 30-footers come back to bite him in the ass. It’s cute when it works and often jaw-dropping, but he’s going to have to take a serious look at how seriously he takes himself this offseason if he wants to get better. He ended up scoring just 17 points in Game 7 on 6-for-19 shooting. If it was fatigue or injury, so be it, but the bottom line is that just won’t cut it from the regular season MVP.
Green was actually incredible in Game 7, nearly getting his own triple double with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. But of course, there’s a good chance that Game 7 wouldn’t have even had to happen had Green’s flagrant fouls over the course of the entire postseason not gotten him automatically suspended for Game 5. Green is a tremendous player who’s an endless amount of fun to watch play simply because he does so many little things right all the time. But beyond his play, he also does so many little things wrong when it comes to contact and trash talk. He has to get that stuff under control so he’s not putting his team in bad positions.
And finally, Kerr. Losing Bogut to a knee injury hamstrung him a bit, but going to Festus Ezeli to start the game was disastrous, and then he doubled down on it to start the second half. Going into the break, the Warriors were up 49-42, and it felt like they’d gathered some momentum in the first half’s closing minutes. It only took three minutes for the Cavs to knot it at 54-54 in the third, largely because of defensive breakdowns, fouls and missed shots by Ezeli, who ended a -9 with 0 points on 0-for-4 shooting and one rebound. Anderson Varejao was just as bad. Kerr can’t play the game for the team, but his decisions throughout the game were a step slow and not reactive enough to the situation at hand.
This Warriors team will return largely intact next season, and this loss may even light a fire under them to go big this offseason. Whether they add significant pieces or not, it would be foolish to bet against remaining the absolute class of the Western Conference and competing again for a title next year.
But all that shouldn’t undercut what the Cavaliers and specifically LeBron James achieved last night. Blighted franchises everywhere should cheer for Cleveland and nurture the glimmer of hope it gives them that it might be their turn next (I’m looking at you, Chicago Cubs). As I wrote previously, whether the Cavs ultimately won or lost this series, we’ve seen that Kyrie Irving – defensive issues and all – is a legit star, capable of performing on the biggest stage when it matters most. His coldhearted 3-pointer with 53 seconds remaining was the game’s dagger. Tristan Thompson made the free throws he needed to make and earned the considerable contract he got in the offseason. Kevin Love…well, Love was a non-factor for most of the series before suddenly stepping up big on defense in the game’s waning moments.
The promise that those players showed may end up being more significant than James’ heroic performance in the long run because surely the whispers have already started about whether James will return to Cleveland at all next year. It’s hard to wrap your brain around following that historic win, but honestly, what does he have to gain there now? A shot at a dynasty? No matter how good he was this series, surely even he can see that a few things going differently could have meant a Warriors win. He’s openly talked about the possibility of teaming up with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade before he retires. He’s already become one of the highest profile players in the NBA to win a championship with two different franchises. Why not try to win one with three different franchises?
But there’s time enough for that. There’s time enough for everything, honestly, now that another NBA season is in the books. It may not have been the prettiest or best from the regular season to the postseason, but it managed to save the best for last. The NBA is long on dynasties, with 16 of the last 20 championships having been won by the Spurs, Lakers, Bulls or Heat. But the past two years have two long-suffering teams win it all. Cleveland fans are jubilant, and the rumor last night was that some of them stole a fire truck.
I hope they rode it till the wheels fell off.After Cleveland Cavaliers won NBA Finals in historic fashion, fans went wild and hopped on a fire truck. Watch here.