Can we dispense with at least a modicum of the idiotic talk-radio criticism now, with the facile notion that a team that relies more on finesse than brute force is somehow not as mentally tough as those historic champions that tended to bull their way through the playoffs? Maybe you’re still not convinced that the 2016 Golden State Warriors are the equal of ’96 Bulls, but at this point, that’s your problem, because at this point, they’re one series away from becoming something even more spiritually fulfilling than that Bulls team.
There are two primary ways to process a sporting tide like this one, the one that culminated in a 96-88 Game 7 victory for the Warriors over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals on Monday night. The first is to believe that talent should always prevail, that if the best team doesn’t win, then something is fundamentally awry with the universe. The second is subscribe at least partially to the notion of magic and miracles, to the idea that games like this – and series like this, as much as we try to parse them into careful analytics – are still often dictated by something entirely ineffable.
What we learned these past few days is that the Warriors, who overcame a 3-1 deficit, were not the most talented team in this series; the best athlete on the floor was unquestionably the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder were longer and quicker and far scarier for the majority of these games.
But the Warriors had a few things going for them, and that made them the better team in the end: They had two of the best shooters in the history of the game, which sure as hell doesn’t hurt. They had Klay Thompson to bail them out in Game 6 on the road in Oklahoma City, and they had both Thompson and Curry there to carry them through Game 7, to patch up their fundamental deficiencies and their matchup issues and to make them the better team by virtue of the 3-point line itself. The Warriors were more than plus-80 on the Thunder from the 3-point line this series; the Warriors won it the way we thought they would eventually win it, by clinging to life with their depth and then finding a way to filter the most important moments of the final two games through their two best players.
And maybe you don’t like that, and maybe you frown on the circus shooting of Curry and Thompson, and maybe you preferred the NBA the way it was back in the old days, when playoff games like this one tended to devolve into stultifying rugby scrums and lumbering Laimbeer scowls. And I suppose that’s your right, but even if you say these things, here is what you cannot say anymore: That the Warriors are soft. Because a soft team would have folded midway through Game 6. Because a soft team would have melted after trailing by 13 on their home floor in Game 7. Because a soft team would have been intimidated by the brilliance of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and wouldn’t have endured to the point that they eventually turned it around and found a way to frustrate the Thunder’s two best players and leave them bickering in the end.
So maybe there’s something to be said for playing the long game. Maybe there’s something to be said for the fact that Warriors never seem to panic, that Curry shook off Westbrook’s hot-headed laughter about his defensive prowess (has there ever been a more brilliant player who’s capable of doing so many dumb things than Westbrook?), that Thompson kept on shooting even when it seemed like no one on the Warriors would ever make a shot again, that Steve Kerr never really lost his cool, that even Draymond Green reined himself in after nearly losing his mind and neutering the Thunder’s Steven Adams. Maybe there’s something to be said for a team that can take a hard punch to the face and respond by delivering a takedown so subtle that I’m still not sure how the hell they won that Game 6 on Saturday night.
They go on to play Cleveland now, a team that is far different from the one the Warriors played last season, a team at full strength, a team motivated by the notion of winning a championship for a desperate city. And the Warriors may struggle again, and they may find themselves down in the series and the same criticisms and the same doubts will no doubt arise once more. And people will say that they are something less than what came before, that they are trafficking in a willful and dreamlike delusion of beauty and that this is where it finally gets bulldozed. But there comes a time when you have to start wondering if the people who are delusional are the ones who don’t see what’s taking place right before their eyes.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb