by: Michael Shields
The Golden State Warriors, on the back of two sharp-shooters and a brilliant performance by an unexpected veteran, bring an NBA Championship back to the Bay Area….
After Game 3 of the NBA Finals, it was safe to say that the Golden State Warriors were in a tight spot. The Cavaliers had already stolen a game on the road, and LeBron’s performance over the first three games wasn’t just good, but legendary ((123 points in three games, surpassing Rick Barry who scored 122 points in three games for the Warriors in 1967. He also scored, assisted, or created 200 of the Cavaliers’ 291 points through those games.)). Something had to change for the Warriors, adjustments had to be made, and one in specific made a world of difference for Golden State. The decision to start Andre Iguodala, a decision that changed the series, was made smartly by Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Yet, all the credit for this move lies not with Kerr himself, but rather with the Warriors’ video coordinator, Nicholas U’Ren. While Kerr humbly heaped praise on U’Ren for his far-sighted suggestion in a postgame interview following Game 4, he deceptively declared at his pregame press conference that there would be no changes in the starting lineup. There were of course, and this change and the impact it had resonated throughout the final four games of the Finals, en route to a Golden State Warriors NBA Championship.
Andre Iguodala, in Game 4, went on to score 22 points, and his presence on the court defensively was the thorn in LeBron James’ side all evening ((After four games, the Warriors had a +32 point differential when Andre Iguodala was on the court, and in that time period he held LeBron to 33% shooting from the field.)). In his first start of the season, Iguodala was the game’s difference, adding to Warriors dominating performance which proved to be the turning point in the series ((When Andre Iguodala was on the floor, LeBron shot 38.1 percent from the field.)). It was a moment, and a victory, where the Warriors took back home court advantage. Where they began to tear through The Playoffs, and while doing so cemented the legacy of Stephen Curry as one of the deadliest and clutch three point shooters in the history of the NBA…an idea that after three games would seem implausible.
The talk wasn’t viscous, or even emphatic. But there was a murmur, an undercurrent of thought and the budding of a discussion about Stephen Curry’s inability to lead his team to a championship following his meek kickoff to his first Finals appearance. Does he have what it takes? pundits wondered. Are a silky smooth jumper and masterful dribbles enough? they asked. Through the first three games Steph didn’t quite look like himself, and all the credit for Curry’s struggles was being bestowed upon the so called Curry-stopper, Matthew Dellavedova. In Game 2, Steph Curry was 5-23 from the floor, including an air-balled possible game winner. He also had six turnovers. Steph didn’t look anything like Regular Season MVP. In fact, Curry was so inept at times that one began to wonder if maybe the BasedGod’s curse that was laid upon Marreese Speights had worked its way unto Steph. And then Game 5 happened…
In the first four games of the series, Stephen Curry was being bullied by the Australian-born Dellavedova, but that all changed when he finished with 37 points, hitting 13-of-23 overall and 7-of-13 from three-point range, as Golden State took the 3-2 series edge in Game 5. This was the Stephon Curry we had been marveling at all season, the transcendent talent whose Game 5 performance was a beautiful thing to behold as he hit highly-contested step-back three after three in dramatic fashion. It was an absolutely exhilarating display, and it’s funny to look back and think about that brief period of time after Game 3 where many thought for a minute Steph might be a whole lot like TIDAL, but it turns out he’s more like Jurassic World’s opening weekend. Huge. Extraordinary. The real fucking deal.
With the series returning to Cleveland for Game 6, the pressure was now squarely on the Cavs, and although LeBron downplayed this added burden in interviews leading up to the game – the strain was pronounced. Cleveland’s (LeBron, really) approach to the game was deliberate and urgent, but although the will was there, it was all for not as they were confronted by a true team effort by the Warriors, highlighted by the fact that Golden State had 11 assists on their first 11 possessions. Draymond Green finished with 16 points (with 10 assists and 11 rebounds), Stephen Curry had 25, as did Iguodala who surprisingly now has the extreme privilege of carting a Finals MVP trophy with him back to Cali (the first Finals MVP to not start a game in the regular season), along with the Larry O’Brien trophy ((This season marks the first time since 1980 where a Finals MVP shared a team with the regular season MVP when Magic Johnson won the Finals MVP while playing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who had won the regular-season MVP.)).
Mounting the stage for a press conference following an incredible win in Golden State in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, LeBron, wearing an all black sweatshirt and poised with a look of unwavering determination that we hadn’t seen from him as of yet, spoke of an undisclosed catalyst that was fueling his fire this postseason. After doing what few had been able to do all season, winning in the perennially rowdy Oracle Arena ((The Warriors lost two games at home this year during the regular season, and once in the playoffs to the Grizzlies before this lost to Cleveland.)), and doing it in remarkable fashion (39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists – and notching his 13th playoff triple double), LeBron hinted that he wasn’t just playing to win Cleveland its first NBA title, or to nab that third Finals MVP, but that there was something else. He said…
“My motivation is to make sure my guys are ready and prepared every night we step on the floor. And I have some other motivation that I won’t talk about right now, but I have so many different things to worry about than being an underdog or guys counting us out.”
It took no time at all for die-hard fans to tire of the “secret motivation” storyline. But underlying all his brilliance of these NBA Finals, a series of games where we have watched the most unstoppable force in the NBA play to the height of his ability, that question lingered. And it appears likely that we may never know the answer, and now that undisclosed chip on his shoulder is only poised to swell. But while LeBron’s Finals performance is one of the grittiest and remarkable to ever have gone down, one which included bringing Cleveland their first-ever home win in the NBA Finals, even the greatest player in the world (his words, and mine!) cannot do it on their own. Coming into the Finals it was clear that Golden State was a the better team. But Cleveland had Bron – and so they had a chance. But there is a reason that the Avengers exist. That The Expendables had to rally. That the Earps sought Doc Holiday’s aid. While the LeBron we saw this Playoffs was the one we were promised, the one we envisioned when we saw that impossibly developed high-school frame at St. Vincent-St. Mary – a freak hybrid of Magic, Michael, Barkley, and Irving – certain heights can not be ascended alone, and a NBA Championship is one of these summits. In James’ first NBA Finals in 2007, the San Antonio Spurs ended up celebrating on the Cavaliers’ home floor following a sweep. And at the conclusion of LeBron’s second-coming in Cleveland, it’s deja vu all over again, this time with the Golden State Warriors winning their first NBA Championship since 1975.
And so, following an enthralling regular season, and a Playoffs that culminated with the two top seeds from each conference battling it out for a shot at a title (straight chalk!), we were left with a Finals that lived up to the hype. But this season, in hindsight, has truly been about one team, the Golden State Warriors, who rode a sharp-shooting duo known as The Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson) to a 67 win regular season ((One of the 10 best regular season records in NBA history, and interestingly enough Golden State’s head coach Steve Kerr was a member of 1995-96 Chicago Bulls that won 72 games, the all-time record.)), who in tandem with a rookie head coach in Kerr ((No rookie head coach has won an NBA title since the Lakers’ Pat Riley in 1982.)), and a band of gutsy and spirited role players went on to take the NBA by storm. It is fitting that a team that were the No. 1 defensive team all season, who also had the highest scoring team, finish the season with 83 wins and the title of World Champions. The fast-paced brand of West Coast basketball which has taken place in the Bay Area all season hasn’t only been special, but one of the most entertaining and feel-good story-lines to mesmerize NBA fans in some time. A more likable team, or more worthy champion in the Golden State Warriors, I cannot imagine.