Much has already been said and written about the 2016 NBA Finals, so it’s not easy to find ground not already staked out, but let’s try to do that here. Nobody choked. Nobody shrank from the moment. Nobody left anything in the tank.
The way our sports society is wired these days (which, as always is a reflection of our society at large), we wade in right after a result and start assigning blame. It’s my belief that there’s really nobody to blame for this one. This was a very strange series, and far from great, but it ended in an epic Game 7 that saw both teams go almost four minutes without scoring down the stretch. Not from lack of skill or effort, but from being exhausted by eight months of regular season, eight weeks of playoffs, and 48 minutes of hell on the court.
Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors should be very proud of their guys. I think I’m in a unique position to say this, because I am, in a way, a fan of both teams. Obviously, you can see from my archive over the last two seasons that I write (and care) much more about the Warriors than the Cavaliers. I do, however, have a personal connection to the Cavaliers through my friend David Griffin, the Cavs general manager, whom I’ve known for almost 25 years. Back in January, I supported the coaching change he made:
“Tyronn Lue may or may not be the guy who can bring a championship to Cleveland. He already is changing the way the Cavs play, and they’re doing things David Blatt wanted them to do and couldn’t get them to do. It was clear to David Griffin that Blatt was not going to get that trophy, so he needed to do something, and Lue was his best option. It’s BECAUSE coaching makes a difference, not the opposite.”
No need to explain why Cavs fans can be proud of their team, as that’s pretty obvious. While LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and, yes, Tyronn Lue get well-deserved praise, some should should be reserved for Griffin, who faced a firestorm of criticism in January for firing a coach who had finished second in the Finals in his first season and went 30-11 in year two. Griffin denied up and down that the Cavaliers 34-point loss to the Warriors was a catalyst for the change, but it must have been. When you look at how far apart those teams were in January and then realize that the Cavs outscored the Warriors 703-699 over seven games of the NBA Finals, something drastic must have happened.
Nobody on the floor wanted to win this game, or this series, as much as LeBron James did. If you needed any proof, and I don’t know why you would, his block of Andre Iguodala’s attempted layup with a minute-and-a-half remaining will go down as one of the greatest defensive plays in league history, and maybe simply THE best. It was not only physically breathtaking, but it changed everything. If the Warriors get that bucket, then Kyrie Irving’s 3-pointer A) is a heck of a lot harder to hit and B) gives the Cavs only a one-point lead. That means the Warriors have many more options to answer with than the rushed, forced 3-pointer that they got.
I was critical of James for his targeting of Draymond Green with 2:47 to play in Game 4. While I placed ultimate responsibility on Green for his part, I thought James acted irresponsibly and that what he did was somehow beneath a player of his stature. That was completely wrong. While I still do hold referee Danny Crawford accountable for not calling either of the two fouls James committed on the play prior to Green’s lash-out, James is not at fault for that and I was wrong to say he was. I think I could feel inside how much that play, and Green’s suspension, would alter the series, and as a Warriors fan, I targeted James with that frustration. I hope he’ll get over it.
So that’s what stands out to me as far as where the Cavaliers sit this morning while they take turns holding the trophy on the plane ride home. Let’s talk about the Dubs. Warriors Fan, how many signs do you need that it just wasn’t meant to be this year?
Let’s start with Andre Iguodala’s injury on March 11 in Portland. He had just returned to the lineup the previous game after missing three. Damian Lillard undercut him going for a loose ball, and Iguodala had the dreaded “high ankle sprain.” He missed 17 games, and the Warriors won 15 of them, but most of them weren’t comfortable. They also lost that game in San Antonio without him, and lost their first home game all year to the Celtics without him. The Warriors looked jittery on offense without his steadying hand, and since he was their best perimeter defender, they were vulnerable on that end of the floor. He came back for the Minnesota game, which they also lost at home — a really bad sign. That injury changed the Warriors’ rotations, which had been very consistent all year, and I don’t think they ever got back into the offensive rhythm they had before he went down. Festus Ezeli missed all of those games as well, so the roster was stretched in both directions. Ezeli missed 31 games with knee surgery, and you could tell in the playoffs that he never regained his form either.
Now let’s move to the Curry injuries against Houston. The first one was just a small ankle “tweak,” if you can have such a thing on the MVP of the league. I do think the ankle had an impact on the later knee injury, because when his left foot hit that sweat spot on the Houston floor in Game 4, his ankle was so heavily braced that his right knee absorbed all of the stress from the twisting nature of his fall. We were told that the MRI was as good as could be hoped for, and that he’d be back in two-to-three weeks, but we now know this:
Remember the movie DOA, where Dennis Quaid plays a guy who got poisoned and spends the whole movie solving his own murder? Well the Warriors were DOA when Curry’s left foot hit that slick on the floor, and we just didn’t know it yet. He was like a NASCAR driver whose car had gotten banged and nicked up, not enough to get him off the track, but just enough to reduce his speed a little bit and make him come back to the pack. Eventually, Curry’s car ran out of fuel altogether, and while he tried to will it across the finish line, the Cavaliers steamed past just before hitting the tape.
We have to talk about the suspension, right? “The nut-punch that saved Cleveland?” The Warriors just didn’t have anyone who could come close to replacing Green, and when Andrew Bogut went down (when it was still a 3-point game in the third quarter, by the way), the defense that had been the team’s backbone for two years fell apart. Like with the Iguodala injury, it showed how important it is for players to know their roles and play in the same rotations. When people who aren’t usually on the floor at the same time try to play together, it’s very difficult. That’s obviously true on defense, but you could see it on offense, too, where possessions would die because one player didn’t expect the other to break a certain way.
All season, those who watched this team closely knew it was a Steph Curry injury away from the whole thing unraveling. I am reminded of a note I heard early in the playoffs: No team in NBA history has ever won the title when they have the MVP and he misses more than one playoff game. Only two teams have ever won the title with their MVP missing one game: the Lakers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1980 and the Knicks (Willis Reed) in 1970. Curry missed six games in the postseason. Even though he returned and played all of the OKC and Cleveland series, he was impacted by the injury, and the extra stress the team went under in beating Portland and Oklahoma City took precious resources that were not available against the Cavs.
Steph Curry wasn’t just the Warriors’ MVP, he was their safety net. He was the guy that could fix things when they weren’t going well, just by being his unguardable self. His accuracy from an unprecedented distance, combined with his newfound ability to finish at the rim, got them out of jam after jam, especially after Iguodala’s injury made them less efficient at both ends. When he became just a regular player, as he was for most of the Finals, the Warriors lost their margin for error. When he became worse than a regular player, as he was at times — especially in the fourth quarter of Game 7 — he could take them out of the game all by himself. He threw a behind-the-back pass to Klay Thompson that sailed out of bounds with six minutes to go that showed an alarming lack of awareness of the importance of the moment.
Before I tell you Warriors fans why you can be proud of your team, let me give you this advice. Don’t get caught up in the “We were the first team to blow a 3-1 lead in the Finals” crap. Despite the fact that nobody on ABC would say it, this series was altered completely by Green’s suspension, in a way that no other has been in history. No other team down 3-1 on the road had the advantage of playing a team missing a player like Draymond Green, and not because of an injury or even a suspension for an act in that series. The Warriors took an emotional hit from that suspension that took them two games to get over. To their credit, they did that. They just didn’t have enough gas in the tank to hold off the Cavaliers and James.
So, Warriors Fan (I am one and I’m in pain, too), here’s why you can be proud of your team today. With all of those things I just listed, it still took one of the all-time greatest defensive plays in NBA history and one of the most dramatic plays in American sports history, to beat your team. That play was made by a man who is in the conversation as the greatest player in basketball history, who was trying to keep a promise to his hometown fans and cement his legacy all at one time. The Warriors also know that when all of their players were available and all of Cleveland’s players were available, they won three of four, and every one in convincing fashion. You just can’t lose All-Stars from your team in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and survive it.
I realize that none of this changes the fact that an opportunity was lost here. Warriors fans all fought alongside this team for a year to get them recognized and given credit for their greatness. The 73 wins gave them a chance to really separate themselves from everyone else, and the opportunity to, at the same time, beat Cleveland at full-strength just seemed too good to be true.
Turns out, it was. See you in October.