NBA Finals Game 6: Warriors 105, Cavaliers 97 Golden State Wins Series 4-2
It's only been a couple of hours, but already the game is a blur. For some reason I can't explain, the last ones always are. I watched it from beginning to end and tried my hardest to pay attention, I swear I did, but I kept drifting in and out in a fog, lost in thoughts and memories from a year ago, when there was so much more emotional investment. Just a year ago, it was the sweetest championship of them all, and now it's another fan base's turn to enjoy the moment.
It's certainly different for Warriors fans than anything we can relate to. The Spurs won their first 'chip in 1999 and that felt like it took forever to happen, when really it was only my 11th year as a fan. Last year was more about redemption than anything else. The basketball world knew the Spurs were good, knew they were a contender and had accorded them a measure of respect --not enough from some people, but I digress-- for all that they had done during the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Era. Pushing that boulder over the hill one more time when all the doubters insisted that the last, best, chance was extinguished, that was tremendously gratifying and validating.
The Warriors narrative however is completely different. There wasn't Finals heartbreak. There weren't a bunch of close calls in the playoffs. There wasn't that classic bell curve build, the stereotype teams in all the major pro sports supposedly have to undergo, from not making the playoffs to losing in the first round the next year, in the second round the following year and so on. Golden State didn't even make the playoffs from 1995 to 2006 and then missed it five more seasons in a row after the "We Believe" run in 2007, during which they won five whole playoff games. With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and the rest, they made it to the second round their first trip to the playoffs in 2012-13, then slid backwards last season, losing in seven games in the first round, before exploding under first-year coach Steve Kerr, with a historic 67-win, wire-to-wire season.
I don't even know who to compare them to. The team had almost the same roster as the previous season, the same amount of injury luck, but everything clicked for them once Kerr and his assistants had them playing modern offense instead of Mark Jackson's favored Iso-ball. It wasn't a steady climb up Mt. Everest as much as it was equipping the team with Iron Man suits.
I was watching it but the images on the screen weren't registering. I kept thinking, "Where was their adversity?" and "What are they redeeming themselves from?" but that was just the dumb, spoiled, jealous Spurs fan in me. Obviously it would've been fun and exciting to see just what would've happened had these two teams met in the playoffs, for the Warriors to have to be the ones to dethrone the defending champs, but it wasn't to be. Yes, I admit it sure seemed like the Spurs had the Warriors shook in their last meeting, blowing them off the floor in the AT&T Center with Kawhi Leonard dominating on both ends.
Honestly, I heard much the same rhetoric in 2007, only then the Mavericks were in the Spurs spot and the Spurs were in the Warriors spot. Dallas went 3-1 against them that year and were thought to be the Spurs krytonite, even though San Antonio had the superior scoring differential. In the end, the Mavericks didn't fulfill their end of the bargain. They lost to... yep, the Warriors. The '07 Spurs have no asterisks, they have nothing to apologize for. It's not their fault they didn't play Dallas, it's the Mavs fault.
So hopefully Spurs fans can come to terms with how this season played out. There's no point in arguing that they'd have beaten the Warriors or that Golden State was fortunate to avoid the match-up. First of all, it's a hypothetical that can never be proven. More importantly, the bottom line is the Dubs did what they had to do and the Spurs failed to show up for the appointment. That's on them, not the Warriors.
As for the game itself, I just remember bits and pieces. After a sloppy, nervous opening few minutes for both sides, the Warriors righted themselves first and Curry and Iguodala hit some shots early, opening up a 28-15 advantage after one, with the Cavs throwing the ball all over the court. It was the kind of quarter we expected the whole series to be.
Cleveland came back in the second, behind Timofey Mozgov's stonewall defense on one end (three blocks, a handful of alterations) and four offensive boards on the other. It occurred to me that the giant Russian's effectiveness really has very little to do with him. The Warriors will have open shooters with him in there as long as they stay small. When those shooters brick shots or foolishly decide to take it to the hole, playing Mozgov looks like a master stroke for David Blatt. When people like Iguodala, Green or Harrison Barnes are stroking threes, you wonder why he's on the floor. Mozgov can't hedge or move laterally like Tristan Thompson can, but he's a much better offensive player and a better rim protector, so it's a real dilemma.
Meanwhile, LeBron James (only took me 922 words to mention him, remember, I'm a professional) tossed in a couple of threes and the Cavs outscored the Warriors 28-17 in the second to trail by only a bucket at half.
The Warriors played small for all but 4:45 of the first half, but with the Cavs really starting to press their size advantage on the glass and Golden State unable to take advantage of their speed and shooting due to foul trouble from Klay Thompson and some frigidness from Curry, Kerr decided to mix it up. He turned to not Andrew Bogut but rather backup big-man Festus Ezeli and he responded with a put-back dunk, an alley-oop and four freebies to punish the Cavs big for contesting shots. James' energy level waned once more as he had to do everything for Cleveland and the Warriors went on runs of 9-0 and 12-4 to open up a 12-point lead going into the fourth.
Fittingly, it was Curry, who put the season to bed. The regular season MVP didn't have his best series, but he hit a huge three right at the death of the third quarter in Game 4 after the Cavs had trimmed a 15 point deficit to three, and it seemed to take the wind out of Cleveland's sails going into the final period. In Game 5, Curry answered a James 34-footer with a bomb of his own and the Warriors re-took the lead and never surrendered it. Finally, in Game 6 he canned one from the right wing to quell a 7-0 Cavs run, re-establish a double-digit lead and helped steady the visitors. There was still 9:48 to go, but right then it was over.
Really, it was over when Chris Paul hit that banker over Duncan's outstretched fingers in Game 7, but the league insisted on playing the rest of the games anyway.
Iguodala was a deserving MVP. He out-played Curry in all but Game 5 and held James to a J.R. Smith-esque field goal percentage when matched-up against him defensively. The Cavs repeatedly left Iguodala open as part of their strategy and perhaps one could argue that you can't be the MVP if the other team leaves you open on purpose, but Iguodala was less gun-shy than he's ever been as a Warrior, chucking up 20 attempts and finishing with a season-high 23. It's probably not a coincidence that the primary defender on James was named the Finals MVP in consecutive seasons.
Green also deserves a mention. He had a wretched first three games of the Finals but looked like his normal self in Game 4-6, punctuating his season with a triple-double and his usual versatile, aggressive brand of defense. I hope this ends the silly debate about who the Warriors second-best player is. It's Green and it's not particularly close.
I'm absolutely thrilled for Steve Kerr. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy and he proved, once and for all, that the pace-and-space, open and fluid way to play the game is how it should be done. Not only is it more aesthetically pleasing, but it's more effective too. When you have a democratic approach on offense, where everyone is moving and cutting and screening and a threat, it gets all the players involved in the game and then more active on the other end. Good offense leads to good defense and vice versa. It's all connected. I don't think it was a coincidence that Curry was markedly improved as a defender this season. He had more energy to play in his own end, not having to create all the offense for the team, and also he was trusted with more accountability to his teammates instead of being hidden by Jackson.
Pretty neat trick Kerr pulled off, his so-called "jump-shooting team" somehow finishing second in points in the paint and first overall in defense. I didn't get much right this season, but I knew he'd be a terrific hire.
Finally, I have to admit that in spite of myself, I found myself rooting for LeBron James at times. He was just incredible, dragging this sorry dreck of a roster to two wins and being right there in a couple others. The amazing thing is he somehow wrung 14 playoff wins out of the Cavs even though he never had his jumper clicking the whole playoffs. We've certainly see him shoot it better. As a rebounder and a passer though he was as devastating as he's ever been, and his leadership was off the charts, almost Duncan-esque. James has been at times petulant, bratty, phony, arrogant, boorish, a poor loser and a poor winner, but he's definitely grown up and matured the past couple of seasons and I've been incredibly impressed with him both in the games and in the pressers afterward.
There were periods in the game where James definitely waned. He looked so exhausted out there. He didn't control the tempo and the ball the whole time in Games 5 and 6 the way he did the first four games. And then you look at the box score and he had 32-18-9.
I promise you this much: I'm done trying to outsmart everybody and picking against this guy when it comes to the Eastern Conference. I don't care what the Bulls, Hawks or anyone else does in the off-season. I don't care who Cleveland adds or loses. As long as they have LeBron, I'm picking that guy to come out of the East until he retires. It might be boring, but he's finally worn me down. He's just too damn good.
The team that just won the championship lost to the Clippers in the first round in Game 7 last year. Just sayin'.