The Golden State Warriors are favored by six points heading into Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a game they’ve been thinking about for several days. However, even though the Warriors are talented and accomplished enough to make LeBron James an underdog, not one Golden State player has played a single minute on the biggest stage — a place they’ve envisioned throughout their lives.
“It means everything. It’s something that, growing up as a kid you want to play in the NBA,” said Draymond Green. “And of course you want to play in the NBA Finals, and you always dream of being there.”
Coach’s advice: Don’t make the same mistake my team did.
“To be here is a dream come true. But to win it is completely different. That’s the goal, that’s the plan. You’ve got to lock in and make sure that you’re not satisfied just being there. Because you can be, and it can cost you. You’ve got to make sure you’re ready to play,” Green said.
While the players lack Finals experience, and Golden State’s coaches have never coached in the Finals, Steve Kerr (five championships as a player) and Luke Walton (two titles) know all about the nerves and off-the-court pitfalls their players will face.
“Luke told us,” said Green. “The first time they went to the championship (in 2008), he said they were so excited about being there, and the only person that had been there was Kobe. So Kobe was locked in, but everybody else was just excited with being there. And they lost. The next year, they were past that excitement and they were locked in and ready to go. That’s the point where we need to be. So he shared that with us, and that’s what we look forward to doing.”
Coach’s advice: Shut out the noise.
Stephen Curry said he hasn’t been on Twitter since the first round. LeBron James has abstained even longer. But even traditional methods of communication (texts, phone calls, face-to-face conversations) can pull a player’s attention away from the ultimate goal.
“Walton just told us just stay within your circle that you’ve had whole season,” Andrew Bogut said.
“There’s a lot of people popping out of the woodwork right now. A lot of family you didn’t know you had that need tickets. A lot of friends. A lot of people that just happen to be passing by town and need a ticket. So just try to stick to what you’ve been doing and don’t let it distract you. Because all the sudden you’ll start having your phone blow up and having people call you at all hours, all times of day.”
Coach’s advice: It’s just another game.
The butterflies are real, even for the best athletes in the world. And no, that isn’t a reference to Mark Jackson’s infamous remark about disrespecting caterpillars.
“It’ll probably hit me during the warmups of Game 1. This week is weird, because you’re sitting and waiting. You know you’re one of two teams left, but until you get to the arena and get those jitters out, I don’t think it’ll hit yet,” said Curry.
Even the MVP knows he’ll have a difficult time relaxing, at least early on. So everyone else is probably going to look pretty tight in the opening minutes on Thursday, too.
“I think both teams are going to be nervous. They’re in the same boat as us, besides LeBron. None of those guys have played significant minutes in a Finals series,” Bogut said.
“We think we’re ready. We’ve just been doing our thing. But obviously the first quarter of Game 1 there’s going to be some sprayed shots and some nerves there, because it’s human nature. Not just the whole country, but the whole world’s watching.”
That’s a lot of pressure, and this particular Finals series should be a ratings bonanza. Lots of eyeballs will be on this series for obvious reasons, which is why the coaching staff probably wouldn’t mind if the Warriors got rides to Game 1 while wearing blindfolds and headphones. Alright, maybe finding a more realistic way to block out everything would be preferable.
“Like Luke and Coach Kerr were saying, in their experiences playing in the Finals, it will be different going to the arena — just the scene and the environment and just the excitement all around Oracle. But once the game starts, it’ll feel normal. So just try to keep your composure as much as you can leading up to tipoff and play your game,” said Curry.
As someone who’s been known to tremble a bit during pressure-packed situations, I asked Curry how one goes about staying calm before the most important games of his life.
“You’ve just got to approach it like normal. The routine that you’ve set up all season long, you’ve got to rely on that. To not change anything, not over-excite yourself. I don’t know what I’ll feel when I walk in the arena. There’s no preparing yourself for that. But I’m going to have the same routine from the time I come to shootaround, the time I come home, the time I go to the game. Hopefully I’ll be able to calm myself down. Once the game starts, your preparation should take over and you’ll be ready to go.”
Coaches can provide tools, but Kerr and Walton can only do so much from their courtside chairs. It’s up to Green, Bogut, Curry and the rest of the Warriors to keep self-satisfaction at bay while remaining as focused and relaxed as possible. It won’t be easy, but that’s why winning a championship trumps any other accomplishment an NBA player can achieve.