Damian Lillard tweeted “no excuses” at the end of Game 4, when Oklahoma City had control — or so we thought — of the Western Conference Finals. Those two words encapsulated how most of the basketball world feels about this Warriors team. They came up too quickly, they won a title after prevailing against three straight teams dealing with injuries to key players, and they play a style that borders on cheating in the minds of basketball traditionalists.
The Warriors are the favorites in this NBA Finals rematch, and many are dying to see the Cavaliers win, just as they hoped the Thunder would knock the Warriors off in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State didn’t “pay their dues” with losses in the Western Conference Finals and/or NBA Finals before getting their Larry O’Brien, their top player is soft because his muscles aren’t enormous and his parents stayed together while providing love and support to him and his siblings, and they’re a pretty, finesse team.
Isn’t this a lot like the San Francisco 49ers dynasty? Even as their wins piled up and they won multiple Super Bowls, the rest of the nation thought they took the easy way out. Instead of smashing you in the mouth, they went around and over you. Despite possessing a top-five defense for years, the 49ers were thought of as a finesse team. That is, until they traveled to Soldier Field on Jan. 8, 1989 and squashed the Bears, 28-3, on a 20-degree day with the wind making it feel 18 degrees colder.
The Warriors haven’t been good for as long as the 49ers were at that point, but they have the same opportunity now. The Cavaliers are at full strength, with LeBron James maybe not at the absolute peak of his powers, but certainly still in his prime. They will present a different test than the Thunder, who frustrated Golden State with length, athleticism, rebounding and transition wizardry. Cleveland tried to bludgeon the Warriors a year ago, but now they’re a 3-point shooting squad (14.4 made threes per game during the playoffs) that outscored its Eastern Conference postseason opponents by 12.6 points per game while allowing only 94.3 points per contest.
Yet, that number is misleading, as Zach Lowe explains.
Cleveland has allowed 103 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, a mediocre mark compiled against mostly mediocre offenses, and they’ve been much worse with Irving and Love together.
So, scoring shouldn’t be a problem for the Warriors, not with Cleveland’s No. 2 and 3 options, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, healthy this time. No, the Warriors will need to win, and quiet the naysayers once and for all, with defense. For a team that went from allowing 95.5 points per game in last year’s playoffs to 104.5 over their last 17 games, this will be the toughest challenge. The Warriors, who are actually a hard-fouling team that defended better than any other team a year ago, aren’t a finesse team. But they still need to prove that once more in this series.
Rivalry? What Rivalry?
We’ve seen Curry’s popularity among fans and writers soar, but the players largely haven’t followed suit. Russell Westbrook laughed at Curry’s defensive ability. The NBA players voted James Harden as the so-called real MVP last year. And LeBron James, as this article from the Undefeated details, is borderline obsessed with Curry.
“You guys make rivals,” James said Wednesday downplaying, albeit unsuccessfully, the significance of the star power matchup on the game’s biggest stage. “I think it’s great for the sport. It’s great for all sports. I don’t think me and Steph, when you talk about rivalries, you talk about Carolina-Duke, you talk about Ohio State-Michigan. It’s hard to say LeBron and Steph. If there’s a smaller scale or another word for a rival.”
It’s obvious what James is doing here. The word “rivals” invokes some feeling of equality between the combatants. James doesn’t see Curry as his equal, he sees him as he sees every other player, below him from the vantage point of his throne.
When mentioning famous rivals, James left out the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s, who combined to form the greatest NBA rivalry since the Finals stopped being shown on tape delay. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were rivals, and they respected one another. They each probably felt like they were the best player in the league, but there was a little internal doubt on both sides. James either can’t let himself feel that doubt, or he reacts defiantly when it creeps in. He called himself “the best player in the world” after losing Game 5 in Oakland, and everyone believed him at the time. Fewer people believe that to be true now, but James will be the undisputed King if the Cavaliers win this series.
I don’t get into this “face of the franchise/league” stuff, because it’s always talked about in the context of team sports. Curry had his moments, both good and bad, in last year’s Finals. But it was Andre Iguodala who won Finals MVP and the Warriors as a whole won the title. It wasn’t just Curry, who agrees with me on this.
“That’s not what I’m playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron’s throne or whatever … You know, I’m trying to chase rings, and that’s all I’m about. So that’s where the conversation stops for me.”
That’s the correct attitude. Focusing on legacy, and “face of the ___” stuff does nothing but distract one from the cause, and that’s to win at all costs. If that means letting a secondary option sit in that throne for a game or two, so be it.
The Warriors have home court advantage, their offense is better than it was last year at this time, and they still have the ability to lock teams up defensively. They just don’t do it as often as they should, but they should be motivated to do so now.
At least, that’s what I think right now. Maybe the Cavaliers have the offensive recipe to take the Warriors down, even without an intimidating set of athletic bigs who can out-rebound the Warriors, switch seamlessly and get hands in the faces of Golden State’s 3-point shooters. But with the Warriors’ unselfish nature, and their recently displayed ability to face the toughest challenge imaginable and succeed, I don’t see their historic season ending with a thud against Cleveland.
As I wrote in a fairly detailed Finals Q&A over at The Athletic (I recommend it, because the other writers make some interesting points), I’m picking the Warriors in 6. If that’s how this goes, the rest of the basketball world will have “no excuses” to not pay Golden State the respect they’ve earned over the last two seasons.