Mercifully the Western Conference playoffs are over. We’ll always remember watching a team as great as these Warriors, especially in games that actually count for something other than regular season stats and manufactured plot lines, but this postseason has carried all of the suspense of Toyota Camry ownership.
Is it gonna start this morning? I really need to get to work on time, it better start! Of course it started, you ridiculous worrywart. It’s a Camry.
That’s what having Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, at the same time, when they’re both healthy and at their peak, is like against teams like the Blazers, Jazz, and Kawhi-less Spurs. But Cleveland? That’s another story. They have LEBRON. Kyrie Irving’s game-clinching three in Game 7 acted as a vacuum that sucked the sound right out of Oracle. That sound, or lack thereof, still echoes almost a year later. They also have LEBRON.
The Cavaliers played a funny joke on those who follow this sport’s ups and downs all regular season long (despite the players and coaches themselves in effect telling us that it isn’t necessary) by flipping the ol’ switch and scoring 115.5 ppg in the playoffs. They’re even making threes at a higher clip than anyone, including the Warriors.
But discussing this series in terms of the Cavs having close to an equal shot of winning, or even a decent chance at pushing it to seven games, is an overcorrection after the Warriors’ collapse after winning Game 4 scrambled everybody’s brains.
The Cavs aren’t a carbon copy of the team they were last year, with Kyle Korver and Deron Williams playing a combined 33 minutes per game in the playoffs this time around. That relative continuity could help Cleveland, especially with this being their second postseason run with LEBRON, Irving and Kevin Love together.
However, there’s just too much on the Warriors’ side to ignore.
- Golden State ended the 2016-17 regular season jogging at a nice pace, at least compared to a year ago when they sprinted through the tape.
- By virtue of winning every game, they’ve played five fewer games (245 fewer minutes) in these playoffs than they did heading into last year’s Finals.
- The Warriors had a grand total of nine days of rest between their four playoff series in 2016. They have nine days off between tonight’s Game 4 win in San Antonio and Game 1 of the Finals alone, which gives them a total of 21 rest days between series.
- Steph Curry: not healthy last year; quite healthy (by all appearances) now
- Draymond Green: three flagrant foul points (one point away from a suspension) heading into last year’s Finals: no flagrant fouls and just two technical fouls (five away from a suspension) heading into these Finals
- Brandon Rush replaced by Matt Barnes
- Ian Clark replaced by a better version of Ian Clark
- Leandro Barbosa replaced by Patrick McCaw
- Mo Speights replaced by David West
- Festus Ezeli replaced by JaVale McGee
- Andrew Bogut replaced by Zaza Pachulia
- Harrison Barnes replaced by Kevin Durant
The last one obviously is so huge that it dwarfs the combined value of the rest of the changes on that list. Durant not only showed he’s efficient and adaptable enough to get his at the same time Curry paints his own basketball masterpieces. Durant completely removes any need to rely on Klay Thompson’s offense. There’s also no way he’ll go 5-for-32 during a three-game stretch in the finals like a certain someone.
But one could argue that all of these relacements are actually upgrades. OK, Barnes over Rush is a stretch, because Barnes has looked awful since coming back from injury. But Rush played just 28 minutes of an NBA Finals in which the first six games were all decided by double-digits. Barnes might be better after extended rest, but it probably won’t matter because it’s doubtful he’ll play much at all against Cleveland.
A look at the others:
- Clark is playing seven more minutes per game in these playoffs than he did a year ago, and he seems comfortable scoring in every situation now.
- Barbosa was a fearless player, but McCaw is a complete player who was good enough to start today (when he exited the game midway through the first quarter, the Warriors were up 21-7).
- Speights, who was always in worse shape in the playoffs than he was in the middle of the regular season, played just 33 minutes in the 2016 Finals. It’s hard to envision a way West (14 mpg) doesn’t beat that, even in a shorter series.
- Ezeli had a bum wheel last year that sapped his ability to rim-protect and he often bogged things down offensively, even at full strength. McGee is a flawed player who looks alternately great and awful (sometimes on consecutive possessions), but he’s bouncy as hell and adds a threat on offense no Warriors center could a year ago.
- Heel soreness aside, the Warriors can probably count on Pachulia to stay healthy when they need him.
Assuming Cleveland ends the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, there’s almost too much deja vu to go around. Golden State will have homecourt advantage, the Cavs will have LEBRON, and LEBRON will have a chip on his shoulder.
But last year’s Warriors pushed themselves to their collective limit, their best player wasn’t at his best, and still I remained certain through Game 4 that they’d repeat (until Green was suspended, anyway).
This year’s team is playing much, much better defense (they lead the playoffs with a defensive rating of 101.2 — their mark of 106.1 put them in eighth out of 16 postseason teams a year ago). This goes along with improved health, a more dangerous offense, and (cliche alert) the hunger factor.
Last year the Warriors were coming off of winning everything. Defending champs, 73-9, repeat MVP.
Then the unthinkable happened, and over the last 11 months they’ve done nothing but reel off expected wins while it seemed like half the internet laughed at 3-1 memes and the other half bitched about Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Oakland.
This isn’t about underestimating LEBRON. This is just an assessment of the Warriors, who are significantly better off now than they were a year ago, and a year ago they were one win away from a title.
— It was a sweep, so it won’t be all that memorable in future years, but it sure was fun watching Manu Ginobili.
— The Spurs probably would’ve pushed this series at least to five with a healthy Kawhi Leonard, but he was probably never going to be healthy in this series anyway. Spurs fans can blame Pachulia, but his closeout wouldn’t have been relevant had Leonard not landed on James Harden’s foot a week earlier, which was what caused Leonard to turn his ankle so easily when taking a step back in front of his own bench.
— What did we learn about the Warriors from these playoffs? Not a whole lot, right? McGee showed that he wasn’t a regular season mirage destined to vanish forever in mid-April. McCaw is more confident than ever. After that … I’m drawing a blank.
— Ways Warriors could lose (other than injuries to stars): Steph gets into early foul trouble and/or commits six turnovers in at least four games; Draymond punches LEBRON in the LeFACE; Mike Brown isn’t replaced by Steve Kerr, and seeing LEBRON on the other side of the court in Game 1 causes Brown to forget what rotations they discussed before the series; Anderson Varejao rears his curly-mopped head, somehow.
— Good news — you’ve got a nine-day break between Warriors games to stock up on all of the Warriors gear in our shop!