Kyrie Irving hit a well-contested three and the Warriors couldn’t score. That’s how the best game of the NBA Finals ended, and with it the Warriors’ dream season crumbles to pieces. 73-9 during the regular season … 15-9 in the playoffs. Steve Kerr and Draymond Green might say that this season isn’t a failure, but that won’t placate fans who care more about trophies and parades than regular season records and awards.
And everyone, including Kerr and Green, knows this. However, the pain comes not just from falling short, but collapsing in a way no team ever has before.
A week after the NBA announced Green’s one-game suspension — a week filled with sniping, baby bottle emojis, and an infamous deleted tweet by Ayesha Curry — LeBron James and his teammates sprayed enough champagne to leave a lingering odor they can perhaps enjoy when they return next season. James walked triumphantly through the bowels of Oracle Arena, wearing one of the game nets around his neck and chomping a cigar like Michael Jordan two decades ago. He is now, once again, the undisputed best player in the game. He led everyone this series in every category: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks — something nobody had ever done in ANY playoff series. Even though he used a questionable tactic to help turn this series around, he was the one who flew through the air and blocked Andre Iguodala’s shot. Even more than Irving’s three, that block will be the indelible moment which marks these Finals.
In the end, even though the Warriors have benefited greatly from playing in an era where hand-checking isn’t allowed (during the regular season), this era kicked their asses with the flagrant foul points system and the suspension of Green. HOWEVER, Golden State had two more chances after that bastardized Game 5 to beat Cleveland and couldn’t do it.
As fans and pundits try to digest this heartbreaking loss, they will point fingers. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
He said the right things afterward about this loss making him and his teammates stronger and providing motivation for next season. But the Warriors needed a great game from Curry. He was mediocre at best. Curry scored 17 points and went just 6-for-19 with 2 assists and 4 turnovers. The fourth quarter was his worst of the season: 1-for-6, no assists, and a horrendous behind-the-back pass that went out of bounds. He missed four 3-pointers in the final 2:13. The Warriors damn near won a title without Curry at his best, but you could see the team collapsing under the weight of Curry’s own desire to save them in the closing minutes.
The lasting image of this game — at least from the Warriors’ perspective — has to be Curry darting around, trying to shake Kevin Love (of all people) behind the 3-point line. Curry finally got a shot off, but it wasn’t an open one and it clanked off the side of the rim.
“It hurts, man,” Curry said. “I didn’t play efficient. I had some good moments, but didn’t do enough to help my team win, especially down the stretch. I was aggressive, but in the wrong ways. Settling. It will haunt me for a while because it means a lot to me to try to lead my team and do what I need to do on the court and big stages. Done it before. Didn’t do it tonight.”
Curry is clearly not the same physically, but players in his rarefied air have to figure out ways to do what’s needed even at less — sometimes much less — than 100%. Curry failed to do that against the Cavaliers.
He seemed a little anxious offensively early on, and he finished 6-for-17. Even worse, he went just 2-of-10 on threes. He guarded Kyrie Irving better than anyone else on his team could, but the Warriors needed someone other than Green to contribute offensively and neither Splash Brother was up to the challenge.
The noise the crowd made whenever he shot sounded something like “UUHHHHNNNNNGGGGGG,” and they sensed doom for a reason. Shockingly, Barnes actually made two threes — including one to put the Warriors up by one during a key run at the end of the third quarter. (Well, not so key NOW, but it seemed important at the time.)
Yet, that was all Barnes would accomplish. Whenever James saw Barnes guarding him, he probably envisioned Barnes looking like a fresh turkey leg, like a hungry Looney Tunes cartoon character from several decades back. And somehow Barnes grabbed just two rebounds in over 29 minutes.
His 3-for-10 performance was much better than his 2-for-22 poopshow over the previous two games, but is there any way the Warriors can re-sign him at the going rate? Warriors fans were skeptical about him throughout much of this season, after Barnes came back from his ankle injury and played tentative, impact-free basketball. To make his resume worse, the only “Playoff Barnes” we saw was a guy who shot 39% and crumbled when they needed him most. Adios.
It’s totally nit-picking to find something wrong with a guy who injured his back pretty badly in Game 6 (that’s how it looked based on the way he was moving on Thursday; as someone with back problems I have a pretty good idea how he felt), then played 38 minutes in Game 7 and had 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks and no turnovers. But his two missed free throws in the fourth quarter, with the Warriors down 81-80, added to their offensive frustration. He also missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
But Iguodala isn’t great because of his abilities as a shooter, and he was a money player time and time again in this postseason. The anti-Barnes. If the Warriors do some crazy stuff this offseason, they’d be morons to include “trading Iguodala to clear cap space” on their to-do list.
“As far as being suspended for Game 5, you know, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot as a man, as a teammate, as a basketball player, however you want to put it. I learned a lot that will help me for the rest of my life,” Green said.
The flagrant foul points system wasn’t a secret, and Green had to know the NBA did him a massive favor by not suspending him during the Western Conference Finals. So, despite James’ cynical strategy to get Green’s emotions boiling, it was up to Green to protect his team by keeping his cool.
He was the best player on the floor in Game 7: 32 points, 15 rebounds 9 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers, and a shocking 6 made threes. Without Green, the Warriors end their season with an embarrassing blowout loss. But what if he had been able to play, and played just as well, two games earlier? We do know this — if he would’ve let James walk over him without taking the bait, this series would’ve gone differently in some way. We just don’t know how.
“If I don’t put myself in that position and I don’t get suspended for Game 5, are we sitting here champions? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.”
His suspension will go down as one of the great “what ifs” in Bay Area sports history.
He was in no mood to admit any wrongdoing afterward (“I thought Anderson came in and gave us some really good minutes.”), but his summer will probably feel a lot like Curry’s. Kerr got his team to this point, and explained numerous times that his team was in the best position, with a chance to win one of three games, then a chance to play Game 7 at home. But his decisions in Game 7 were awfully strange.
— Why did he give Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao so many minutes? They combined for over 19 and grabbed just ONE REBOUND between them. The Warriors clearly feared Tristan Thompson, and their frontcourt was thin without Andrew Bogut and with Barnes playing so poorly, but Varejao’s flops look like fake hustle when you realize that he constantly leaves his man on defense and couldn’t come up with any rebounds. And Ezeli was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He probably isn’t healthy either.
Huge sequence: Green scores, GSW up 87-83, 5:37 left.
Ezeli fouls James on 3, Curry behind the back pass out of bounds, James makes a 3
— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) June 20, 2016
James made that three over Ezeli, too.
The Cavs were so happy when Ezeli or Varejao were in. Hmmm, they always seemed to be open in the paint. Hmmm, the Warriors kept passing it to them, even though Ezeli can’t catch and his moves are so mechanical, and Varejao’s offensive game consists of trying to make contact in hopes of getting to the line.
— Why was Barnes in at the end instead of Shaun Livingston? Yes, Barnes is bigger. But Livingston played 13 fewer minutes than Barnes even though Livingston was playing better than Barnes. Without Livingston, the Warriors don’t make that run at the end of the third quarter to keep the game close.
— It was a little surprising to see Leandro Barbosa only play 4:24, considering he made a three and the Warriors played pretty well (+5) while he was in, along with his strong offensive performance in Game 6. Mo Speights came in and got 4 rebounds in less than 5 minutes — maybe Kerr should’ve given him more minutes than Ezeli or Varejao.
In the end, Strength in Numbers became a weakness. It didn’t help that Bogut was lost for the season on a weird play involving J.R. Smith, along with the ailments suffered by Curry and Iguodala, but the time to shorten the rotation and go All-Death-All-The-Time (or at least most of the time) was the last game of the season.
The players probably don’t care about (or even pay attention to) any of this stuff, but get ready to hear the karma police write ticket after ticket for his comments published in New York Times Magazine.
“We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things,” he said. “We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”
Who knows what he means by “structure” and “planning,” but they weren’t light-years ahead of the league in these playoffs.
“It’s not just Steph Curry,” he told me once. “It’s architecting a team, a style of play, the way they all play together. It’s all extremely thought through.”
Once the Warriors lost the Curry they were lucky enough to have throughout the regular season, what happened? They were good, but they weren’t the best. We’ll see if this series changes Lacob, makes him a little more humble. It’s doubtful that will be the case, but it’s a question worth asking. Arrogance in a fan base is fine, but an arrogant owner is prone to making mistakes.
— In the end, it was defense that kept Golden State afloat. Then it vanished at the worst possible time. The Warriors held Cleveland to 42 points in the first half, and the Cavs scored 33 in the third quarter. Cleveland started the third quarter on a 23-10 run, as Ezeli shared minutes at center with Varejao. James only scored 4 points on 1-of-4 shooting in the third quarter, but he had 5 assists as Irving and Smith combined to score 20 and Love provided surprisingly good minutes after a pretty lackluster series before tonight.
— Tyronn Lue knew that Matthew Dellavedova and Channing Frye weren’t meant for this series, and he kept them on ice in the last two games.
— Irving went from looking like a poor man’s James Harden to one of the best offensive weapons in the game over the course of this series. It was pretty amazing to watch. Not quite as amazing as James’ all-around brilliance, but it was certainly surprising. Irving looked pretty bad in Games 1 and 2.
— The Warriors were called for 8 fouls in the third quarter compared to just 4 for the Cavs. It seemed like there were more loose ball fouls, and 50/50 contact fouls, called on the Warriors than I would’ve expected. But such is life in the NBA.
— Lacob means business!
Warriors owner Joe Lacob, on what’s next for his team, said firmly on his way out of Oracle: “All I can say is I will be very aggressive.”
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) June 20, 2016
At this point, I highly doubt they’re getting Kevin Durant, who can sign an extension with Oklahoma City with a one-year opt-out and make way more money in the long-term. Also, who’s to say he wouldn’t rather give it another go with the Thunder, who probably should’ve beaten the Warriors? However, keeping Barnes and/or Ezeli is probably a tough sell with Lacob after what happened in this postseason, and they’re definitely going to go hard after Durant now.
— I also attended Super Bowl 47. Yay for me! That Super Bowl felt a lot like tonight’s game, but not exactly the same. The 49ers were clearly more talented than the Ravens, but they lost due to a bunch of dumb errors — the Jacoby Jones touchdown return, the botched plays by the secondary (playing Chris Culliver was probably a mistake after what happened a few days earlier, in hindsight), the botched goal-line situation that included a horrible timeout and those fade passes to Michael Crabtree.
The Warriors were the better team throughout the regular season, but they got a little ahead of themselves. Several insiders (including Tim Kawakami, Zach Lowe, Marcus Thompson) said after Game 1 that the Warriors were very confident going into the Finals. They thought they’d crush Cleveland, and that looked to be exactly what would happen after Game 2. Kerr even sounded extremely confident during his pregame radio interview with Tom Tolbert prior to Game 6, which was kind of surprising.
But … whatever. No one is perfect, not even Curry or Kerr. And the big picture is still bright and colorful. This was one of the most entertaining, joyous seasons of all time. Golden State didn’t cap it off with a storybook ending, but they showed well in Game 7, at least in the areas of toughness and heart, if not late-game shot-making ability. Plus, the core is young! Curry may not ever have a regular season quite like this one, and he may decide to pace himself in future seasons. But he’s 28, and both Green and Thompson are 26. They’ll be back, and we know they’ll be plenty motivated after the way this series transpired.
Not that it’ll make the Warriors or their fans feel better, but we learned that no series is ever D-O-N-E at 3-1 anymore, especially against a team with James. And I learned that it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t make the trip to Kansas City for Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, or Bruce Bochy would’ve taken Madison Bumgarner out in the eighth or ninth inning and the Giants would’ve lost 4-3. I’m not just a hack (according to some wonderful people on Twitter), but I’m also a bad luck charm in potential championship-clinching games for the teams I cover. Happy Father’s Day to me!