CLEVELAND — What gets lost in the never-ending hysteria and hand-wringing over how the Golden State Warriors have ruined competitive balance in the NBA is that there remains an opponent that they’ve been unable to truly overcome this season: themselves.
The Warriors are good, and they know it, but don’t always have to show it. The talent disparity is always unfair but the desire to always flaunt it hasn’t always been there. And that has, perhaps, been the most frustrating aspect of their title defense. Because regardless of their occasional lapses in focus and urgency, no opposing team has been able to cobble together the talent or game plan to make them pay.
Houston came the closest but lost its chance of finishing the job when Chris Paul hopped up reaching for his right hamstring. Cleveland is on the verge of becoming the ninth team to get swept in the NBA Finals, but the possibly lopsided result obscures how entertaining and competitive these games have actually been — and that the Warriors have yet to put together a complete game reflective of the gap in talent. LeBron James’ defiance has a lot to with that, but so has Golden State’s penchant to do just enough to get by. Their dominance has been far from dull.
“Every journey is a new one each season. Yet the cumulative effect on multiple journeys adds up, and we have felt that this year,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I think it’s been our most inconsistent season. It’s been our most difficult season. But our guys sense the finish line.”
The fourth straight run at the Finals is physically and emotionally draining, and there is a reason only six franchises in NBA history are members of that elusive club. Aside from Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics (1957-66), which won nine of 10 consecutive trips, the other organizations to accomplish that feat — the Los Angeles Lakers (1982-85), the Celtics (1984-87), the Miami Heat (2011-2014) and Cleveland (2015-2018) — were unable to win more than two. The Warriors are one victory from their third title over that span, and this one might go down as the one they appreciate the most because it was so hard to earn.
“Going into this season, I don’t think anybody could have guessed or predicted the ups and downs and the roller coaster we’ve been on,” Stephen Curry said. “Now to be one game away, it’s been a crazy ride. So now we’ve just got to finish the job. I think we’re all excited about that opportunity.”
Previous seasons had simpler and easier-tapped sources for success. The first season was about establishing themselves and earning respect. The second season was about giving a 73-win middle-finger to those who considered their first title a fluke. The third season had the double-whammy instigator of redemption for that blown 3-1 lead in 2016 and excitement after adding Kevin Durant. Chasing history and the iconic status as one of the greatest teams of all time has proven to be a more difficult motivating force to consistently lean upon.
“I keep telling people. It’s just a different vibe because we’ve been through a season with each other already as champions,” Durant said. “I feel like we’re in that transition from having a great first year, but figuring out different ways to be good in the second year.”
Despite the malaise, they’ll earn that dynastic status whether they end the series in Game 4 or have to go back home to Oakland to handle their business, as they did last season. A sweep, however, would put them in a different class of champion and essentially remove the term “rivalry” from this matchup of the two teams that have happened to represent their respective conferences the past four seasons. To end this season with perfection would leave a more lasting impression than any of the first-world problems the Warriors have encountered.
The Warriors were admittedly “lucky” to win Game 1, when every official review, missed free throw, uncalled lane violation, and J.R. Smith clock-melting dribble-fest worked out in their favor in the final minutes of regulation, and they snatched the win in overtime. The Cavaliers kept hanging around in Game 2 until Stephen Curry bombarded them with 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. And Game 3 found Kevin Durant giving Curry and Klay Thompson the night off so that he could have the best postseason performance of his career. Each game has been memorable and required viewers to remain glued to the action.
But what Kerr would like the Warriors to do is put it all together for one game, to play with the joy that pushed them to the first title, with the rage that pushed them to break the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record and with the callousness that pushed them to embrace the role of super villains. On his new song, “If You Know You Know,” rapper Pusha T has a line that states, “When we all clicking like Golden State …” But Draymond Green acknowledged that this might not be the season for that reference. “I don’t think we’ve put our best game together yet, which is encouraging, because what better time to do that than [Friday]? So it’s very encouraging that I don’t think we’ve put our best game that we could play together yet,” Green said.
No team has forced the Warriors to play a complete game. They’ve only been required to turn it on for one demoralizing quarter or half. Even their final two wins against the Rockets found them coasting into double-digit deficits before finding that proverbial switch. The Cavaliers might go down without ever having to absorb the power of a Warriors onslaught brought out by desire for domination instead of desperation. “One game away, we’d like to eliminate that inconsistency and put forth our best effort, our best game,” Kerr said. “That’s the plan.”
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