How will the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James counter the Golden State Warriors and Kevin Durant?
After winning their first NBA Championship in 40 years last spring, the Golden State Warriors came into this season looking to do it again. The Warriors won 67 games en route to winning an NBA Title, and they somehow found a way to top that this year by setting a single-season NBA record by winning 73 games. As a result of this, the Warriors found themselves compared to the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls who have been viewed by many as the greatest team in NBA history. But unlike the Bulls who won 72 games en route to winning the NBA Title, these Warriors didn’t and in the process missed the opportunity to see themselves alongside the greatest teams in sports history.
The regular season was a breeze for the Warriors as they won their first 24 games. It didn’t stop there for Golden State as many of their wins came in blowout fashion. And as the win total increased, so did the comparison to the Bulls as this team never lost consecutive games all season long. Warriors point guard Steph Curry would be named the NBA’s MVP for the second consecutive year, and he became the first player in the NBA history to win the award unanimously.
The first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs would be cakewalk for the Warriors as they made short work of both the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers. But in the Western Conference Finals, Golden State got all that they could handle from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder’s duo of point guard Russell Westbrook and small forward Kevin Durant kept the Warriors on their toes while role players such as center Steven Adams and shooting guard Andre Roberson made their presence felt on the defensive end of the floor. The Warriors would lose three of the first four games in the series before rallying to win the last three and advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
In the NBA Finals, the Warriors would find themselves taking on a familiar foe in the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last June these two teams met in the NBA Finals with Golden State triumphing in six games. And even though that it was expected to be a very intense series, the Warriors were still favored to be NBA Champions for a second consecutive year.
It was all Warriors to begin the series as they won the first two games at home easily and had another NBA Title to be within their reach. The series would then shift to Cleveland were the two teams would split Games 3 and 4 with Golden State returning to Oakland for Game 5 with a commanding 3-1 series lead. Everything was in the Warriors favor as no team in NBA history had ever lost the finals after possessing a 3-1 series lead as they were 82-0. Two of the final three games would be played at the Oracle Arena in Oakland where the Warriors had only lost twice during the regular season while they had never lost three games in a row all season long.
But the series shifted in Game 4 during an exchange between Cavs small forward LeBron James and Warriors power forward Draymond Green. During Green’s brief NBA career, he has developed the reputation of being an agitator as he talks smack and loves to get into the heads of opponents. Words were exchanged between Green and James where Green proceeded to call James “a b—h”. James took extreme offense to this which led to the two players getting tangled up later in the game. James and Green would go to the floor, and when James stood up, he stepped over Green which led to Green kicking James. James would be assessed with a technical foul, while Green would be assessed with a flagrant foul. And due to the fact that Green had already been assessed several flagrant foul in the playoffs, he was suspended by the NBA for Game 5.
The Warriors would lose Game 5 at home by 15 points with James and Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving each going for 41 points. The series would return to Cleveland for Game 6, but once again the Warriors could not stop James who had once again scored 41 points. Game 7 would be a battle of wills as Green put the Warriors on his back to the tune of 32 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists, while James chimed in with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. And in crunch time it was James the stepped to the forefront to lead the Cavs to their first NBA Title in franchise history.
So as the Warriors let a chance at history slip through their grasp, what they were able to do in the regular season was taken away from them in the NBA Finals as “small ball” couldn’t cut it.
All season long it was the Splash Brothers of Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson that would put on shooting displays with their long three-point shots. And as people wanted to dub Curry as the best shooter that the game of basketball has ever seen, you could see that the majority of the shots that he was attempting during the regular season weren’t even contested.
But in the Warriors March 19th loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the blueprint was laid out as far as neutralizing Curry. Defensively the Spurs kept a hand in his face, while he was never able to get free as he came off of screens. The Spurs also chipped him and disrupted his timing. The Spurs would defeat the Warriors that night 87-79 and Curry was limited to just 14 points.
And whereas that the Thunder simply tried to outscore the Warriors, the Cavaliers were focused on making the Warriors have to work on the offensive end, while also making Curry who is not a great defender, have to work as far as guarding Irving. For the NBA Finals, Curry only averaged 22.6 points per game, while in Game 7, he was held to just 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting as his and the Warriors season ended just one victory shy of their ultimate goal.
The Warriors inability to win it all illustrates once more how difficult that winning a title is, and it also shows why people should think twice when it comes to attaching the term “greatest of all-time” to a team, or an individual athlete. This Warriors team that only lost 9 games all season long ironically would lose 9 games in just four rounds of the playoffs.
What made the 1995-1995 Bulls unique was that they had one of the greatest head coaches in NBA history in Phil Jackson running things. The Bulls also had arguably the greatest player of all-time in shooting guard Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest sidekick in NBA history in small forward Scottie Pippen, and arguably the greatest rebounder in NBA history in forward Dennis Rodman while each player was also known for his defensive prowess. Jackson was a tremendous philosopher who knew how to motivate each of his players to maximize their ability, while he also put his team in the best spot to win. And even with all of that, the will of Jordan to be the greatest would not allow the Bulls to lose sight of the NBA Championship once the playoffs rolled around.
That same will was on display in these NBA Finals, but it was possessed by James who was able to lead his team to the promised land as he denied the Warriors of a title. The Warriors began this NBA season seeking to make history, and although that they made history in the NBA Finals, it’s not the kind that they wanted as they are now simply thrown back into the pile with the other 29 teams that didn’t win a title this season..