CLEVELAND — From the point at which the NBA Season started in October to when it ended on Friday night, many interesting and unexpected things happened.
But all of that variance just culminated in an entirely familiar and predictable result, with Golden State Warriors flat-out bullying the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night in a four-game sweep after a clinical 108-85 finishing blow.
The Finals victory gives the Warriors three titles in four seasons, with the only loss coming in Cleveland’s comeback from 3-1 down two seasons ago, which only grows more remarkable with time. Golden State has now won two straight championships since Kevin Durant, one of the best scoring machines in history, joined this band of long-range assassins to tilt the basketball world on its axis.
“This was the hardest year we had,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said on stage as the players passed around the championship trophy.
“We just know how to win,” added Stephen Curry. It’s a point that is not in dispute.
The result also kicks off what will be the true drama of the NBA in 2018 — an offseason in which Cavs’ superstar LeBron James is widely expected to ditch his hometown team and join some other franchise as he tries to improve his 3-6 record in the NBA Finals.
The challenge of trying to combat the Warriors — whether James hopes to do it in Cleveland or elsewhere — was made plain not long after Game 4 started. Two nights after Durant had stepped up to score 43 points when his teammates couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat, the circus-shot baton was passed back to Stephen Curry.
In the opening moments, the Warriors guard jumped and tried to lean into J.R. Smith to draw foul while he heaved a one-handed shot at the basket. The officials didn’t give him the call, but the shot was true anyway, with Curry holding his arms out in surprise after it hit for three of his game-high 37 points.
Defending the Warriors truly is like trying to plug eight holes in a leaky boat with only five fingers. With Klay Thompson in early foul trouble and held scoreless in the first half, it was Andre Iguodala providing his first real offence of the series, drilling three first-half three pointers as the Warriors took a nine-point lead to the halftime break.
Durant wasn’t as terrifying as he had been in Game 3, but he was still scoring, with 12 at the half and 20 for the game, plus 10 assists and 12 rebounds. He has now scored at least 20 points in 28 straight playoff games, including all 21 this season. Thus, the problem: if Durant scores at least 20 points just by lacing up his large shoes, the Warriors only need one of Curry or Thompson shooting well to be a nightmare, and one of Curry or Thompson is almost always shooting well. Golden State is so hard to defend that if their defence is clicking then, well, see Games 2 and 4 of these Finals.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before the game that, having failed to close out the Cavaliers with a 3-0 lead at Quicken Loans Arena last year, his players had learned some things. “You gain wisdom. You gain experience,” he said. “I sense that our team is more settled going into tonight than maybe we would have been two, three years ago. I hope I’m right.”
He was right.
The Warriors didn’t just play pretty, they fought for loose balls, they hustled for rebounds, they got a bunch of second-chance points to go along with all those first-chance points. By the time the third-quarter ended, Golden State had stretched the lead to 21, LeBron was gesticulating angrily on the bench — there was a lot of that in this series — and the Cleveland crowd couldn’t decide which team it liked less.
And so now, LeBron, the Cavs, and the rest of the league have to figure out how they will deal with this menace that wears blue and gold. If the Warriors keep their four all-stars together, which is not a guarantee given forthcoming salary issues, there’s no obvious way to construct a team to beat them, unless the NBA decides to allow one franchise to raid, fantasy-draft-style, the rest of the league. (That seems unlikely.) They won a title, then set a record for the most wins ever in a regular season, and then they added Durant.
Only the Houston Rockets have given them trouble over the past two playoff runs, and even that now feels more like a wake-up call for Golden State than anything else. They are an overwhelming power, easily in the discussion as one of the best teams ever assembled, especially in an era with rules intended to force parity.
After last season’s win over the Cavaliers, the Warriors noticeably eased off the pedal this year, pacing themselves with 58 wins — one fewer than the Toronto Raptors — and they even had some tough stretches in this series. But they got lucky in Game 1, Curry went off in Game 2, Durant matched him in Game 3 and then, for the Cavs, all was lost. Friday night was the perfunctory exclamation point.
When James checked out with four minutes left in the game, the home crowd rose and cheered. They shouted “M-V-P” for a while, even after he took his spot on the bench.
It sounded a lot like, “Please don’t leave.”