NBA Finals: How the Unstoppable Golden State Warriors blew it
As I struggle to pick the pieces of my brain up off the floor whilst watching replays of LeBron’s otherworldly block on Andre Iguadola for the 2000th time in the last 72 hours, there’s one thought that keeps sticking in my head, one that doesn’t go away regardless of how much the coverage pivots to Cleveland’s long-awaited title celebrations:
This was supposed to be Golden State’s coronation.
From the beginning of the season, this Dubs team was ordained as champions: basically every major pundit on every major network predicted them to repeat after last year’s triumph. When they started the season 24–0, the hype only grew. As Stephen Curry put up the most efficient scoring season we’ve ever seen — 31ppg on 50/40/90 shooting with 400 3-pointers — and was crowned unanimous MVP, we began to talk about him in the same breath as so many of the all-time greats. As the Warriors broke the seemingly unbreakable record of the 96 Chicago Bulls, going 73–9 to claim the best regular season record in NBA history, we all knew that these playoffs were an afterthought. Sure, the Spurs or Thunder might put up a brief fight — stealing two, maybe even three games from this squad — but it was simply a delay of the inevitable: this Golden State Warriors team was too good, its bench too loaded with high-percentage shooters, its backcourt unguardable with two of the greatest shooters in NBA history, its vaunted Smallball Lineup of Death capable of obliterating any defensive scheme thrown at it and outscoring the hottest streaks of any opponent.
Instead, the playoffs ended with 73–9 tasting of ashes, and with LeBron James re-crowned the best player in basketball, claiming his third title after he effectively walked into the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Oracle Arena and burned it to the goddamn ground.
I’ll be posting tomorrow about the tactical and strategic adjustments that Cleveland and OKC were able to make that frustrated, stymied, and ground down the Warriors throughout the Conference Finals and NBA Finals — the endless switching on defense to frustrate player movement, the deliberate targeting of Steph’s below-par defending in the pick and roll, and the use of “big small-ball” lineups involving Serge Ibaka or Tristan Thompson at the 5. But I think there’s another angle to this that goes beyond the string of adjustments, tweaks, and LeBron being Basketball Galactus during the NBA Finals: I think there’s a pretty compelling case that in going 73–9, and in doing so in such triumphant, overwhelming fashion, the Golden State Warriors sowed the seeds of their own downfall.
When I think about this in my head, I keep coming back to Greek mythology: I think there’s two characters that serve as a powerful metaphor for what happened to the Dubs’ record-setting season:
Icarus: Careful how high you soar
The story is pretty straightforward, and it’s one that we all know: dude fashions himself wings, dude flies way too close to the sun, wax in dude’s wings melt, dude plunges to his death. It’s become a timeless metaphor for the costs of overconfidence, of flying too high too fast and suffering the consequences. The question of whether the Warriors burnt themselves out going for the regular season wins records has been discussed ad nauseum; I think it certainly played a role — particularly in how gassed Iguadola looked against the Thunder and Cavaliers — but it’s also a role that’s difficult to measure. There’s also a far more obvious, Icarus-type culprit:
One of the things that stood out about Golden State’s rampage through the NBA season was how easy it looked: even against smart, stacked teams like the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, and Cavs, the Warriors would come out on top. It didn’t matter whether Durant went off for 37 in late February; Curry went off for 46 and sank a ludicrous game-winning three in overtime. Winningest Spurs team in a generation? Blown out by thirty in their first meeting. Fully healthy Cavs team? Routed by thirty at home. It didn’t seem to matter how deep of a hole was dug; one of Steph, Klay, or Dray would go nuclear and the Warriors would win by double digits. Even Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, with Steph shooting poorly and the Warriors on the brink of elimination: Klay Thompson transformed into the NBA version of Deadshot and sank 41 points. No lead against the Warriors ever felt safe — that’s how sure you could be that they’d come back and win.
But beneath the blowouts and the 3-pointers from impossible angles and distances, Golden State’s regular season dominance masked a dangerous tendency towards sloppy play — towards reckless passing, imperfect defense, and bad shot selection. It was a problem that gave coach Steve Kerr fits over the course of the season — a problem he explicitly noted after their losses to the Lakers, Celtics, and Timberwolves. Indeed, many of their close wins against the Thunder, Jazz, Celtics, Bucks, and Grizzlies saw them play sloppy, turnover-heavy basketball, and then get bailed out by ridiculous shooting from the Splash Brothers.
The consequences of this were also a vindication of Gregg Popovich’s view of the NBA. Once your team is good enough to be guaranteed a playoff spot (as his Spurs squad and this Dubs team both are), the regular season is an 82-game tune-up session dedicated to one overriding goal: habit-forming. More than winning games, it’s about building patterns and strategies that ensure that adversity is greeted with a plan. Billy Donovan spent much of his first season as OKC coach experimenting, tweaking the lineups and figuring out how to make Enes Kanter and Steven Adams work in the rotation, which 2-guard to play at which time, and how to balance Kevin Durant’s surgical offense with the human typhoon that is Russell Westbrook. The Cavs spent much of the season looking dysfunctional, but it was also about figuring out how all the pieces of the lineup fit together — how to balance Love and Thompson’s defense, or LeBron and Kyrie’s “get me the ball and let me score” impulses. Through tough losses and adjustments, it was about preparing for adversity.
Watching the Warriors collapse in games 5 through 7, it was impossible not to notice those reckless, sloppy habits that they’d picked up during Steph’s nuclear season: Curry’s assist/turnover ratio plummeted from 2.6 in the season to 0.83 in the finals — he had more turnovers than assists in each of the final three losses. In game 7, with five left in the fourth quarter and the Warriors up 2, Curry attempted an inexcusably bad behind-the-back pass to Klay Thompson that sailed out of bounds (linked below). Rather than locking in, the shot selection of everyone not named Draymond Green got more erratic — more contested, more reckless, and more rushed. When Steph and Klay’s shots weren’t falling — as they so often weren’t in games 5, 6, and 7 — it seemed as if the Warriors didn’t know what else to do. There was no Plan B.
Playoffs are always harder than the regular season: the calls tighten up, the pressure amps up, and opponents have time to analyze, adjust, and scheme. In those difficult moments, the habits formed during the regular season are what teams have to fall back on. For the Warriors, those habits proved catastrophic: relying on Steph and Klay to bail you out is fine until, either through exhaustion, nagging injuries, or tighter defending, their shots stop falling. Committing bad turnovers via sloppy passing is fine when you’re blowing out a team by 40. In a close game, they amount to wasted possessions that can be (and were) brutally punished. And through it all falling apart, you just kept getting the sense that Golden State was sure they’d win it — that they couldn’t countenance a world where Steph or Klay didn’t eventually hit a huge shot to tie or win the game. They’d won 73 games. They’d broken 3pt records. They were never going to miss.
Until they did.
Achilles: Beware the wrath of the Basketball Gods
The parallels between Stephen Curry and Achilles are uncanny: both are undersized, golden-boy demigods blessed with incredible skill and divine help; both are capable of routinely breaking the laws of physics and the human imagination; and both have a prior history of ankle issues that aren’t a problem until they really, really are. But an element of the Iliad story that often gets left out is the way that Achilles’ battlefield hubris caused his downfall: the desecration of Hector’s corpse in front of the walls of Troy so angered the gods of Olympus that his death was ordained by the pantheon.
At some point during their seemingly endless barrage of transition 3s this season, the Golden State Warriors got cocky. As the wins started racking up, so did the arrogance: Klay publicly mocked the Clippers blowing a 3–1 series lead against the Rockets; Draymond started questioning Lebron’s toughness; Steph openly twisted the knife by remarking that he hoped Cleveland’s dressing room “still smelled of champagne” on their return to the Q in January. Steph would take 40-foot, contested 3s, and then shimmy in front of the opponents’ bench; in a bygone era of basketball, that kind of taunting would have meant getting flattened by a well-placed Karl Malone elbow on the next play. It got to the point where the list of teams they didn’t openly disrespect or mock was perilously short: the San Antonio Spurs (because Spurs), the Portland Trail Blazers (who gave them a decent fight for five games in the Conference Semifinals), and the OKC Thunder (who gave them a massive scare in the Conference Finals before Klay went nuclear in Game 6 to break them).
It only escalated in the playoffs: Majority Owner Joe Lacob gave a surreal interview to the New York Times in April, in which he declared the Warriors “light-years ahead” of the rest of the NBA, and fulfilled every negative stereotype of Silicon Valley tech billionaires by screaming into the heavens about his own managerial brilliance. They flat-out disrespected the Rockets (which, like, fair enough. It’s the Rockets) and kept pushing the envelope against the Blazers, Thunder, and Cavs: Draymond started hitting guys in the nuts, Iguadola declared practice sessions more difficult than beating the Rockets (which, again, fair enough), and then the entire team started calling LeBron a bitch and the NBA “a man’s league.”
But at a certain point, karma dictates that such arrogance will come back to bite you. Draymond Green tried one questionable play too many, and his Game 5 suspension for the nut-shot on LeBron gave Cleveland the opening they needed to get back into the series — his subdued performance in Game 6 also contributed to the Cavs’ flamethrower of a 31–11 first quarter. They publicly questioned LeBron James’ manhood after Game 4, and LeBron responded by dropping 109 points on them in the next three games. Most notably, NBA Twitter turned on them; hard. As Armchair’s Serge Leshchuk pointed out last week, the complaints following Draymond’s suspension in Game 5 and Curry’s fouling out in Game 6 — that the NBA was rigged, that the owners wanted more money, that the refs were disrespecting the Warriors — began to sound like the trust-fund kid complaining about having to take public transit when their dad cuts off the credit card. It came across as arrogant whining by a team that knew nothing other than overwhelming victory.
We like dominance — we like watching history be made, being witnesses to the absurd and the impossible. But we also love comeuppance. We love watching the cocky bastard get what’s coming to them. It’s what made Kobe the NBA’s perfect supervillain, but it’s also what filled his 2004 and 2008 finals losses with so much schadenfreude. The last week of basketball has been no different: having tempted fate one too many times, the Warriors were inevitably punished for their hubris by the Basketball Gods. Karma’s a glorious bitch.
Since I first drafted this piece, Silicon Valley Season 4 Villain Warriors owner Joe Lacob has doubled down on fulfilling everyone’s stereotypes of Silicon Valley techbros, effectively claiming that the Warriors invented smallball (spoilers: they didn’t) and that he’ll be going for the secret, genius move of pursuing Kevin “top five scorer in NBA history” Durant in free agency. Shocker. It’s interesting how much Lacob and, say, Microsoft CEO and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer can elicit different reactions: watching Steve Ballmer lose feels like all happiness has been sucked from the world; watching Joe Lacob lose is like watching the demise of Jafar.