Last year’s NBA finals series began much like this year’s. The Cleveland Cavaliers closed out their regular season as the winners of the Eastern Conference for the third consecutive time and were set for a match-up against the Western Conference champions. The Golden State Warriors closed out their regular season with a phenomenal 73 wins to 9 losses, breaking the record set by the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of 1995-96.
Both teams showcased superstar line-ups and an intense desire to win the title, with the Warriors particularly looking for a storybook ending to their record-breaking season. And it seemed perfectly feasible, too, leading the Cavaliers 3-1 in the finals series as everyone’s new favourite underdogs. Heartbreakingly, it all came crashing down as LeBron James and his Cavs came back from the deficit to close out the series 4-3, becoming the first NBA team in history to win in the finals after trailing 3-1 and, naturally, shattering the Warriors dream win.
This year NBA fans the world over found themselves looking forward to a finals series clash between the Cavaliers and the Warriors once again – their third consecutive meeting and another NBA finals first. And yet again, the series found itself standing at three wins to one in favour of the Warriors just as it did the previous year.
After the first two games took place at Golden State’s Oracle Arena, games three and four of the series moved to the home of the Cavs, Quicken Loans Arena. Game three looked to end in a victory for the home team which led 111-113 at less than a minute remaining of the game, but a game-changing three-pointer by stellar forward Kevin Durant followed by an unnecessary foul and subsequent free throws as well as a reckless turnover by the Cavs turned the tables to 118-113 to close out the game in favour of Golden State.
Faced with a potential sweep and seeing their championship title beginning to blur in the distance, Cleveland managed to get back into character to pull out a dominating 116-137 win in game four, refocusing their sights and positioning themselves to come back from deficit as they did last year and in the process breaking the record for most points in a half in NBA finals history. The game also silenced Golden State’s hopes of a 16-0 playoff winning streak, making it their first loss of the postseason.
Despite that fact, the west coasters still sat as the series leaders, which would ordinarily provide an ego-boosting safety blanket but, to a team that previously blew a finals series lead, probably served as a chilling reminder of what was at stake. Similarly but also contrastingly, having managed to keep themselves in play, the defending champion Cavaliers also seemed visibly wary of the fact that a future game loss would mean entire series loss.
Game five, which the Cavs hoped to win and force a game six and thereafter seven, proved to be thrilling, fast-paced, action-packed but by no means one-sided. Last year the fifth game in the series was where momentum really picked up with players like Cleveland’s James and point guard Kyrie Irving both dropping 41 points. This year Irving and shooting guard JR Smith had a combined 51 points in game five while James again scored 41 points along with 13 rebounds and eight assists, making him the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the finals, breaking a tie with Earvin “Magic” Johnson. During these playoffs he also surpassed Jordan as the league’s all-time leading playoff scorer. This is all to illustrate that the Cavaliers’ loss cannot be chucked up to poor playing, statistics or even to James who is often gifted with daps for his team’s successes as much as he is dragged for their shortfalls.
What the end result can, and really has to, be attributed to is the Warriors’ skill, energy, tact, tenacity and team-playing abilities. The final game was no out-the-gate obvious victory for the now champions – the first quarter ended 37-31 to the Cavs, 60-71 to Golden State at half-time and 93-98 again to the Warriors at the end of the third quarter and finally 120-129 – but when one looks at the level at which they play, the composure and fiery energy they equally possess when needed, the strength of their bench and the roar of Oracle Arena it’s really not curious that they came out on top.
It’s clear that head coach Steve Kerr’s decision to bring on Durant, this year’s MVP, this season was the perfect complement to the powerful skill-sets of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and their unrivalled bench. Throughout the finals it was iterated many times by commentators that it wasn’t that the Cavs were playing at B-grade but rather that the Warriors played at A++ grade and so even if they played at A or even A+ level it wouldn’t be enough to topple them. That’s clear now, too.