CLEVELAND—A season in which everything always seemed to fall perfectly into place ended in perfectly charmed fashion, with the proper button being pushed at the right time and every shot falling once the championship was in reach.
The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 105–97 in Game 6 on Tuesday to claim their first title since 1975, following up a franchise-best 67-15 regular season with a spectacular 16-5 jaunt through the playoffs. Lacking in Finals experience before it entered the series, and facing the daunting task of slowing LeBron James, Golden State was nevertheless well-prepared for this series, having faced multiple superstars earlier in the playoffs, having won matchups by playing both fast and slow, and having climbed out of a 2-1 hole against the Grizzlies in the second round.
Those experiences, coupled with Golden State's talent-laden, healthy and unselfish roster, fueled the Warriors. Golden State coach Steve Kerr expertly drew on the lessons he learned along the way. In defending James, as in dealing with Anthony Davis and especially James Harden, Kerr used multiple defenders and regularly changed his help coverage before sticking with Andre Iguodala once the veteran wing proved he could consistently make James work hard for his numbers. In digging out of a 2-1 Finals deficit, Kerr made the series's key adjustment, benching starting center Andrew Bogut in favor of Iguodala, a move that opened up the court for Stephen Curry and forced constant mismatches for Cleveland center Timofey Mozgov. The move recalled Kerr's decision to put Bogut on Tony Allen against the Grizzlies, exploiting the guard's poor outside shooting, as both adjustments created unexpected problems that the opposition proved unable to solve.
The late-arriving lineup change—Iguodala hadn't started a game all season until Game 4 of the Finals—led to three straight wins, with a 14-point average margin of victory. A series that had been under the tight control of a deliberate James was ripped from his grasp, and there was no turning back.
Game 6 was secured with typical Warriors balance: five players scored in double-figures, the second-unit chipped in 25 points, and timely buckets rained down when the Cavaliers mustered a late push. A 7-0 Cleveland run early in the fourth quarter was answered immediately by four consecutive three-pointers by the Warriors, two by Iguodala, one by Curry and one by Klay Thompson. The NBA's best three-point shooting team shot 13-34 (38.2%) from deep on the night, but those back-to-back-to-back-to-back triples turned a seven-point game into a 15-point game with five minutes to play, squelching Cleveland's hopes for a season-extending comeback.
Iguodala's shooting, in particular, was a difference-maker. Cleveland coach David Blatt had to choose between downsizing his lineup and removing Mozgov or staying big and hoping that Iguodala wouldn't be able to make him pay. Blatt chose the former in a Game 5 loss and then returned to the latter in Game 6. Iguodala seized the opportunity Tuesday, totaling 25 points, five rebounds and five assists to take home Finals MVP honors.
As the threes rained in the fourth quarter, a jubilant Warriors team began celebrating early, with a pumped-up Draymond Green flexing in the direction of Cleveland's bench and an elated Curry pointing to Golden State's after Thompson hit his three. Cleveland, without the injured Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao, simply wasn't equipped to push back. The Cavaliers' last-ditch effort was coolly shot down by Curry and Iguodala at the free-throw stripe, and then the real celebrations began.
Curry, who finished with 25 points, eight assists and six rebounds, cradled his daughter, Riley, in his left arm as he reached up to grasp the championship trophy with his right hand. That scene was difficult to project just a few years ago, when the Warriors missed the playoffs in each of Curry's first three seasons while he dealt with ongoing ankle injuries.
"It makes it so much more special to have gone through some down years and injuries," Curry said. "To be able to sit here six years later after my rookie year and hold this trophy, this is an unbelievable experience. ... It's hard in the moment to really appreciate what 67 wins means in the grand scheme of NBA history. ... To cap that off with a championship run, we'll appreciate the journey more and be able to reflect. I think we're a great team, and a team that should go down in history as one of the best teams from top to bottom."
Green, who shook off a slow start to the Finals to post a triple double (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) in Game 6, broke into a wide smile as he recounted the odds he had defied in going from a 2012 second-round pick to a max-contract candidate.
"A lot of people said I could never play in this league," Green smiled. "I was too slow, too small, can't shoot well enough, can't defend nobody. 'What does he do well? He doesn't have a skill.' I've got heart, and that's a skill. ... I'm sitting here as an NBA champion. They can never take that away from me."
Shaun Livingston, whose career was nearly ended by a horrific knee injury eight years ago, did his best to keep his emotions in check as he processed his ultimate triumph over tragedy.
"I've had two careers, really," Livingston said. "It felt like two lives. To be here now as a champion is the greatest feeling in the world."
Iguodala, who played fantastic two-way basketball all series and beat out James for Finals MVP, was briefly rendered speechless as he tried to process how the first title of his career came to be.
"My mind's just blank," he said, with the Finals MVP sitting next to him and champagne-resistant goggles around his neck. "We have a lot of different personalities. Draymond's loud. Klay's quiet. We've got everything in between. The common denominator is guys were really hungry to show what they can do individually. ... Everybody had something they wanted to bring to the table to prove. Guys play for themselves, that's just human nature, but when you get all those guys together and do it as a team, that's an awesome formula for a championship."
And Kerr, soaked head-to-toe from champagne, with his hair mussed, was gracious in victory. The rookie coach took a moment to acknowledge Steve Nash for pioneering the fast style of play that helped the Warriors become champs. He took a moment to salute LeBron's extraordinary efforts. He took a moment to praise his predecessor, Mark Jackson, for building the foundation of Golden State's defense. He took a moment to shout out "Dub Nation," praising the loyalty of the Warriors' fan base through some lean years.
Kerr, finally, took a moment to salute Iguodala, who averaged 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4 assists in the Finals, for his willingness to shift into a reserve role behind the younger Harrison Barnes.
"[The Finals MVP] could have gone to Steph, it could have gone to LeBron," Kerr said. "It's really fitting that the award went to Andre because he sacrificed his starting role from the first game of the season. He had never come off the bench once in his entire career, and he sacrificed to make Harrison better, to make our bench better. ... It set the tone for everything we were able to accomplish. It feels like full circle to me that Andre received the award."
Curry and Thompson both said that Iguodala "deserved" the award, while Green offered the highest praise of all.
"[Andre] saved this season for us," Green said.
Golden State's victory was total and thorough, and it snowballed over the course of the Finals as Curry and Green, in particular, hit their stride. The Cavaliers' loss dropped James to 2-4 in the Finals over his career and marked his second straight defeat. Barely willing to look up in his post-game press conference, his chin buried in his chest and his wide-brim hat pulled low over his eyes, James was the picture of frustration, after averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in what was arguably the greatest all-around individual performance in Finals history.
"When you fall short, it hurts and eats at you," James said. "We were playing great, but we had no luck, and we weren't healthy. ... You've got to be at full strength to win it. We weren't."
Despite falling short of securing the first title in Cavaliers history and ending the city of Cleveland's championship drought, James, who returned to his native Ohio last summer after four seasons with the Heat, insisted that the defeat didn't hurt worse than his previous Finals losses in 2007 (San Antonio), 2011 (Dallas) and 2014 (San Antonio).
"When you lose in the Finals, they're all disappointing," James said. "It doesn't matter if I'm playing in Miami, or in Cleveland, or on Mars."
James, the best player on the planet, was beaten by what is clearly the best team on the planet, a team that is in the discussion for the most dominant of the post-Michael Jordan era. Golden State completes the season as one of 10 teams in history to win 67 games and one of eight teams in history to post a +10 or greater point differential. The Warriors ended the postseason with a +7.8 point differential against elevated competition, as Curry made history by conquering all four of his fellow All-NBA First Team selections in Davis, Marc Gasol, Harden and James.
[daily_cut.NBA]Just as they learned quickly from their previous series victories, the Warriors adapted on the fly in the Finals. Golden State found ways to unlock an aggressive, big Cleveland defense. It adjusted to free Curry from Matthew Dellavedova's harassing defense. It pinpointed the right spots to use reserve big men David Lee and Festus Ezeli. It withstood multiple triple-doubles and 40-point efforts from James. And it had to break up a starting lineup that was arguably the NBA's most devastating and balanced unit during the regular season.
Kerr and his staff handled all the details, the players handled the pressure, and together they handled the golden Larry O'Brien trophy in the confetti storm they had been anticipating for months.