OAKLAND — Steve Kerr gathered the Warriors in the middle of the court at Quicken Loans Arena and fixed his stare on Steph Curry. It was the morning of Jan. 18, and Golden State had lost two nights earlier in Detroit, after falling three nights before that in Denver. This was as close as the Warriors would come to regular-season distress, and scrutiny was amplified by a sound bite from Curry, delivered as the Dubs returned to the site of their championship bash in Cleveland: “Hopefully,” Steph told reporters, “it still smells a little bit like champagne.”
Kerr was technically on leave at the time, suffering from the debilitating headaches caused by a spinal fluid leak. But he was traveling with the team, and Curry’s crack stirred him to speak after shootaround. “Steph, I heard about what you said,” Kerr began, according to a witness. Players tensed at center court, bracing for a rebuke. “And I liked it. You should want to smell your champagne. But there’s a good chance we’re going to see this team again and we need to send a message tonight.”
The Warriors won by 34 points, a blowout that prompted an overhaul. In the ensuing four-and-a-half months much changed in Cleveland—David Blatt fired, Channing Frye acquired, lineups downsized—while nothing fundamental changed at all in Golden State. The Warriors remained essentially the same crew that beat the Cavaliers three straight times to close last year’s Finals and twice more this season.
They ran the streak to six Thursday night, in a 104–89 victory at Oracle Arena that confronted the Cavs with a sickening question. What if, despite all their impressive upgrades, they still haven’t narrowed the gap? It didn’t matter that that they entered the Finals with nearly a week’s rest, that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were healthy, that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson couldn’t splash. It didn’t matter that Timofey Mozgov was on the bench and J.R. Smith was behind the arc and they could go big or small. The Warriors find a way, against everybody, but especially against Cleveland. Kerr scarcely needs a whiteboard, which he karate-chopped in half during a sideline tantrum that made Draymond Green beam.
This was the 2015 Finals, continued, set to the same rollicking backdrop of yellow tees and sing-song chants. Again, Curry and Thompson were ragged to start, and again Golden State found reinforcements elsewhere. Andre Iguodala, reigning Finals MVP, kept filling the box score and stripping LeBron James. Shaun Livingston scored 20 points. Leandro Barbosa added 11. That won’t happen again, but neither will Curry and Thompson score just three buckets apiece in the first 45 minutes.
“It’s not like we have any control over them or anything,” Green said. “You can’t come out saying, ‘Oh, we beat them six in a row, we’re good.’ Absolutely not.” Kerr will remind the Warriors of last year’s Finals, when they took Game 1 from Cleveland, before coughing up the next two. But the Dubs, preternaturally confident, are even more emboldened than usual right now, for reasons having nothing to do with their recent dominance over the Cavaliers.
Surviving the seven-game opus with Oklahoma City—specifically, the endless arms of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams—has proven to the Warriors that they can thrive in tenuous conditions and win in different ways. The Thunder tested them, rattled them and stifled their balletic ball movement. They still won, and privately, they swore this week they’d be stronger as a result.
On Thursday, they finally escaped the redwoods, and discovered a clearing against Cleveland. Curry and Thompson faltered, but not because they couldn’t find space. In a couple cases, they seemed startled to be left so open, after two weeks spent suffocated by OKC. Though Curry and Thompson misfired, the Warrior bench feasted, with Livingston in particular collecting a bushel of mid-range gimmes.
Drawing premature conclusions after Game 1 is an annual NBA tradition, but with the Warriors and Cavaliers, the body of evidence goes back farther: to January in Cleveland, to Christmas in Oakland, to Finals showdowns in both locales. Six consecutive wins is not an insignificant sample.
The Cavaliers, who inspire overreaction like no other squad, can anticipate the refrain that’s coming: Golden State has their number, as if the Warriors don’t have everybody’s number, save perhaps Oklahoma City. The Dubs won 73 games because they boast depth beyond the starting five, shooting beyond the Splash Bros, coaching beyond whiteboards. Trading for Frye, and promoting Tyronn Lue, were beneficial moves for the Cavs. But they may not be enough to blunt Golden State’s edge.
“They got to the point where they were last year and won a championship because of their whole team and their bench,” James said. “And they’re here once again in the Finals because of their whole team. So nothing has really changed.”
Amid all the chatter about champagne fumes, that was the message the Warriors sent in January, and once more in June.