CLEVELAND — These Warriors will be remembered not for their forceful finish, but for the eight months of exasperation that preceded it.
Their absurd collection of talent enraged rival fanbases and those who covet competitive balance. Their complacent stretches peeved coach Steve Kerr, to the point that he rage-called timeouts and lit into his team during the Western Conference finals. Their flirtation with isolation ball in crucial moments mystified a fanbase accustomed to non-stop onslaughts of ball movement and shot-making. Their oft-overlooked rash of injuries frustrated the players, who knew they were expected to win in 2018 from the moment they finished off the 2017 title. Their unabashed celebrating prompted a retaliation shimmy from Chris Paul. And they bedeviled LeBron James to the point that he nearly broke his hand with a frustration punch following a demoralizing Finals loss.
The 2015 Warriors were astonishing, an entirely new basketball conception led by a fresh superstar archetype. The 2017 Warriors were awe-inspiring, a Superteam that crushed all comers and nearly went undefeated through the postseason. But the 2018 Warriors were aggravating: a dynasty-in-the-making that jogged through a 58-win regular season, toyed with most of their postseason opponents and still managed to pull off the first Finals sweep in 11 years. Love them, hate them or envy them, the Warriors’ supreme skill this year was being irritating.
Golden State defeated Cleveland 108-85 in Game 4 of the Finals on Friday, sweeping the Cavaliers into the summer and clinching its third title in four years. In truth, the closeout win was a formality, with Cleveland’s spirit crushed in a traumatic Game 1 defeat and its last gasp exhaled during a hard-fought Game 3 loss.
The real news from Game 4 was who would take home Finals MVP honors—Kevin Durant edged out Stephen Curry to claim the honor for a second consecutive year—and not whether Golden State would win. James was so resigned to his fate that he compared the Warriors to dynasties like the New England Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs and then admitted that his team was badly outgunned. “You would say they're stacked better than us,” he said. “Let's just speak truth.”
Indeed, the Warriors are stacked better than virtually every team in NBA history: Four likely Hall-of-Famers, two MVPs, two Finals MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year. They withstood a late-season injury to Curry and the loss of Andre Iguodala during the middle of the West finals because there were always multiple sets of accomplished hands ready to pick up the slack. Durant exerted himself more as a scorer and playmaker. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green took on extra defensive assignments. Once he returned to the court in the second round, Curry mixed his signature shooting flourishes with determined and disciplined defense while being targeted dozens of times.
Together, they cheated death against Houston by maintaining their composure and then breezed through a Cleveland squad seriously weakened by Kyrie Irving’s departure. They outlasted the Rockets, outclassed the Cavaliers and wasted everyone else.
“I remember sitting in this room three years ago, it seemed like a dream,” Kerr said, referencing Golden State’s 2015 title over Cleveland. “This feels more like reality. And I hope that doesn't sound arrogant. That's the talent we have and that's the experience we've gained. It's a very different feeling. It's still euphoric. But three years ago, it was, ‘I can't believe this happened.’ Now it's, ‘I can definitely believe this happened.’”
That does sound arrogant, but it was earned arrogance. Kerr entered the regular season agonizing about his ability to keep his team hungry, and he joked Friday that he might not show up until after the All-Star break next season because, “they're not going to listen to me anyway.” He knew better than anyone that his team was the league’s most talented, most tested and most cohesive. He also understood that the Warriors’ formation required a rare spike in the salary cap, creating room to add Durant in 2016, and financial sacrifices from multiple players to keep the band together last summer. Given these circumstances, anything short of a title would have been a disaster.
That disaster nearly happened in Houston, as Durant and Curry pointed fingers at each other over blown defensive assignments and Kerr looked and sounded apoplectic before Golden State gutted out a Game 7 win on the road. By Friday, that strife was already a distant memory, as the Warriors stomped the Cavaliers and Green made a point to claim they would have beaten the Rockets in five games if Iguodala hadn’t gotten injured.
But it wasn’t Green’s cocky declaration that will leave the rest of the league anxious as free agency approaches. On the contrary, it was the Warriors’ deft handling of the Finals MVP debate, a conversation that served as a proxy for those hoping that Durant and Curry might split up this summer, thereby creating a more level playing field.
“KD's been amazing these last two years, especially in the Finals, and so deserving of back-to-back Finals MVPs,” Curry said, after hitting seven three-pointers and scoring a game-high 37 points. “I'm going to be his biggest fan. … We appreciate what everybody brings to the table and we kind of unlock the greatness out of each other.”
Durant—who posted the first Finals triple double of his career with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists—brushed off a question about Curry failing to win Finals MVP honors during Golden State’s three title runs. “Does it matter? Does it? Does it? We just won back-to-back,” he said. “I don't think anybody's even worried about that type of stuff.”
Maybe it was entirely genuine. Maybe it was convincing lip service. Either way, their mutual admiration in victory was the exact opposite of the unraveling that briefly seemed possible against the Rockets. As long as Durant and Curry can continue to share the spotlight, the Warriors will be strongly favored to extend their dynasty next year and beyond.
One can argue that Golden State is too cool, too haughty and too damn good. Nevertheless, the message from this hunky-dory Finals is clear: Start bracing now for another year of the Warriors’ maddening tendencies.
They just aren’t sick of winning together quite yet.