CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors never played to their full potential. Having won a second NBA title in three years with the addition of Kevin Durant a year ago, the Warriors of 2017-18 remained — by far — the most talented team in the league, and yet, when the lights were brightest, they never put together a complete four quarters.
They finally did on Friday. Led by Stephen Curry’s joyful 37 points, four Warriors scored in double figures, as Golden State used a 25-13 third-quarter run to put away LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 108-85, for their third NBA title in four years.
“This is amazing,” forward Draymond Green said, as he came off the court. “It’s the toughest one we’ve had.”
The win finished off Golden State’s first Finals sweep in their four-year stretch of dominance, as they quieted Quicken Loans Arena with more than 14 minutes to go, but it also capped what was arguably Steve Kerr’s most brilliant — and most difficult — coaching performance in his four years at the helm.
“It was definitely the toughest one, from the standpoint of, it’s the fourth year in a row that we’ve attempted to get back to the finals,” Kerr said. “I remember three years ago, sitting in this room, it felt like a dream. This feels more like reality. I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but it’s just that’s the talent we have, and the experience we’ve gained.”
Never in Kerr’s tenure had the Warriors faced real, true adversity.
For Kerr’s first three years, Curry had remained largely healthy, spectacularly consistent and consistently spectacular. So had Klay Thompson. Andre Iguodala had been a steady, healthy hand. Then, last season, they added the greatest pure scorer of this generation in Durant, and the result was a 16-1 scorched-earth run through the playoffs.
Durant — who earned his second straight Finals MVP award for averaging 28.8 points, 2.0 blocks, 7.5 assists and 10.5 rebounds — served as Kerr’s best balm for an offense that, for the first time since early in his first season, struggled all too frequently to find itself, in large part because of missing pieces.
On their run to the 2018 Finals, Golden State lost Curry for six weeks, lost Thompson for eight games and lost Iguodala for 18 regular-season games, plus a crucial six-game stretch in the playoffs due to a bone bruise in his knee. Durant, too, missed 14 games during the regular season.
“Kevin, myself, Klay, Steph, Jordan Bell, like, you name it, guys missed time,” Green said. “All the injuries we went through while going through that grind of trying to get back to this position was extremely tough.”
Still, Kerr — who himself missed significant time over the last two seasons due to complications from a back surgery — managed to find lineups and strategies that worked, including using Iguodala as a point guard during Curry’s convalescence.
“What he has gone through physically in the last three years, and for him just to show up every day … to have a perspective around managing this year differently than any of the last three because of the cumulative effect of this many games, just the length of the season in general, he was a master at that,” Curry said.
The Warriors started Friday night with a rain of three-pointers, hitting 6-of-10 in the first quarter, streaking out to a nine-point lead, and despite some second-quarter hiccups, took that lead into the locker room.
That lead ballooned to 15 points in the first two minutes of the second half, as Thompson hit a floater on the right wing, Curry hit a pull-up jumper, and JaVale McGee added a tip-in. The Cavaliers missed two shots and turned the ball over in their first three possessions of the half.
Curry finished 7-of-15 from three a night after going 1-for-10, and finished the Finals with 27.5 points per game, the highest scoring average of any of his four NBA Finals appearances.
After the Warriors held James to an increasingly lower field goal percentage over the first three games, he finished Friday 7-for-13 from the floor, with Iguodala hounding him, drawing fouls and forcing James to lash out in visible frustration.
James’s frustration may have been with Iguodala, but it may as well have been with his teammates, who shot 27-for-74 (36.5 percent), even below their 39.8 percent mark for the previous three games.
Defense — the beating heart of Kerr’s teams — was woefully inconsistent, though, over the course of the season. Over the final month, Kerr said, his team went into its worst defensive funk, culminating in a 119-79 loss to the Utah Jazz. There were doubts, Kerr said, that the Warriors would even reach the Finals again.
“I was hoping we’d turn it up once the playoffs started,” Kerr said. “We lost 10 of our last 17, which, more than anything, was an indication of how long this journey has been for us.”
From March 9 to April 10, Golden State allowed opposing teams to hit 47 percent from the field and 36.9 percent from three, compared to 44.1 and 29.1 during the 65 games prior. Then, somehow, they found their legs against the San Antonio Spurs, holding Greg Popovich’s team to 41.3 percent shooting during the series.
“We knew we would have to find our defense,” Kerr said. “Right from the beginning, Game 1 against San Antonio, Pop said that was the best defense they faced all year. Andre stepping in for Steph with Steph being injured, showing his versatility and establishing our defensive mindset for that series got us going.”
Then got Curry back from six weeks on the shelf with a sprained left knee, and held Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans to 44.6 percent from the field (down from 48.3 percent during the season) and 34.3 percent from three (down from 36.2).
Then they had to beat back a team specifically designed to beat them in the Houston Rockets, and do it largely without their best defender in Iguodala, who went down in the fourth quarter of Game 3 with a bone bruise in his left knee, suffered in a knee-on-knee collision with James Harden.
Once again, Kerr had to get creative and utilize bench talent like Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney. He had to find answers at center, answers that included McGee, who started all four games in the NBA Finals, but started just 17 in the regular season.
The national narrative held water: The real Finals were the Western Conference Finals. No team pushed Golden State like Houston did, even without Chris Paul.
No matter what James did — whether it was scoring 51 points in Game 1, or distributing the ball so that three of his teammates scored in double figures in Game 3 — the fact was that this Warriors team conquered Cleveland just as it did the regular season: With depth.
“They have five guys on the court who can dribble, pass and shoot, and even when you defend them well, you’ve still got guys like Steph, KD and Klay, who can still score,” said Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue.
The Warriors continually had to search for what was working on any given night this season. When it wasn’t Curry, it was Durant. When it wasn’t Durant, it was Thompson.
“This year was a bit crazy,” Curry said.
In Game 4 of the Finals, it was everybody. Eight players saw double-digit minutes, while the entire bench was emptied. Every player who saw the court — save for Patrick McCaw — scored at least two points. Despite early foul trouble, Thompson scored 10. Draymond Green had another Draymond Green game, with nine points, nine assists, three rebounds and five fouls, while McGee went 3-for-4 for six points in 16 minutes. Iguodala added 11 points in 23 minutes, hitting three three-pointers for only the second time this season.
“We pride ourselves on our depth,” Green said. “At different times in the season, our depth stepped up. Even throughout the playoffs, Andre going down, Steph starting the playoffs out, like, other guys stepped up, and that’s what’s important.”