CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors were expected to win. They were expected to do it in overwhelming fashion. After a 16-1 run in the playoffs last season, this year was supposed to be a breeze.
Then came the injuries. Then came a defensive swoon. Then came the Houston Rockets — purpose-built to beat the Warriors — pushing them to a seventh game, even without Chris Paul.
As head coach Steve Kerr stood outside the improvised photo room on Friday night, where his players were taking turns holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he sighed, and described the feeling of winning his third NBA title in four years in one word: “Relief.”
The players walked off the floor at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night not with shouts of jubilation, but with smiles of obligation, after sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“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.”
For the 13th time in NBA history, a team has won at least two titles in a row. The Warriors join league royalty as the seventh franchise to do so, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, the Rockets, Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons.
Winning three titles in four years has only happened to six other teams in NBA history, last coming when the Lakers won three from 2000-02.
To do it, though, the Warriors continually had to constantly search for what was working — and who was healthy — on any given night this season. When it wasn’t Stephen Curry, it was two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant. When it wasn’t Durant, it was Klay Thompson. When Curry went down for six weeks, Kerr inserted Iguodala — his small ball center — as a point guard.
Kerr leaned on Nick Young and Quinn Cook. He took JaVale McGee and started him four times in the finals, after he’d started just 17 games all season.
Hot rookie Jordan Bell, who injured both of his ankles and lost minutes late in the season to Kevon Looney, had a resurgence, shooting 10-for-14 and scoring 23 points in 54 Finals minutes.
They didn’t play a complete game until Game 4 of the NBA Finals, but in that game, the basketball world saw what the Warriors should have been, and what they might be, again.
Kerr’s offense — when it’s running at his peak — should see 320 passes per game. After averaging 322.7 during the season, they dropped to 297.3 in the postseason. They had 314 on Saturday night.
The Warriors swiped seven steals and turned in 13 blocks, dished out 25 assists and had just eight turnovers in Game 4.
The greatest scorer of this generation — now two-time Finals MVP Durant — followed up a 43-point Game 3 performance with a triple-double, with 20 points, 12 rebounds and a career-playoff-high 10 assists. Curry finished 7-of-15 from three in Game 4, 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. He set a Finals record with 22 three-pointers, doubling the previous mark.
These were the Warriors. In their system. In their element. Finally focused.
However, four years straight of playing until mid-June takes a toll, both physical and mental. It’s why dynasties are so rare, and so fragile.
“[It was] extremely difficult,” Draymond Green said. “Not just the playoff run, this entire season. You’re coming off a championship and you’re expected to get back to that level for Game 1 of 82. Like it’s tough. You know, [Durant] had time where he missed. Kevin, myself, Klay, Steph, Jordan Bell, like you name it, guys missed time. All the injuries we went through while going through that grind of trying to get back to this position was extremely tough.”
When a team has played with a target on its back for so long, a bullet is eventually going to find its mark. It very nearly happened in Houston, when, without Chris Paul, the Rockets nearly felled the Warriors. Without Iguodala — who missed six playoff games with a bone bruise in his left knee — they were a mess on both ends of the court.
Sometimes that bullet can be self-inflicted. Golden State got lucky with Curry’s last contract — signed back when his ankles were more akin to lightbulbs than the support structure for arguably the greatest three-point shooter of all time. It allowed them to sign Durant. If Thompson signs an extension, that saves the Warriors form having to re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but what happens after that extension runs out? The longer a team like this stays together, the harder and harder it gets to pay everybody.
Sometimes a dynasty can break a team in another way, as we’re seeing with Cleveland: To win the 2016 title, the Cavaliers over-paid Kevin Love (who is now obsolete in today’s game, just two years later) and J.R. Smith. Maybe it’s already started with the Warriors paying Iguodala, who earns $48 million over three years until 2020.
“I just know what we’ve been able to accomplish is really meaningful and something that not many players have been able to experience,” Curry said. “We’ve got a lot of three-time, two-time champs in there, and we’ll have plenty of time in our lives to discuss that later. So want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”
As difficult as this year was, Warriors fans should savor it. They’ll have their window for the next two, maybe three years. But every castle crumbles. Every dynasty ends.
“I definitely know this is ending,” general manager Bob Myers said before the Finals. “I don’t need any reminders. I know the narrative is that this is going to go on forever. On the record, it won’t. It can’t. Nothing does, especially in a sport where the competition is so great. There’s financial pressures, injuries, personalities, everything, that don’t allow you to keep. No team should last forever. It’s not good for anybody.”