OAKLAND — There it was, the Larry O'Brien Trophy, on display during an NBA charity function Friday at the Boys & Girls Club. Steve Kerr was within clutching distance of the jug, as were team officials and some players, and if commissioner Adam Silver wanted to circumvent the formality of the remaining few games and present his golden hardware to the Warriors, he could have done so without fear of premature congratulation.
Because these Finals are finished.
Once news of Kyrie Irving's fractured left kneecap began circulating around the Bay Area, the news angle shifted from who wins to when the first pile of dirt is shoveled in Mission Bay. The Warriors now have no reason not to make quick work of the Cavaliers — even as LeBron James growls and pounds his chest and defiantly vows to make the series competitive, like some wounded science-fiction character — and begin a domino process that comes with winning their first NBA title in 40 years. That's one reason Silver and team president Rick Welts were at the function: to show how the league and team perform humanitarian work before launching their full-scale lobbying for a new arena. And that building, I'm told by one of Joe Lacob's people at Creative Artists Agency, will command astronomical naming-rights fees — think Mark Zuckerberg vs. Tim Cook vs. Travis Kalanick vs. Marissa Mayer — and transform what formerly was a goofy hoops operation beside an East Bay freeway into a prominent player in American sports.
Only James stands in the way of unimaginable prosperity for a franchise with a cumbersome name, Golden State, which came about only because a long-ago owner needed a bailout when he had to split games between Oakland and San Diego. The King talked tough Friday, reminding us that he's locked in “a moment” as the first player in decades to participate in five consecutive Finals. He also mentioned the bad luck he has faced in his last two Finals, knowing a limited Dwyane Wade spelled doom last year in Miami's five-game collapse against San Antonio.
“Well, there are a few things that you would love to have going late in the season. That's being healthy, having a great rhythm, and then you need a little luck as well,” James said. “We've had a great rhythm. We haven't had much luck, and we haven't been healthy. But I haven't gotten discouraged.
“I understand the moment that I'm in, and I'm not too much worried about the game. I'm worried about the moment. I'm happy with the moment. I'm excited to be in this moment once again, and I'm going to stay strong for my team, no matter who is or is not in the lineup.”
Staying strong is admirable, if also delusional. A one-man James Gang, with Matthew Dellavedova replacing Irving, has zero chance in this series, with Vegas sportsbooks making the Warriors a whopping 7.5-point favorite for Game 2. Very quickly, The Limp has joined The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot, The Move, The Blown Save, The Hangover (Johnny Manziel) and The Decision (LeBron's self-induced screwup) on the endless list of heartbreaks in sports-and-life-cursed Cleveland. And while it's freaky that James must deal with injury misfortune, this fact remains: The most dominant player of his era is looking at his fourth loss in an NBA Finals. Two-for-six is a percentage that will prompt wincing among other all-time greats on James' so-called “Mt. Rushmore” of basketball.
Maybe the sense of what's about to happen, again, is what drove James to toss and turn in the wee hours after the Game 1 overtime loss. “It's not a great feeling, for sure. I didn't get much sleep,” he said. “Your mind just plays with you so much throughout the the night. Different plays, different scenarios, different points of the game where you could have made a play here, could have made a play there, to help your team win.”
Such as, an ill-advised stepback jumper with seconds remaining in regulation, a shot defended experlty by Andre Iguodala and a shot Michael Jordan never would have settled for in a major moment. Why not drive to the hole? Time was when James' critics ripped him for not taking the big shot, often deferring with a pass. Now he is being ripped, and rightfully so, for taking the wrong shot at Oracle. This is why James, while ranked among the best players ever, never will be acknowledged as The Best. There have been too many blips, too many WTFs. “For me, I got to a spot where I'm comfortable making the shot: Step back, going left,” he said. “That's a shot that I'm very capable of making in rhythm, which I was in. It just didn't go down for me. I've made game-winners on jumpers. I've made game-winners on layups. I don't predetermine what I'm going to do.
“I really didn't hear the criticism and things of that nature because I don't read anything. I don't see anything. I don't watch anything. So that stuff never gets to me, doesn't bother me at all.”
Sure. Right. When someone suggested the Warriors were letting him “have” his 40 points (44, actually), James fired back. “Well, first of all, you can't LET me have 40,” he said. “It's not like they're just getting out of the way. So those guys aren't saying, 'We're OK with letting him have 40.' You don't let me have 40. I'm making those shots.”
Another reporter mentioned a comment by Draymond Green, something about LeBron calling him “too small” the first time they met as pros in 2012. James could have shot back by rehashing Green's tweets, from 2010, that referred to James as “a loser” and “gay” after leaving the Cavaliers for Miami. But he did say, “If you knew Draymond, he started the trash-talking first in that game. I'm not much of a trash-talker, but he started it first his rookie year. So don't let him try to start up a story on why he's motivated because I said something. He started it. I finished it.”
Yet, Green has the “Beats” headphones ad that is appearing in heavy rotation on Finals telecasts, which started with the highest-rated Game 1 since 2003. And Green, despite a rough night, has a 1-0 lead. And Green, somehow, has escaped intense media scrutiny for those tweets, even if they're from five years ago.
Seems the Warriors are in LeBron's head, despite the big Four-Four. Wait until they actually play well. “We didn't play our best game by any means,” Green said, “yet we found a way to gut out a win.”
The inevitability of this championship, which has been increasingly obvious for weeks in a series of lucky-break increments, came full circle with word of Irving's devastating, season-ending setback. If he were healthy, the Warriors wouldn't have won the series, evidenced by his effective defense on Stephen Curry — 1 of 5 shooting and only four points with Irving matched on him in Game 1 — and his aggressive drives inside on a 23-point, seven-rebound, six-assist, four-steal night. Step by fortuitous step, the Warriors have benefited from injuries (Mike Conley, Patrick Beverley, Kevin Love). Now, with Irving gone, the only issues seem to be whether (1) Curry goes for 45 or 55 points against the slower, less athletic Dellavedova; and (2) Dellavedova resorts to leg-locking and other recklessness that had opponents in earlier playoff series calling him dirty.
Other than James, the only enemy left for the Warriors is complacency. They now have won 80 games this season and lost just 18, and with three more victories, they complete one of the most successful seasons in NBA history, with the presumptive 83 ranking behind only two of Jordan's Bulls teams in all-time win totals. Kerr, of course, was on those teams as well, and as someone who understands the methodology of a champion, he knows the Warriors can't be thinking about parades.
“The minute we start thinking that way, we're in big trouble,” he said. “That never enters our mind. We have to do what we did (in Game 1), only better. We have to compete like we did, but we have to execute better. I think that will come.”
Curry, too, is mindful of not becoming lax, a trend that has followed the Warriors early in games before they ultimately come around and invent new ways of winning. “We can't assume … that it's going to be a cakewalk for us to get a championship,” he said. “It's still going to be a challenge. It's still going to be tough. We have to keep controlling what we control and do what we do.”
Yet Curry, who surely must be thrilled that Irving won't be in his grill and blocking his seeming layups from behind, wasn't hesitant to discuss the pride he'd feel if he shared a championship with his father, Dell. “It would mean everything,” he said. “He had a great 16-year career but never got past the second round of the playoffs. So for him to come out to the Bay from North Carolina and be at pretty much every playoff game and enjoy the whole experience with me — it means a lot. He's been me and my wife's roommate for the last month and a half, just tagging along.”
Not that James doesn't have a warm spot for family. But he's pissed. He looks at the Warriors, like James Harden and others before them, and thinks they're beatable. But thanks to fate and circumstance, he knows the reality here: He must produce the most herculean of efforts just to hang in this series, much less win it.
It's not happening. Even when the Warriors attend charity events, the trophy is staring right at them, as it has all season.