Given the collective star power of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA Finals were expected to rescue an altogether dreadful postseason, making folks forget all about the blowouts, the injuries, the lack of drama that characterizes these playoffs.
So how is that working out?
So far, not so great.
The Warriors won three of the first four games in last year’s rematch with the Cavs and went on to lose the championship in an epic finale – or what some would term an epic collapse. As a dazed and confused Oracle Arena crowd watched, that late six-point lead was devoured by Kyrie Irving’s deep 3, LeBron James’ chase down and block of Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love’s surprising perimeter defense against a less-than-healthy Steph Curry.
But these are not those Warriors. Let’s start with that. Thursday’s 113-91 beatdown of the Cavs in the series opener was so convincing, so anticlimactic, it hints at a repeat performance before the series shifts to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. The Warriors might be too much of a good thing, which could prompt viewers to reach for the remote, which is not the kind of drama the league has been pitching.
Forget for the moment that ailing Warriors coach Steve Kerr is working from the locker room, leaving assistant Mike Brown to handle the sidelines. No complaints from Brown, though. The former two-time Cavs coach took over three games into the playoffs and is undefeated at 11-0. Talk about climate change. Here we are in June, and Kerr’s lead assistant is like a kid at Christmas, staring at presents surrounding around a tree, while serenading the two biggest prizes of all: A healthy Kevin Durant and a healthy Curry.
Durant, who missed 20 games during the regular season with a sprained knee, was simply spectacular in his Warriors championship series debut. In the first half alone, the spindly forward attacked for six dunks and made six of his eight assists, relentlessly pushing the pace and applying pressure with his playmaking. He finished with 38 points on a variety of jumpers, runners and flying slams – and with apologies to Shaquille O’Neal, several were Superman-esque. The only thing missing was the cape.
Defensively he used his length and quickness to pester James, who committed an uncharacteristic eight of the Cavs’ 20 turnovers.
If Durant once again demonstrated why he was the free-agent steal of last year’s offseason, Curry, the longest tenured Warrior, resembled the MVP-caliber point guard of two postseasons ago. In the opening minutes and again at the start of the third quarter, in particular, he put on one of his familiar ballhandling clinics, those occasions he uses his crafty, change-of-pace dribble to elude defenders and slice underneath for layups or assists and create space for his deep 3s.
He also grabbed six rebounds, and on one notable sequence before halftime, outhustled James and Tristan Thompson for a loose ball, then found Durant cutting to the basket.
Afterward, Curry adhered to his script. That emotional bruise from last year’s seventh game is everlasting. He can’t change the score, replay those final minutes, pretend he was healthy when his movement was visibly hampered. Except for a trip to Saint-Tropez, France, with his wife, Ayesha, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, his offseason was spent regaining his health, tinkering with his rigorous workout routine and adding a little more upper-body definition. The plan was to stay lean but get stronger, and ultimately, better able to withstand the punishing nature of an NBA season.
The simultaneous and successful recruitment of Durant, who remains villain No. 1 in Oklahoma City but a beloved newcomer in the Bay Area, provided the entire Warriors organization with a psychological boost. Who wouldn’t want Kevin Durant, right? The visions were dazzling, daring. Curry and Klay Thompson shooting from deep, Green making plays and playing defense, JaVale McGee protecting the rim, Iguodala harassing scorers, and Durant enhancing all of the above with his all-around skills and exceptional scoring ability.
Durant’s presence immediately established the Warriors as favorites to capture their second title in three years. Curry acknowledges as much. But as the current series approached, he made no secret of his desire to expunge the lingering nasty taste of Game 7, so in a very real sense, this is very personal.
“I have great memories of (the 2015 title) and terrible memories of last year,” he said, “but they’re both lessons you learn, knowing what it takes to win, how important every possession is, focusing on the details, especially against the same team for the third time. I don’t want to feel like I did last year, and I’m going to do everything in my power to attack every game with that kind of perspective.”
While the Cavaliers left Oracle Arena on Thursday night wondering how to defend the interior, prolong the perimeter struggles of Thompson (3 for 16) and Green (3 for 12), Curry insists the Warriors will change very little. “We are who we are,” he says. Yet in a light, late-night moment, when asked why he stopped wearing the protective sleeve on his right arm, the North Carolina native channeled his inner, more mischievous self.
“I always wanted to be like Allen Iverson as a little kid,” he said with a slight grin, referring to Iverson’s colorful basketball attire. “That was the only way I could really come close. But it just wasn’t feeling right, just kind of a split decision. Just keep playing.”