OAKLAND, Calif. — Keep on waiting for the Golden State Warriors to flex. Keep on waiting for them to show how dominant a team can be when it has the greatest shooter ever, arguably the second-greatest shooter ever, one of the greatest scorers to ever lace them up and one of the most versatile and villainous big men. Keep on waiting for the spectacular, for the special. Because the invincible team many thought would show up for this repeat bid might not ever come. And it might not have to.
The Warriors have spent an entire season telling us they were fine while showing us, repeatedly, they were bored and uninspired. Their talent has been so insurmountable for the opposition that it has only been required to be flaunted in quick, demoralizing bursts. And Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night provided yet another example of what else the Warriors have had on their side — incredibly good fortune. Who needed Kevin Durant to have another memorable pull-up 3-pointer over LeBron James when he could instead benefit from what turned out to be a favorable (and correct) whistle? And who needs to worry about Stephen Curry jumping out to an early lead for his first Finals MVP award with some unforgettable scoring flurry, when he might wind up losing out anyway to J.R. Smith? The Warriors have tested the patience of the basketball gods but have yet to be punished.
“We got lucky,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-114 in overtime on Thursday night. “We got lucky.”
LeBron James didn’t deserve what the game had in store for him after producing one of the more brilliant performances ever on this stage, a 51-point, eight-rebound and eight-assist masterpiece that had his team — a severe underdog in this series — in position for Game 1 larceny. But James was instead left fuming at the officials after he slid in front of Durant to draw a charge but had the call overturned after a rarely instituted review, which led to two free throws to tie it at 104 with 36.4 seconds remaining (“I thought I read that play just as well as I read any play in my career, defensively,” James said). And he was later fuming at his teammate after Smith rebounded a George Hill missed free throw but appeared to lose track of the score and dribbled out the clock, rather than attempting a game-winning shot, which led to overtime. His frustrating plea for Smith to be more aware in that situation will surely be a popular internet meme between now and Game 2 (“I don’t know what J.R. was thinking,” James said).
Smith isn’t the first player to have a boneheaded play on this stage. Magic Johnson famously became “Tragic Johnson” — on the exact same day 34 years ago, in Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics — when he inexplicably dribbled out the clock during regulation. The Los Angeles Lakers lost in overtime and lost the series in seven games. Those kind of blunders haunt and are rarely overcome. And they often seem to break to the Warriors’ advantage. Draymond Green has no shame in accepting those benefits.
“Sometimes you need a little luck,” Green said afterward. “You know, it’s good to be lucky sometimes. So I’ll take it. I think when [Smith] got the rebound, he probably could have laid it up. But nonetheless, that’s a part of the game, being locked in. I mean, you got to know the score. That’s just kind of basketball. You got to know if you’re winning or losing or tied. Like I said, we’ll take it.”
Who wouldn’t take a victory wrapped in love, controversy and stupidity? Before Smith gets hammered through eternity, he never would’ve been in position to make such a blunder had Hill made the free throw, or the 7-foot Durant had boxed out the smaller Smith. Both Hill and Durant — last year’s Finals MVP — escaped the moment unscathed. And even if the focus eventually shifts to them, Smith has already been tossed into the pit of ignominy. Golden State also doesn’t have to address its continued inability to make plays in tightly contested games because they’re being made on its behalf.
The Warriors have appeared vulnerable at various points this season. They’ve also had to confront adversity — some self-inflicted, some from outside places. They’ve started this series without their fifth-best player and former Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala, who has a bone bruise in his knee. And, before catching all of the breaks in the final minutes of this series, they had another scare in the first quarter, when Smith slipped and crashed into Klay Thompson’s right knee.
Curry, who scored a team-high 29 points, said he was “feeling a little type of way about” the injury because his pass put Thompson in peril. Thompson returned but admitted afterward that his knee was still “sore.” James and the Cavaliers present another challenge for Golden State. James is going to demand their best to bring out his best. This series might not appear evenly matched, but James has always been the great equalizer. “They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before,” Kerr said. “It’s going to be a tough series.”
During their first title defense of this unprecedented four-year run for the franchise, the Warriors played with the fire of Hawaii’s big island volcanoes, lava overflowing in the form of a record 73 wins and the first-ever unanimous MVP. But James denied them a storybook ending, instead authoring his own with an upset comeback win for Cavaliers. The Warriors took some valuable lessons from that season about not exhausting themselves and that has played out in sometimes frustrating fashion in their second attempt at repeating. One Warriors assistant credited their sloppy imperfections as “success fatigue.” Kerr has had his moments when he was dumbfounded about finding ways to motivate his bunch, at one point handing over the clipboard to his players to spice up things a bit in the regular season.
When Curry’s late-season knee injury and the Houston Rockets’ mad push for the best record in the NBA gave them an opportunity to cruise into the postseason, the Warriors claimed they wouldn’t have those lapses when it counted. Their complacency and James’ indomitable will made it difficult to predict that this would be some sort of bloodbath. Even during their gut-check victory over the Rockets in the conference finals — when they, ahem, benefited from Chris Paul’s unfortunate hamstring injury after falling behind 3-2 in the series — Golden State bended to the point of nearly breaking, waiting until it was at its most desperate to flip that proverbial switch in the final two games.
“We’ve been making it hard on ourselves all year,” Shaun Livingston told Yahoo Sports afterward. “It’s part of the game. We just have to be better. It’s kind of the storybook of our season. They probably should’ve stole that game. But we got a second chance. And we took advantage of it.”
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