Three takeaways from the Golden State Warriors’ 108-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals, to finish off a 4-0 sweep and win the 2018 NBA championship:
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The Warriors have set the bar, and nobody’s on their level
CLEVELAND — Four straight Finals trips. Three championships in four years, and back-to-back titles. A 328-83 record, regular- and postseason combined, since Steve Kerr took the job; that’s a .798 winning percentage over the course of four years.
Friday’s absolute pasting of the overwhelmed and broken Cavaliers cemented it: this is one of the greatest runs in league history, authored by an immortal team that has put the entire NBA in a chokehold. There’s the Warriors — four perennial All-Stars, two Finals MVPs, an arsenal of role players capable of contributing in ways big and small, and a coach who can make it all sing — and then there’s everybody else.
Cavs guard George Hill, whose missed free throw in the closing seconds of Game 1 will rattle around in his head and in the collective memory of Cavs fans for years, summed it up succinctly in the losing locker room: “Sometimes you come across those dynasties where you’re just outmatched, and it’s just their time.” This is Golden State’s time. The Warriors are a team for all time.
“I just know what we’ve been able to accomplish is really meaningful and something that not many players have been able to experience,” said Stephen Curry, who averaged 27.5 points, 6.8 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game in the Finals. “So wherever that puts us in the conversation in the history of the NBA or, you know, titles around dynasty and all that type of stuff, I’m a three-time champ. 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 [we] want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”
It sure looks like they’re set up to do just that.
Finals MVP or not, everything the Warriors are — tactically, operationally, culturally, spiritually — still starts with Stephen Curry. Owner Joe Lacob made sure last summer that the centerpiece of the dynasty will remain in place through the end of the 2021-22 season. Newly minted two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer, but he’s given every indication that he’s not going anywhere. (Asked after the game what he wants to see this summer, he talked about his excitement over the possibility of young teammates Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook coming back as better players, and about “different tricks that we’ll use throughout the season.”)
Defensive aces and emotional leaders Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are locked up through 2020. Shaun Livingston, a stabilizing veteran ball-handler who missed all of two shots in the entire sweep, will be back next season, too. Klay Thompson, “no-maintenance” All-Star and 3-point firestarter, has made rumblings that he might be the latest Warrior to take a hometown discount if it increases the likelihood of ownership keeping the whole gang intact.
And to hear Lacob tell it, Kerr — who, four years deep, owns the best regular- and postseason winning percentages in NBA coaching history — is also staying put:
Joe Lacob to @TheAthleticSF on a Steve Kerr contract extension this offseason: "It's very high (on the priority list). And we will get it done."
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) June 9, 2018
It’s a core that can crumble mountains, scoring and defending at levels rarely seen in the sport’s history. Youngsters Bell, Cook, Patrick McCaw and Damian Jones will be on hand to provide depth as they grow into their games and expanding roles.
Kerr and general manager Bob Myers will have some decisions to make on the rest of the roster, most notably at center, where regular-season starter Zaza Pachulia, postseason starters JaVale McGee and Kevon Looney, and key backup David West will all hit unrestricted free agency. One summer after the Nick Young and Omri Casspi signings didn’t go quite as planned, the Warriors will also once again have to look for more shooting on the wing.
They won’t have loads of financial flexibility with which to find it, but few other teams in the league will have a ton of cap space, either. With the taxpayer midlevel exception and veteran’s minimum salary slots, they’ll find help, and they’ll again enter the offseason as favorites to run it back. They’re a constant now, a known quantity. What remains to be seen is who’s going to rise to challenge them.
The Houston Rockets came up one win — and maybe one balky hamstring — short of knocking off the Warriors before they even got to the title round. (Though that’s not how the Warriors saw it: “I thought that was a moment in that Houston series where we thought we would win 4-1,” Green said at the post-game podium. “Then Andre got hurt, and no one seemed to talk about that loss, because we had it all figured out […] It was kind of about to be over.”) The Rockets face questions this summer, with Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza hitting free agency and rising star big man Clint Capela due for an extension of his rookie deal, but they believe they’re on the verge, and GM Daryl Morey’s roster-managing creativity is outstripped only by his admitted obsession with toppling the champs.
A fully healthy Boston Celtics team that returns Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward could pose a threat. So could the Philadelphia 76ers, provided leaps forward for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons … and maybe a new superstar free agent, imported by a new, burner-account-free regime. With money to spend and Hollywood to sell, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will swing for the fences to try to land a pair of superstars who can restore the Los Angeles Lakers to championship relevance. New collections of talent and prospective contenders could emerge, too, in a sport where summer has now become even wilder than fall and spring.
“That’s how you know we’re a great team, is when everybody’s coming after us,” Durant said. “Whether it’s opponents, whether it’s different coaches planning for us, whether it’s the fans, the media that hate us, it feels good when you’re the team that everybody’s gunning for. It makes us better. It makes us come to work and try to play at that championship level every single day, and that’s the hardest part.”
To a man, the Warriors swore that this fourth Finals run was the toughest, marked by injury and inconsistency, internal struggles the likes of which we apparently have no earthly idea, and the ever-present challenge of summoning up the same drive they mustered to devour the Cavaliers as they made their way through the grueling 82-game slate. They couldn’t always get there — you might recall that they went 7-10 down the stretch, and had a negative point differential over the final six weeks of the season — but they hit the gas when money time rolled around, wrapping up with the postseason’s No. 1 offensive and defensive efficiency marks.
Golden State is inarguably, remarkably stacked. The Warriors drafted well and developed well, built a culture of unselfishness and joy that has made great players want to take less money to join up, and seized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity afforded them by the salary cap spike of 2016 to put their thumb on the scale of this league. They make no apologies about it; it got them, all of them, where they wanted to be. It has transformed the seemingly impossible into simply what’s expected.
“I remember sitting in this room three years ago [after winning the 2015 NBA title], it seemed like a dream,” Kerr said after the game. “This feels more like reality. And I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s just that’s the talent we have, and that’s the experience we’ve gained […] Bottom line is, we’ve got a lot of talent, and we had more talent than [Cleveland] did, and talent wins in this league.”
It’s the talent, it’s the minds, it’s the attitude, it’s the approach; it’s everything. The Warriors have it all … and until someone or something very powerful conspires to take it from them, they’re going to keep it.
If this is the end (again), LeBron’s tenure ends with a whimper
After Game 4, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue found himself asked to account for how things fell apart for Cleveland in the face of an advancing juggernaut. He did his level best.
“Sometimes, you can give everything you’ve got and still come up short,” he said. “I thought that’s what our group of guys did in this series.”
That was certainly true in Game 1, when the Cavs played with tenacity, poise and purpose, riding a historically brilliant performance by LeBron James to the brink of stealing home-court advantage … only to see it all slip away in brutal, heartbreaking and, eventually, bone-crushing fashion. And after a Game 2 in which the Warriors never trailed, it was true in Game 3, when Golden State needed a perfect game capped by a shot for the ages from Durant to keep the Cavs off the board.
It didn’t really feel true on Friday, though.
Yes, the Cavs responded to an early Warriors push by locking in defensively, limiting Golden State to just four points in more than 6 1/2 minutes of game time to briefly take a mid-second-quarter lead. And yes, Cleveland was still within hailing distance late in the first half, trailing by two possessions with less than a minute to go before intermission. But after McGee made a beautiful defensive play to recover to the short corner and block a 3-point attempt by J.R. Smith with 20 seconds to go in the half, the Warriors called timeout to set up their final possession … and Steph made it count:
OF COURSE HE DID!
20-point 1st half for Steph
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) June 9, 2018
It only put Golden State up nine at the break, but that Curry 3 was, for all intents and purposes, a knockout punch. The Cavs never recovered, turning in a limp, lifeless third quarter that saw them produce more turnovers (five) than made shots (four, on 17 attempts) and give up nearly as many second-chance points (11) as they scored total (13) in the frame. One last time for the season, the Warriors ran away from an opponent in the third quarter, pushing their lead to 21 points by the end of three and turning the entire fourth quarter of a closeout game in the NBA Finals into a garbage-time session where the only intrigue was whether Durant or Curry would wind up finishing with the more impressive Finals MVP case.
Whether due to the hand he busted in post-Game 1 frustration or sheer exhaustion after having carried so monstrous a load for the entirety of this season, James just didn’t have it in him to elevate the Cavs one more time on Friday; he scored 20 points on 50 percent shooting with eight assists and four rebounds through three quarters, and yet it seemed like he was barely even there. On that score, he had company.
Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jeff Green and Kyle Korver combined to shoot 14-for-49 (28.6 percent) from the field in Game 4, totally scuppering any possibility of a comeback to at least force Golden State into taking a gentleman’s sweep back on their home floor on Monday. No matter what they tried defensively — trapping the Curry pick-and-roll, switching screens on the perimeter, increased physicality, double-teams, you name it — the Warriors found the weak spot and exploited it, time and again, until the Cavs looked like they’d essentially given up.
The typically raucous Quicken Loans Arena fell silent before the end of the third quarter. There were boos, at one point, and it all ended with Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, Rodney Hood and Jose Calderon on the floor, playing out the string. It was jarring — an odd way to end an odd season and, perhaps, to end an era.
“I wondered if we could hit a switch in the postseason,” said James, who finished with a team-high 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in 40 1/2 minutes before checking out to a standing ovation with just over four minutes to go in the fourth. “I figured if I stayed laser sharp, if I came in with the right mentality, if I came in with the right mindset, that I could help fast-track this throughout a lot of the games in the postseason, because of my experience and because of some of the other guys that experienced a lot of games. I was able to do that. We were able to do that.”
But then, James paused and caught himself.
“I mean, I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s never a success in the postseason when you lose, not for me. I have no idea.”
The Warriors finally gave us their A game
Those of us old enough to remember what it looks like when Golden State devotes 100 percent of its attention to kicking your ass — which is to say, those of us who watched the 73-win Stephsplosion and last year’s KD-infused 15-1 rampage through the postseason — often found ourselves this season wondering when, exactly, we were going to see the Warriors damn the torpedoes and go for broke. Maybe the rest of the league couldn’t quite force the Warriors to kick it into their highest gear, but surely we couldn’t go the whole season without seeing their full-throttle best stuff, right?
And then: Game 4.
Curry opens the game attacking the rim for six quick points, then throws in an eff-you double-clutching 3 less than five minutes into the game. Durant plays comfortably, confidently, barely even noticing the defense. Green wreaks havoc all over the floor, wrecking Cleveland possessions at the rim and on the perimeter, dominating on the glass even without registering a rebound, pushing the tempo in transition and making all the right decisions with the ball in his hands.
When Cleveland trapped, Curry made the release-valve pass to spring Green or Iguodala attacking four-on-three downhill. When the defense collapsed into the paint, the ball swung to the corners, and when the Cavs sagged off Golden State’s iffy shooters, they still rose and fired, and this time, they hit — Iguodala, Green and Young combined for five of the Warriors’ 14 3-pointers. McGee did everything Kerr and his staff asked of him, using his length to smartly contest Cleveland shots inside without leaping at pump fakes, rim-running every time possession changes, and working his tail off on the offensive glass.
They threw everything they had at LeBron, smothered everyone else, and scored at a rate of offensive efficiency — 116.1 points per 100 possessions — that would’ve led the NBA during the regular season, despite Thompson scoring just 10 points on 10 shots while battling foul trouble on an ankle he said after the game he could barely feel. It was clinical; it was total; it was surgical.
As noted after Game 3, on his new song, “If You Know You Know,” Pusha-T raps a line that starts, “When we all clicking like Golden State.” Draymond said after Game 3 that he didn’t think the Warriors had actually been clicking like that thus far this series or season, and that their best game was still ahead of them. After Game 4, though?
“It was clicking tonight, champ,” he said, emphatically. “It was clicking.”
Those clicks preceded a boom, and the Warriors left a smoking crater on the court at Quicken Loans Arena. Now, the NBA’s left to deal with the fallout of a team whose time has come, and that seems pretty intent on sticking around for a while.
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