The most jolting and fascinating story of these NBA playoffs so far, of course, is just how mediocre the Golden State Warriors have looked. Yes, you can talk about about Steph Curry’s physical woes, and, yes, you must give due credit to the rising talent of Portland and the size and will of Oklahoma City. And you can also discuss among yourselves the varying effects of exhaustion and the wearying consequences of mounting pressure and Daymond Green’s tendency to overheat… but none of this changes the simple and stunning truth:
The Golden State Warriors, for long stretches of time these playoffs, have been a pedestrian basketball team.
It has been shocking to watch. I never thought the Warriors were unbeatable. No team is unbeatable. It did not shock me in the least that Oklahoma City gave the Warriors a great series — when you have two transcendent players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook along with the indefatigable Steven Adams, you can scale the heights with any team.
But this series was not often about scaling the heights. Golden State was adrift for long spans of time in just about every game. Let’s just say it: The Warriors were kind of lousy. They would seemingly go entire quarters without grabbing a defensive rebound. They often played out of control, like someone driving just a little bit too fast into a turn They turned the ball over repeatedly with dumb hero passes and reckless drives. They couldn’t get to the free-throw line. They gave up easy basket after easy basket. They were dreadful in the paint. In the last two games, with their season on the line, they shot an almost-unbelievable 35 of 91 from inside the 3-point line. That’s 38 percent from INSIDE the 3-point line.
During these prolonged stretches of horror, it was hard to remember how this team won 73 games in the first place. How do you win 73 games when you can’t keep Steven Adams from getting every single offensive rebound? I mean, he’s a good player with a bright future, but come on. How do you win 73 games when your most versatile player, Draymond Green, is passing the ball to shadows and clanking shot after shot and seems constantly on the brink of turning green and turning into the Hulk?
How do you win 73 games when your unanimous MVP Steph Curry looks tentative, can’t seem to find any openings and won’t shoot the ball. Of course, much of the leaden way the Warriors have played comes back to Curry, who hurt his ankle AND his knee AND his elbow, who missed a bulk of the playoffs and seemed bruised and unsure when he did return. But this isn’t the whole story. After all, Curry did seem himself in the second half of Game 6, when the Warriors put on a stupendous comeback and forced Monday’s Game 7.
And then in Game 7, for the entire first half, yeah, the groggy, uninspiring Warriors were back, turning the ball over, getting beaten to every loose ball, playing just over the edge of control. If Oklahoma City had been on its game, the Thunder could have led by 20 at halftime. Instead, Oklahoma City had its own issues putting the ball in the basket, and the Warriors stayed relatively close. Golden State then played one inspired quarter, held on for another, and the series was over.
But the series opened up some captivating new ways to look at the NBA Finals, with the Warriors playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. All season long, it has been assumed that we would end up here — with the Warriors and Cavs facing off — and that the Warriors would win like they did last year (only easier). The teams played twice this year, and the Warriors won with relative ease at home and then annihilated the Cavs in Cleveland. Let’s be honest: Golden State seemed to be playing in a higher league. Even the most optimistic Cleveland fans seemed to understand that the Cavs would be a longshot in the Finals.
But then came this Oklahoma City series, and suddenly the Warriors look, well, more than just flawed. They look eminently beatable. I mean, if Adams can dominate the offensive boards, you would have to think Tristan Thompson can do that. If Durant and Westbrook can impose their will on that Warriors defense, you would have to think that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving can do that. If the Thunder, with its self-destructive tendency to play one-on-one ball when it matters most, can take Golden State to the brink, what can a Cleveland Cavaliers team with the ultimate team player in LeBron James do?
And then there’s this: Golden State won because of the 3-point shot. Period. In both Games 6 and 7 (and really, throughout the series), Oklahoma City was better in just about every way except for those 3-pointers.
Oklahoma City: 3 of 23 (13 percent), 9 points.
Golden State: 21 of 45 (47 percent), 63 points.
Oklahoma City: 7 of 27 (26 percent), 21 points.
Golden State: 17 of 37 (46 percent), 51 points.
That means the Warriors outscored the Thunder 114 to 30 on 3-point shots. Think about that for a minute. And then think about this: Golden State could have lost both games anyway. If Oklahoma City had shot even SLIGHTLY better from 3, it would have won.
Now, think about the Cleveland Cavaliers. They finished second to the Warriors in 3-point shots made during the season, and in the playoffs they have been extraordinary from 3-point range. With Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert all shooting 45 percent or better behind the line, and Channing Frye essentially NEVER missing three-pointers, this team has a real chance to hold its own with the Warriors from behind the arc.
So put all that together and you suddenly think: The Cavaliers have a real path to victory here.
I don’t think anyone could see that path just a month ago.
Of course, all of this assumes that the Warriors remain earthbound and do not start again playing the celestial basketball that they were playing for much of the season. When the Warriors were right, they played such fluid, dynamic, exuberant basketball that all the weaknesses that now seem so apparent — their lack of size, their defensive shortcomings, their high-risk, high-reward tendencies, their overwhelming dependency on 3-pointers — were beside the point. Oh, people knew about the weakness. They just didn’t matter. Golden State overwhelmed and exasperated and defeated teams with their energy, with their enthusiasm, with Steph Curry’s 35-foot jump shots, with Draymond Green’s pinpoint passes, with Klay Thompson’s hand-in-the-face swishes, with Andre Iguodala’s swipes at the ball, with Mo Speights filling up the basket.
Can they get that mojo back? Maybe. They definitely flashed it in the second half in both Games 6 and 7.
But maybe not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the winningest teams in the other three sports — the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2007, the 2001 Seattle Mariners and 1906 Chicago Cubs, who both won 116 games, the 62-win Detroit Red Wings of 1995-96 — all lost in the postseason. Stuff tends to happen in short series, and everything gets a little bit harder, and the magic that was so easily conjured up during the season doesn’t quite spark.
All of which is to say: The Warriors might win the NBA championship that everyone granted them back in December. But the Oklahoma City series proved the Warriors are beatable. Now, it will be interesting to see what LeBron and company can do with that information.