Mournful songs are being sung all over the Bay Area this morning. Perhaps not as mournful as the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”–after all, nobody died from losing last night’s game–but nevertheless laments are in order, because the Golden State Warriors’ ship most certainly went down, its hull shattered after it crashed upon the rock that is LeBron James.
Bye bye Dubs: Stephen Curry walks off in defeat
Once the tears have dried, thoughts will likely turn to wondering how the Warriors lost a championship that they had sewn up.
And make no mistake: the Dubs had that championship won after their Game 4 win and 3-1 lead. There’s a reason no team had ever come back from that deficit in the Finals before. It wasn’t just that none of the previous teams had a player of the caliber of James at their disposal; it was also because teams that take a two game lead with three to play in the Finals are grab that lead because they are so good, championship caliber good. How can such a team not close the deal?
In the case of the Warriors, that question will likely boil down to one simple either/or: did Golden State break down physically, or mentally?
There’s a certain poetic symmetry to the suggestion that the Warriors lost because they broke down physically. They were accused throughout most of the past year of having won last year’s title because of the injuries suffered by other teams. One might expect that the Warriors, having been bitten themselves by the injury bug, could use that as an excuse for dropping this season’s Finals.
To be sure, there were injuries, and some are already pointing towards that as an excuse. Andrew Bogut was lost for the last two games; Andre Iguodala had back problems during those same two games; and people are still wondering if Curry ever really recovered from his injuries from earlier in the playoffs. And who knows what other bumps, bangs, and bruises the other players have–hurts that, in true playoff fashion, have remained unacknowledged so as not to give the other team an advantage, or a target.
“One game away from back-to-back championships, the Dubs were tricked and tooled and discombobulated all the way out the door and into defeat.”
But the Warriors themselves are unlikely to accept any such excuse; they rejected every suggestion that their championship was in any way tainted, and it would be an act of colossal hypocrisy to tar another team’s win in that way.
Besides, such a claim simply won’t stand up to scrutiny. Bogut’s absence certainly hurt them around the rim, but the Warriors have been lauded all year for their vaunted depth; after their starting center was injured, however, his backups did not step up to any measurable extent. (Festus Ezeli, in particular, was a disaster in Game 7.)
As for Iguodala, he did look like an old man in Game 6, gimping around for much of his time on the court, but that didn’t create last Thursday’s blowout loss. The Cavaliers steamrolled them because of their good play and the Warriors’ awful play. Period, full stop. No injuries required.
And Curry? Right now, the biggest bruise on him is from the damage to his ego, and possibly his reputation. Not only was he outplayed in the Finals by James, the other perennial MVP candidate; Curry was also outplayed by Kyrie Irving, who drubbed him in every phase of the game. Irving stuck at least as many big three-pointers as Curry, and he never made any ridiculous, behind-the-back pass turnovers in any of the Finals games. The beating Irving placed on Curry was so bad, it may have reversed everything Curry did these last two years to erase the doubts that had previously hung over him. If nothing else, the door is now wide open as to whether Curry or Irving should be considered the Association’s premier point guard.
But wait, sports fans: it gets worse. Because the single biggest piece of evidence that demonstrates that Golden State’s breakdown was mental rather than physical was the fact that Cleveland beat them not simply through James’s amazing athletic prowess, but also through superior strategy.
Simply put, Tyronn Lue outcoached Steve Kerr.
You would have gotten good, long odds in January, February, or March that anyone would be writing that sentence in June, but the conclusion is inescapable. From Game 5 onward, the Cavs had the Warriors offense largely solved, and Kerr and his staff simply could not make an adjustment that could break his team out of the stranglehold Cleveland had on them.
Not only that, but in those last three games the Cavaliers had two players, James and Irving–and arguably three, if you want to throw Tristan Thompson in there–who knew they could do whatever they wanted on the offensive end, and Golden State simply could not stop them. Kerr never found the body to place on Thompson that could stop his ferocious offensive rebounding. Irving drove the lane or hoisted up from behind the arc largely with impunity. And James used his otherworldly abilities with Olympian force, wherever and whenever he wanted. (That’s Olympian as in ancient Greek god, not impending Brazilian disaster.)
LeBron James: a basketball Hercules
So Lue made adjustments, and Kerr couldn’t. Or if Kerr did make those adjustments, his team did not properly implement them, getting flustered and frustrated and taken out of their game.
Or, if you prefer the “Lue as figurehead” storyline, Kerr was outcoached by James–which is in some ways even worse.
All of this points not to a physical breakdown by the Warriors, but a mental breakdown. One game away from back-to-back championships, the Dubs were tricked and tooled and discombobulated all the way out the door and into defeat.
And now, the ship has sunk, and everything is up in the air. Or, rather, floating in the lake in pieces–just flotsam now. No matter what, the Warriors will never get that “greatest team ever” seal of approval after this performance. Their 73 wins will forever be a fact, but also an uncertainty at the same time. Did it really mean what we thought it meant? Who knows?
If the Warriors retool and come back and win it all next year–I’m not ready to dismiss that possibility, even in the face of such an historic defeat–then validation will come back, and this year’s result will be chalked up to one herculean effort by the guy who’s probably the greatest player ever. But other challengers remain, and if the Dubs just slip back into the pack, a la the Thunder or the Mavericks before them, then the Warriors will wind up being just like those teams: a squad that briefly challenged, or even got one over on, LeBron once–but ultimately just faded back into being just another team.