Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant (35) dunks against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half in Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
OAKLAND — Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 129-120 game five victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers — and 2017 Finals championship — Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) at Oracle Arena:
1. Bandwagon honesty is the best policy
Two dominant perspectives emerged in the immediate aftermath of Golden State’s title-clinching victory and Kevin Durant’s bucket-list box check-off.
The first was that anyone who didn’t get giddy over or bow to Durant getting his championship ring was a “hater” (what a feeble, non-thinking label that is) who somehow doesn’t understand or value the free market or Durant’s ability to choose his team last summer in free agency. You apparently believe in indentured servitude. You cannot tolerate excellence. In short, you despise fun.
The second view was that Durant, from the moment he made his decision in the Hamptons last July to play for the Warriors, was the guy hopping out of an Uber car at mile No. 25 of the Boston Marathon to sail past the leaders and cross the finish line with as much perspiration as scruples. He short-cut his way to sports’ greatest success by joining the rivals who weeks earlier had beaten him and his. He took the easy way out with a level of weaselry exceeding even LeBron James when he and his superstar pals congealed in Miami, and simply got the coolest prize in the store by buying up all the Crackerjack on the shelves.
The truth, as most often happens, lands somewhere in the middle. Durant did earn his ring with his dominant play in The Finals against the defending champion Cavaliers and LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world. He wasn’t just carried to this special basketball place, he did his share of carrying as well. He served as a healthy reminder to us all that, as much as we can control not just our individual actions and reactions but our circumstances, we should.
But Durant didn’t “sacrifice” in his move to Golden State — he agreed to a willful exchange, a transaction in which some self-aggrandizement as a player was swapped for more team achievement. Same as Warriors big man David West opting to play for a ring rather than the fattest paycheck he could command. However many shots Durant gave up, he needed to neither take nor make them. Same with the Golden State teammates who hemmed in their own games a bit, to have such an intra-conference threat come to their side.
From all reports and experiences, Durant is a solid, diligent guy (who occasionally has gotten oddly snide in media exchanges recently) who figured out how to get what he wanted and left Oklahoma City to do so. But pointing out that his championship lacks some of the stubborn purity of Isiah Thomas’ or Michael Jordan’s door- and head-knocking over years isn’t affixing any asterisks. Noting that it doesn’t pack the poignancy of old vets Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen finally winning with Boston in 2008 isn’t “hating.”
Durant could have gone to Toronto, Washington or Boston to lead a viable supporting cast to the pinnacle. He opted to join the only 73-victory team in NBA history. Then he scored 39 points in the Finals’ clincher, and his mighty team won by nine. That’s fact, nothing controversial about the conclusion.
2. Cleveland is closer than many think or LeBron might have felt
When Tyronn Lue began the night disputing the notion that his team had nothing to lose in game five, it seemed a distinction without a difference. The Cavaliers lost this Finals when they didn’t properly meet Golden State’s force in the series opener, then let slip a lead, at home, in the final minutes of game three. Down 3-0, the Cavs seemed already to have lost — none of the first 126 teams in NBA history to start a best-of-seven series with three losses ever clawed back to win.
But Lue ultimately was right. His team’s impressive trouncing of the Warriors in game four seemed to ignite something. When Cleveland jumped ahead early Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) and, later, scratched back within five points, the teams appeared to be more even than the 4-1 outcome suggests. The Cavaliers winning so many categories — shooting percentage, second-chance points, fast-break scoring and more — by the time the night was over reinforced that.
Even as the Finals played out, there were murmurs that the Cavaliers had to do something to keep up with Golden State next season and beyond. Even James sounded a little forlorn after running into the Warriors wall, reminding everyone after game five that he’s not the GM and that Golden State is “built to last a few years.”
Contracts, the salary cap and luxury taxes might limit Cleveland’s ability to improve by importing big-name talent. But individual development and a greater commitment to team defense do not have limits. Lue said the gap between the Cavs and the new champs isn’t all that wide, and Kyrie Irving sounded ready to close it ASAP. “They beat us,” the point guard said, “but I’m pretty sure we’ll be back and we’ll be ready to battle again.”
3. The Warriors are in the conversation but …
No, Golden State hasn’t proven it ranks as the best NBA team of all-time. The Warriors’ 16-1 run through the playoffs was mighty, but it wasn’t flawless, was it? They won 73 regular-season games … last year. Their first championship in 2015 came against an opponent missing its second- and third-best players. This time, they gave up Finals records for points in a quarter and in a half.
There still is some knitting to be down of the Warriors’ many accomplishments into a consistent, enduring whole. There is the possibility of a repeat, which most dynasties achieve once or twice over. There is context, gauging the quality of the competition against which Golden State went 16-1, especially the first 12-0. And there is coping with attrition, not just signing up great additions but surviving significant subtractions of talent and chemistry.
Taking on and defeating James’ undeniable greatness adds heft to the Warriors’ claims of same. But the league’s most revered teams did that sort of thing and more. Fans in the Bay Area and elsewhere should enjoy keeping company with the “Showtime” Lakers, the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era Bulls teams, the Duncan/Popovich Spurs, Bird’s Celtics, Russell’s Celtics and a few more to round out the argument. But Durant, Steph Curry and their pals aren’t alone at the top yet.
4. Oracle Arena is overdue
Overdue to be replaced, that is. The old barn was the site of a 45-5 record this season, counting the playoffs, and it’s had enough nips and tucks to merit its own reality show. But the arena, like the stadium to which its adjacent in the East Bay, is borderline obsolete. With crammed corridors and a dearth of creature comforts, it has been poorly retro-fitted to please the masters of Silicon Valley crowd and unworthy of the rabid fans who have kept it filled, creating an atmosphere that masks it worn-down character. You know something’s off when P. Diddy, under the watchful eye of a law officer and/or bodyguard, had to use the same bathroom facilities as the average Joe fans and, gasp, even some unwashed sportswriters. Hardly VIP-like.
The joint into which the Warriors will move in a couple years on the San Francisco side will be more in character with the team it will house, presumably still elite and capable of more titles. The ticket prices probably will double, the decibel levels might drop if some leather-lunged long-timers don’t make the trek over from Oakland but the digs will be more appropriate — and generate the level of cash flow needed to perpetuate the on-court performances.
5. “Warriors-Cavaliers IV” is up to the other 28
No sooner had the confetti fallen Monday night than word came out of Las Vegas that Golden State would open the 2017-18 NBA season as the overwhelming favorite to win another Larry O’Brien trophy next June. The Cavaliers will be huge favorites to face them out of the East, which means we’ll all be on our third round of déjà vu in about 50 weeks.
Where does it end? Well, the TV ratings for The Finals suggest that it never needs to. So do the streaming numbers, which are becoming an increasingly popular method of viewing. Even as the Warriors and the Cavaliers minimized their exposures through the first three rounds and left the playoff entertainment to the likes of the Celtics, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets, the presence of powerhouses didn’t appear to translate into distaste for the product overall.
(By the way, James seems hung up on claiming he’s never been part of any “super team.” But he’s wrong about his Miami project — all four years, kicking the Celtics’ Big Three to a new level — and he’s wrong about his current Cavs. Multiple superstars on one roster are supposed to 1. dominate and 2. make role players better. That’s how it works for the Warriors and that’s how it works for the Cavs, same as it did the Heat.)
Some defenders of the current system — a Big Two, a Next Three or Four and the other 24 or 25 — consider “parity” to be an enforced mediocrity. Others pretend that trying harder, or just embracing the Warriors’ style of play without the Warriors’ cornered market on proper talent for it, can do the trick.
A generation of players, as well as their coaches and front offices, are on the Warriors’ and the Cavaliers’ clock. As Celtics’ boss Danny Ainge recently told ESPN.com: “I like having targets in Cleveland and Golden State. I like trying to meet their standards. It might not happen in a year. It might not happen in five years. With them, it might never happen. That’s how special they are.”
Even if none of the current chasers, from Toronto to San Antonio, from Washington to Los Angeles, is able to run them down, it would be nice if some relatively minor tweaks — a wider floor, perhaps, and a deeper three-point arc that isn’t clipped in the corners — could narrow the performance gaps.
Then again, it might take something more drastic. Say, the abolition of maximum salaries, so that superstars — of which barely a dozen can shift a franchise’s fortunes — don’t team up the way they do now. And if Durant or James was making $90 million on a $100 million cap, the best role players would scurry elsewhere, too, to seek their paydays first, their rings second.
Until then, we might be headed toward a best-of-five Warriors-Cavaliers. Or the ultimate: a best-of-seven in best-of-sevens.
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