Golden State Warriors players, coaches and owners hold up the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won 129-120 to win the NBA championship. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
From the start of the 2016-17 NBA season until the very end, two players and two teams created the most intrigue and raised a pair of reasonable questions: Can Kevin Durant return his newly-joined team, the Golden State Warriors, to championship glory? And what can LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers do for an encore?
While those scores wouldn’t be settled until June, the NBA regular season was consumed by a historic MVP race, the rise of the Washington Wizards, some breakout young stars and a major trade at the deadline involving an All-Star big man.
After Durant left Oklahoma City and signed with the Warriors as a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Thunder belonged to Russell Westbrook in more ways than one. How about: three? Westbrook became only the second player, and the first since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, to average a triple-double for the season (31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists). As a solo star in the heartland, Westbrook lifted the Thunder to 47 wins and the sixth-seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and set a high standard of excellence nightly. Three times while notching triple-doubles, he scored 50 points or more.
His constant companion in the MVP race was James Harden. Bolstered by a switch to point guard and the arrival of an offensive guru of a coach in Mike D’Antoni, Harden was the centerpiece of a Houston team that won 55 games and shot three-pointers at a rapid rate. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds, all career-highs.
The Rockets set an NBA record by hitting at least 10 three-pointers in 17 straight games. Against the Pelicans they took 61 shots and made 24, both single-game records.
The league saw a shakeup in February when DeMarcus Cousins was shipped from the Sacramento Kings to New Orleans Pelicans. Rarely does a center with his credentials change addresses, but a change of scenery happened when Cousins left a franchise that he never led to the playoffs in his six years to join Anthony Davis, who scored a record 52 points in the All-Star Game. The trade was done to merge a pair of elite big men and put a foundation in place for the future.
Meanwhile, other developing players enhanced their profiles and reputations. Gordon Hayward returned the Jazz to the post-season, along with 51 wins, with continued improvement as a scorer and leader. DeMar DeRozan hiked his scoring average to 27.3, almost four full points from his previous season, and gave the Toronto Raptors a bonafide scoring guard. In Boston, Isaiah Thomas did one better by averaging 28.9 points, almost seven higher than last season, in what was easily the best scoring performance by a player under six feet in league history.
Also, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s average did go seven points higher at 22.9 when he showed massive improvement in his mid-range shooting and shot-creating. He added 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists by playing multiple positions on the floor for the Milwaukee Bucks.
One of the most improved teams was the Wizards, who finally flourished after mostly healthy seasons from their star backcourt. John Wall and Bradley Beal missed only nine games combined and averaged 46 points. Wall cemented himself as one of the league’s better point guards by adding 10.7 assists and two steals. The Wizards had a losing record on Jan. 18, but two months later were 17 games over .500 and on their way.
But the biggest in-season leap was performed by the Miami Heat. They were 11-30 in mid-January and an afterthought, but by late spring found themselves in playoff contention, helped by a 13-game winning streak. And they managed to pull this off without an All-Star in the lineup.
Only two playoff series went the seven-game limit (Celtics vs. Wizards, Jazz-Clippers), with the Clippers once again feeling the misfortune of losing a star player in the process. Blake Griffin pulled up lame in the Utah series; a year ago, both he and Chris Paul missed time in the spring. Also, Kawhi Leonard suffered a series-ending foot injury in the West finals, where the Spurs were swept.
The season belonged to the Cavs and Warriors, however. The Cavs finished runner-up in the East behind Boston for best-record, then accelerated through the post-season as expected, losing only once. James had another massive season and received helped from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who had his best effort since joining the Cavs two years earlier.
Durant instantly made the Warriors a strong favorite in the West, and the Warriors clinched the top seed and ran the table in the playoffs, despite losing coach Steve Kerr for almost two months due to illness. Therefore, the Warriors and Cavs met or the third straight time in the NBA Finals, each winning once. This time, there would be no circumstances that would affect the outcome, such as injuries to Irving and Love in 2015, and a one-game suspension to Draymond Green in 2016.
And the Warriors’ surge continued. They lost only once in the series and withstood perhaps the best performance in Finals history from James, who averaged a triple double, becoming the first to do so.
Durant scored 30 or more points in every game and was named series MVP. He avenged a loss to James in the 2011 Finals while with OKC. Stephen Curry also performed well and was healthy for a change; he struggled with injuries for the final three games of the 2016 Finals. Also, Kerr returned to the bench for the Finals and remained there for the duration.
It was two championships in three years for the Warriors, who also set records for most wins in a regular season and post-season in the process. This stretch of dominance alone gave the Warriors their own era, yet with Durant on board, it’s an era that may not have run its course yet.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Chicago (4-2)
Cleveland defeated Indiana (4-0)
Toronto defeated Milwaukee (4-2)
Washington defeated Atlanta (4-2)
Western Conference first round
Golden State defeated Portland (4-0)
San Antonio defeated Memphis (4-2)
Houston defeated Oklahoma City (4-1)
Utah defeated L.A. Clippers (4-3)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Washington (4-3)
Cleveland defeated Toronto (4-0)
Western Conference semifinals
Golden State defeated Utah (4-0)
San Antonio defeated Houston (4-2)
Eastern Conference finals
Cleveland defeated Boston (4-1)
Western Conference finals
Golden State defeated San Antonio (4-0)
Golden State defeated Cleveland (4-1)
PPG — Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (31.6)
FG% — DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (.714)
FT% — CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers (.912)
3PT% — Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks/Cleveland Cavaliers (.451)
Assists — James Harden, Houston Rockets (11.2)
Rebounds — Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat (14.1)
Steals — Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; John Wall, Washington Wizards (2.0)
Blocks — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (2.6)
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