CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors’ celebration went so long into the night after they finished off the N.B.A. finals that team officials had to delay their flight home by three hours, pushing it from a Saturday-morning departure to the afternoon.
Their on-court reaction to a third championship in four years might have struck some as a bit restrained, but there would be no holding back at the after-party. Not after the Warriors had made it look so easy at the end, draining all the suspense out of the situation with a sweep-sealing rout of LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers that tied a finals record for margin of victory in a road game.
Golden State’s 108-85 cruise in Game 4 to clinch a second consecutive title almost made you forget how close this team came to becoming the reincarnation of the San Antonio squad that won championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007, which was better known as the Odd Year Spurs.
Those Spurs couldn’t win two titles in a row and, as such, were never quite labeled a dynasty. These Warriors came close to a similar fate by falling into a three-games-to-two hole against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals before overcoming a 17-point deficit in Game 6 and a 15-point deficit on Houston’s floor in Game 7.
Joe Lacob, the Warriors’ majority owner, will always remember.
“You can’t be human and sit there and be down big at halftime in Game 6 and Game 7 and not be nervous,” Lacob said in the early moments of Saturday morning as he headed for the loading dock at Quicken Loans Arena, having partaken only briefly in the Warriors’ champagne-drenched revelry in the visitors’ locker room.
“I was definitely very nervous. We’d never done that before — Game 7 on the road.”
The Warriors, of course, survived their very serious Houston problems and ultimately overwhelmed the Cavaliers, as many expected, to launch the dynasty debates in earnest. They easily could have lost Game 1 and Game 3 to the undermanned Cavaliers in these finals, too, but history tends to gloss over those sorts of details as time passes.
The Warriors have thus crept closer to the “light-years ahead” status Lacob prematurely proclaimed in an infamous March 2016 interview with The New York Times Magazine. But that’s not the bad news for the rest of the N.B.A.
The real worry for the rest of the league is that Lacob, sounding rather Steinbrenner-esque, does not seem satiated.
“Steve, Bob, all of our players — these guys should take a little break,” Lacob said, referring to his coach, Steve Kerr, and his general manager, Bob Myers. “But there’s no rest for me.”
That’s because, for all the talk that the Warriors ruined the N.B.A. by signing Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in July 2016, Lacob also remembers how the rest of the league reacted to the Warriors’ first title with Durant.
The off-season that followed in 2017 was perhaps the league’s wildest ever. A quick recap: Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving all changed teams. “Houston got better,” Lacob said. “Boston’s always getting better. Philadelphia’s getting better.”
The small clutch of worthy challengers in this league, at the very least, refuses to surrender anything to Golden State. So the Warriors fully expect another active July (and August) to come, fueled by the widespread belief that James is preparing to leave his home-state Cavaliers in hopes of assembling another constellation of ring-hungry stars — just like he did in Miami.
Let’s not forget that it was James, in concert with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley, who established the superteam template before the Warriors dared to dream of mimicking it.
It must be pointed out, though, that Golden State has quite possibly already won the off-season no matter what James or other Warriors-obsessed rivals might do. En route to his second successive performance as the most valuable player in the finals, Durant made multiple proclamations to the news media that he intends to re-sign with the Warriors this summer.
Lacob is intent on signing Kerr, who has one season left on his deal with the team, to a contract extension as soon as possible. Extension offers to Durant’s and Stephen Curry’s fellow All-Stars, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, are likewise forthcoming, according to Lacob.
It’s also a given that the Warriors will overhaul their bench after it fell so short of expectations. In addition to holding the 28th overall pick in the first round of the N.B.A. draft later this month, Lacob admitted that he was already fantasizing about the second-round pick he could well choose to buy in a repeat of last June’s $3.5 million purchase of the Chicago pick that became the prized rookie Jordan Bell.
Even a team that starts Durant, Curry, Green and Thompson needs a reliable bench, as Golden State so quickly learned when all four of its main men suffered through regular-season injury woes.
“It wasn’t perfect this year,” Myers said. “And the N.B.A. doesn’t stop coming for you. It won’t stop now.”
The Warriors understand that they will never engender sympathy because of their extravagant roster, but they are likewise not gullible enough to listen to those who paint them as invulnerable. The daily mental toll of being constantly chased is their kryptonite. Fickle focus, complacency, boredom — take your pick: All of it applied at various points over the past 10 months.
This group looked tired as far back as October, when the Warriors returned from a grueling preseason trip to China and — in a foreshadowing of the grind ahead — squandered a 17-point lead at home to Houston on the night they received their 2017 championship rings. Multiple Warriors staff members insisted to me, before and after closing out the Cavaliers in Game 4 on Friday night, that nothing had galvanized Golden State’s players in terms of effort more than the opportunity to put Cleveland away and leave this season behind on the earlier-than-usual date of June 8.
Calling Year 1 with Durant “our honeymoon,” Myers added: “This is marriage now. Last year was a blissful kind of thing — everybody just kind of coming together and kind of riding a wave of Kevin coming aboard and trying to redeem the loss of the championship before. This was a different challenge. This was more about, ‘How do we come together to do this again without the newness?’”
I’m not so sure it was ever as rocky as the veteran forward David West tried to suggest in Friday night’s aftermath, when he told reporters that “y’all got no clue” about the internal strife that the Warriors faced earlier in the season. One theory suggested to me Saturday — for what it’s worth — is that West and other Warriors who made similar comments were toying with their audience for sport to see what kind of frenzy they could whip up.
But the Warriors’ many injuries and their disenchantment with their 82-game regular-season obligations were real. Kerr’s health challenges — which he hates to discuss but are hard to miss when TV clips show him sitting down during pregame and halftime addresses — are even more real.
The Warriors also might never admit it publicly, but they were concerned at various points of the season, especially when they were shoved to the brink of elimination by the Rockets, that re-signing Durant was far from the foregone conclusion it looks to be now.
The Warriors’ world, in short, is not the impenetrable paradise that so many of us (including yours truly) have at times portrayed it to be. They have plenty of drama-filled days, just like everyone else. Maybe this is the better description: Golden State has built the closest thing to a basketball utopia that any team can reasonably expect in the N.B.A.’s social media age.
Which is arguably the most impressive thing these guys have achieved — so far.
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