CLEVELAND -- The run was the thing. The Golden State Warriors always had a run in them, unleashing a burst of scoring and defense at any moment and taking an ordinary contest and blasting it into the stratosphere. They were never out of any game and with a lead they were virtually unbeatable. They didn't lose a single game this season in which they'd taken a 15-point lead and while it took a while to get there, they weren't about to lose this one either.
In Game 6 of the NBA Finals the run came late, as they often did during this series. The Cavaliers hung in there for as long as they could. Playing that familiar grinding style but trailing by double digits early in the fourth quarter, they finally made their move. LeBron James made a steal and flew down the court for a dunk, cutting the lead to seven. A series and a season hung in the balance.
There was Stephen Curry knocking down a three. The Cavs answered, but there was Andre Iguodala hitting another one. The Cavs responded, but there was Curry again. And Iguodala again. And finally, Klay Thompson. In a frantic four minutes of action, the Warriors scored 17 points and held on through a ragged conclusion to claim their first title in 40 years with a 105-97 victory.
In the modern history of the NBA we have never seen a champion like these Golden State Warriors. They are a perimeter team whose best player is a 6' scoring guard with a gunner's lack of conscience and brilliant touch. They are a position-less entity with an host of mid-size wraiths capable of defending anyone on the court and switching assignments with ease. They are a triumph of skill, versatility and tactics. Theirs is a relatively easy model to copy, yet one incredibly difficult to duplicate.
What truly separates the Warriors from any team that has come before it is the lack of a post-up option. There is no Tim Duncan on the left block to throw it to when times get tough and the pace grinds to a halt. In fact, they are at their best without anyone down low clogging the paint. The trade-off is a lack of a rim protector on defense, but it's a bargain the Warriors were uniquely equipped to make. They forced other teams to bend to their vision.
Golden State's Title
The Warriors are a special NBA champion
Instead of wondering if the Warriors are worthy champions, we should be appreciating just how unique their rise has been.
Golden State's Title
We have seen the future of basketball and it is a glorious mixture of skill, speed and shooting. No one can ever say with a straight face that a "jump shooting team" can't win the championship, but the Warriors were so much more. They won 67 regular season games playing the best offense and defense in the league and sped through the rugged Western Conference dropping only three postseason contests en route to the Finals.
"When you get that combination, then you're going to be pretty good," Steve Kerr said. "Whether you're shooting threes or twos, it's about the balance. To win a title you have to be able to make stops. Our team, because of our depth and our talent, we were able to do that and it turned into a special season as a result."
For three games the Cleveland Cavaliers took the measure of the Warriors and forced them to play a very different game. In Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs had two large interior players who pounded the glass and controlled the tempo. Few teams crash the boards anymore and that presented an element of the unknown to these Finals. How would the undersized Warriors matchup with such size and ferocity inside?
Rather than meet the Cleveland challenge with more brute force, the Warriors doubled down on what made them so great and transitioned from a four-out team to a five-out entity. It was smallball to an extreme and in trading height for space, they opened up the court and unlocked the pace riddle that had plagued them through the first three games.
This was a series of strategic adjustments, that hoary catch-all question that dominates off-day talk. Most adjustments are of the subtle variety and involve small tweaks to existing coverages and tactics. The Warriors blew all that up when they inserted Iguodala into the starting lineup. When they were crushed on the boards in Game 4, they switched things up again in Game 5, running double teams at Mozgov and taking him out of the game, literally.
This was a triumph of coaching and in Ron Adams, Alvin Gentry and a host of other smart advisors, Kerr had an awesome array of basketball minds working alongside him. That Kerr had the nerve to make these changes speaks to his greatest sideline strength.
The Cavs stayed big in Game 6, and as in previous contests, they gamely hung around long enough to make things interesting. But they were out of options, limited as they were, without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It was a massive accomplishment merely to get this far, but they didn't have nearly enough to get past Golden State.
The key to this was Iguodala, who replaced rugged center Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup. It was, as Kerr said, coming full circle for Iguodala who was turned into a sixth man to allow Harrison Barnes an opportunity to start and Draymond Green a chance to flourish. After years of being miscast as a leading man in Philadelphia, Iguodala found his home in Golden State as a vital cog in a more complete machine and in this series he found his calling en route to an unlikely Finals Most Valuable Player award. That Iguodala didn't start a single game until Game 4 of the Finals speaks to Golden State's remarkable depth.
"Andre is the guy that we all look to when things are going bad," Green said. "Whether it was him taking a back seat and letting Harrison start and not mumbling a word about (Kerr's) decision all year. And then coming in, he was great the entire series. Not just when he started starting. He was great for the entire series, but he saved the season for us."
Iguodala is one of the few players in the world capable of guarding LeBron James and making things hard on him. The key to beating James is the willingness to play him straight-up as much as possible, which helps negate his otherworldly passing ability. Guarding James is as much mental as it is physical, and it goes without saying that it takes a heavy toll physically. You have to be strong enough to keep him from attacking the basket and also mentally willing to concede jumpers, knowing full well that they may go down and lead to astronomical stat lines.
"The mental challenge is (that) you're not going to give up no matter what," Iguodala said earlier in the series. "You might feel some fatigue. I felt like there were some moments when he got the best of me on a low block, made some tough shots. But mentally you've got to say you're going to get a stop every opportunity you get, and you've got to keep just grinding it out."
No one can beat James by simply playing on one end of the floor. Iguodala made enough jumpers and got out in transition to balance the effects of James' stat line. The Warriors were led by Curry, the league's regular season MVP, who averaged better than 28 points and six assists. But they won the title with their depth and versatility. Iguodala, Green and Barnes outperformed Cleveland's role players by a substantial margin, and in the closing game they scored 50 points while Green notched a triple double.
Let's be real about something. The Cavaliers aren't even remotely close to this position without LeBron James. Replace James with any other superstar in the league and the Cavs are a good, but not great team. Ask yourself this: Would the Cavs have made it this far with James Harden or Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook? The two possible responses to the hypothetical are Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, but KD was injured and AD isn't quite ready to carry the burden yet.
Only LeBron was capable of controlling the pace and dictating terms both with his bullying post game and brilliant passing. This was a validation of not only his skill, but also his conditioning. He played an ungodly amount of minutes and only seemed to tire once, at the end of Game 4. He wasn't at his best in Game 6 and he still notched 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. From start to finish of these Finals, it was a magnificent performance from the game's best player.
What's fascinating is that there is still a fairly large disconnect between how James is viewed throughout the league and the public at large. People revel in Kobe Bryant's F.U. arrogance but recoil at LeBron calling himself the best player in the world, which he is without question. They marvel at Michael Jordan's vindictive ruthlessness, while bashing LeBron for orchestrating control over his life and career.
The basketball media, by and large, understands and appreciates not only LeBron's game but also the way in which he has conducted his business. He has set a template for modern players to not be beholden to the franchises that draft or sign them. That other players have followed his lead is one of the indelible marks that he has made on the game. He chose this path despite overwhelming negativity and scrutiny. You can say what you want, but the man is at peace with all of his professional decisions.
He came to the Cavs with the promise of building a champion eventually and fell two games short in his first attempt. That he did it with this cast was unthinkable. That he came this close was one of his finest moments.
LeBron is now 2-4 in Finals appearances and there are perfectly good and valid reasons why the mark isn't better. Not even his most ardent detractors can seriously hold the 2007 Finals against him when he and his overmatched teammates were swept by the Spurs. Nor can anyone realistically blame him for the 2014 loss to San Antonio when the Heat were depleted by injuries, especially when they beat the Spurs in seven games the previous year at full strength. Only a fool would consider this run a failure.
The one blinking red light on his Finals ledger was the 2011 loss to the Mavericks, which will stay with him forever. That was a colossal letdown and in the context of three straight previous playoff disappointments it is absolutely right and fair to count that as an unmitigated disaster on his resumé. He atoned for that loss with two straight championships. If that isn't enough, it never will be and isn't worth the breath it takes to argue the point.
LeBron's place in the pantheon of the game's all-time greats will be debated from now until he stops playing. His streak of Finals' appearances now stands at five and even in defeat, this may have been his ultimate moment. The Cavs' roster was decimated, forcing James to log an unprecedented usage rate. He will be criticized in some quarters because that's how we are in this day and age, but his Finals performance will age far better than his detractors.
As much as the Finals revolved around LeBron, they were also about the paradigm shift that has overtaken the NBA in recent seasons. Teams are no longer content to pound the ball into the post and play a halfcourt game. The new keywords are pace, space and versatility. The Warriors had all three throughout their roster. It's a testament to general manager Bob Myers and the Golden State collective that assembled this team that they captured the zeitgeist at exactly the right moment.
At times, this season felt like transitional period in the league's history as LeBron changed teams and franchises geared up for a massive influx of salary cap money thanks to a rich new broadcast deal that kicks in after next season. Maybe this was actually a transformational moment whose effects will be felt for years to come. The league is getting sleeker and faster with an emphasis on skill and shooting. The Warriors were ahead of the curve but they're not the only ones playing this style.
They were the best, however, and by a large margin. Emphatically and decisively, the 2014-15 season belonged to the Golden State Warriors from start to finish.
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