Last week, before Game 6 of the NBA Finals, I had a vivid dream. The kind that, though absurd, felt so intensely real. The dream took place in Game 7, which the Cavs had forced despite losing a majority of their players to (unspecified) injury in Game 6. Since the Cavs couldn’t field a full lineup due to those injuries, the league allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to play Game 7 on behalf of Cleveland. And the Thunder were kicking Golden State’s ass. That’s when I woke up.
Subconsciously, I think I had recognized that the Cavs found the formula the Thunder briefly uncovered in the Western Conference Finals and that spelled doom for the Warriors. The bully ball of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka that imposed its will on the defending champs was now being played by LeBron James and Tristan Thompson. The swagger of Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook that shook Golden State’s famous confidence, brought to you by James, JR Smith and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. The otherworldly performance by a transcendent player, in Kevin Durant, was being surpassed by James. OKC would fumble it away, this elusive Warriors kryptonite, but the Cavs wouldn’t. In my dream, the Thunder were allowed another try to come back from the abyss and finish off the Warriors. In real life, it turned out, Cleveland’s transcendent superhero only needed one chance.
Stephen Curry and the Warriors, meanwhile, learned how cruel the NBA Finals can be, and also how quickly the cheerleaders morph into vultures. LeBron is all too familiar with those cruelties. Cleveland’s Game 7 victory and come-from-behind series win will rightfully be remembered as the King’s coronation, the final level of his redemption tour. We all remember when The Chosen One, the child prodigy, the next Jordan became a selfish, presumptive, entitled brat in the eyes of many overnight in the summer of 2010 with the ‘Decision.’ For the first time in LeBron’s life, he was the villain, a role he embraced more as a coping mechanism than a fundamental identity. His Heat team would win two titles, but lose two others as the stain on his legacy seemed to be written in permanent ink.
It wasn’t long ago that the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA. Remember when Draymond Green was the scrappy second-round pick, passed over due to his lack of size and ironically now using that unique body to anchor the best lineup we’ve ever seen? After two months of playoffs he’s a nut-punching pariah, heir to the throne of professional heels Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Remember the Baby-Faced Assassin, whose proficiency from long range was overshadowed only by his affability and boyish charm? Now in the eyes of many, Curry is a fraud. How dare you fool us into believing you were the best player in the world? LeBron reclaimed that title, while denying Steph his repeat championship and crushing the MVP’s pride with blocked shot after blocked shot:
How quickly the script gets flipped. In this zero-sum game, the prodigal King and his band of underdogs from the sad sack sports town of Cleveland reach the peak of the NBA mountain while the greatest regular season team of all time gets tossed down the stairs, everything they stand for repeatedly kicked on the way down. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some secret rendezvous last night, where the likes of Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, Scottie Pippen and Oscar Robertson toasted to the death of the Warriors’ brand of basketball.
At one point it seemed Golden State had found the cheat code to the NBA, quickly skipping all the steps it is assumed must be taken before becoming elite. Michael Jordan took his lumps from the Pistons, who had to overcome the Celtics and Lakers before being crowned. The Warriors’ rapid success under Steve Kerr helped sour many who never snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy (ahem, Barkley). Golden State won the title last year without ever tasting the pain of being so close, yet so far away. The Warriors now have their “almost” moment. As Curry said afterward, that pain will stick with them for a long, long time. It will be fascinating to see how they respond next season, and also whether the grumpy commentariat suddenly show them some respect now that they’ve been humbled.
No doubt the Warriors made mistakes. It seems they took the Cavs lightly after jumping out to 2-0 and 3-1 series leads. Green’s suspension likely cost them Game 5. Kerr’s knack for playing too many guys came back to bite him, as Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli were given atrocious Game 7 minutes. Both Ezeli and Harrison Barnes cratered their earning potential this offseason by no-showing through most of the Finals. Curry was never the same after slipping on Donatas Motiejunas’ sweat puddle in the Houston series. Steph’s balky knee is not an excuse, it’s a plain fact. He was noticeably slower with the ball in his hands, lacked quickness on defense and struggled to gain his usual separation behind the 3-point line. Be it hubris, injury, poor clutch play or loss of composure, there is plenty of blame to go around in Oakland. They had the better team, which almost always means victory in a seven-game series in the NBA.
But in the end, this was all about LeBron. He led all players in the series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He followed up two straight 41-point elimination game outings with a triple-double in Game 7. Multiple times during the last three games I exclaimed to whoever I was with, “He’s EVERYWHERE.” The chase-down blocks will live on in NBA promotional footage for decades, but the consistent rim protection even in the half court had the once-cocky Warriors afraid to attempt a layup. He went home to Cleveland, heavily influenced the makeup of the team and made himself responsible for whatever ended up happening on the court. When the Cavs’ season looked to be destined for another Cleveland ending, James played the best basketball of his life, beating the Warriors twice in Oracle Arena and handing them their first three-game losing streak of the entire season. His partner Kyrie’s step-back three over Curry in a “How does your medicine taste?” move was the cherry on top.
LeBron showed his teammates and the city of Cleveland it’s OK to believe in dreams.
For the Warriors, who matched their regular season loss total (9) in the playoffs, the nightmare endures.