OAKLAND, Calif. – They ended it where it ended for them a year ago.
On the same floor and in front of the same crowd where LeBron James cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy in tears, his sobs almost audible in front of a 20,000-person funeral.
But this edition of the Golden State Warriors – new and improved, which is saying something – would not be denied their celebration. On the floor in front of their fans who hadn’t seen an Oakland-based team win at home since 1974.
In their dressing room draped in plastic, where magnums lay like so many sacrifices to a greater cause and the cigar smoke was thick.
“I had a couple too many beers,” said Kevin Durant, tasked with trying to explaining how great great really is. “I haven’t had a beer since February.”
He can have a few more. He can circle the middle of June on his calendar for some years to come. Win, celebrate, repeat.
The Warriors that were undressed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 at Oracle Arena are gone. They exorcised their demons, and rinsed a bad taste that had lingered for 12 long months out with the best antiseptic of all – sweet, cold champagne, extra fizzy; and beers, too.
They were helped over the finish line by the man who was brought to the Bay Area for this very purpose.
Durant became a Warrior as the best player in the NBA without a title. He finished his first season being recognized as quite possibly the best player in the NBA as he closed Game 5 to earn his first ring one ruthless, calculated play after another.
“He’s had an amazing career, but he just took it to the next level,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “He was incredible all season long. He had an amazing series, just dominated.
“Everybody for the last 10 years knew how good he was, but until you break through and win that first championship, there is still – there’s always still something there. I’m just so happy Kevin has broken through, and there’s more to come from him.”
In a series marked by offensive explosions, Durant put his signature on it with 39 points in the Warriors’ 129-120 win. It was his own peak as he topped the 30-point mark in all five games. He was the obvious Finals MVP as he won his first title at age 28 while averaging 35.2 points per game on 55.6 per cent shooting and 47.4 from three, while grabbing 8.4 rebounds and handing out 5.4 assists. He blocked 1.6 shots a game too.
It’s to the Cavaliers’ credit that the Warriors needed almost everything Durant could provide. In a series that was closer than the five games would suggest – the Cavaliers recovered strongly after being blown away in Oakland in Games 1 and 2 – Durant was the difference, which was no surprise.
“They assembled a great team,” said LeBron James, who became the first person in Finals history to average a triple double – 33.6 points a game to go along with 12 rebounds and 10 assists while shooting 56 per cent from the floor. “We were able to get them last year and they went out and got one of the best players that this league has ever seen … and obviously it paid dividends.”
In Game 5 the Durant dividend paid off twice.
The game was lit by a fuse and briefly there was at least the suggestion that the Cavs might blow away the Warriors on their home court and put the pressure squarely on Golden State.
Then they would have faced the burden of trying not be the first team in NBA playoff history to blow a 3-0 lead a year after becoming the first team in Finals history to blow a 3-1 lead.
Durant wasn’t having it. After falling behind 41-33 early in the second quarter – a lead built by James’ force and the able contributions from the likes of Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith – Durant scored 11 points in a 27-4 second-quarter run that saw Golden State open up a 17-point first half lead at one point.
The Warriors caught one break when Durant avoiding picking up his third foul early in the second quarter after hitting James in the face defending a fast-break dunk, and after they were off and running.
The Cavaliers did keep one hand on the rope even as it was burning through their hands. Early in the fourth quarter they had pulled back within three.
James was typically brilliant but this time he got help from Smith, who made seven-of-eight threes for 25 points and Thompson, who had 15 points on eight shots. Kyrie Irving had 26, although he wasn’t quite at the level he’d been at in Games 1-4.
But it didn’t matter. Once more Durant was his clinical self, scoring from different distances all over the floor and teaming in a pick-and-roll combination with Stephen Curry that the Cavaliers couldn’t stop.
Eventually the Cavaliers folded under the weight.
Eventually the Warriors felt a weight lifted.
From a distance, adding Durant to a team that had already had a 73-win season, an NBA title and came within a hair’s breadth of winning another last year seemed like it couldn’t fail and was borderline unfair. The Warriors’ 15-game winning streak to start the playoffs would be Exhibit A.
But to hear them tell it there were some hiccups and some strife. Durant said he struggled to fit in at first and Curry had to adjust his game too. And Durant heard those who tried to discredit him for leaving the team he’d played nine seasons with in Oklahoma City to join the Warriors, the team that had eliminated the Thunder from the Western Conference Finals in 2016.
“Yeah, I hear all the narratives throughout the season that I was joining, I was hopping on bandwagons, I was letting everybody else do the work. But then that was far from the truth,” said Durant. “I came in and tried to help my team. Like I said, tried to be myself, be aggressive and sacrifice as well.”
It’s a tough sell. If Curry, the reigning two-time MVP is your second-best player, your team is pretty good, and the Warriors are great. Curry scored 34 in Game 5 and the Warriors got a vital 20 from Andre Iguodala off the bench.
And now the question is: When anyone else will win again?
The Warriors win cemented their place in NBA history, if it left a few cracks in an otherwise sturdy base in the monument they’re building to the notion of playing with speed and spacing the floor, ignoring positions and instead valuing playmaking and the ability to shoot and making plays above all.
A win last season over Cleveland would have put the perfect exclamation mark on their 73-9 regular season, instead the league’s best-ever regular-season record will always have an asterisk and ‘blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals’ in the not-so-fine type. And their win this year – dominating as it was, brushing aside a team that went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that had posted best-ever post-season offensive numbers – just missed being 16-0, a historical landmark that could only ever be tied, never beaten.
They’ll have to settle for being the best regular-season team over a three-year period in NBA history – winning 67, 73 and 67 games – and winning their best-of-three (for now) Finals showdowns against James and the Cavs while reshaping the way the game is played in the process.
They should be universally revered but sports never works that way. No one loves an over-dog and the minute Durant left Oklahoma City to join the already potent Warriors, Golden State crossed over from the lovable iconoclasts to a team that threatens to steamroll the NBA for years to come, taking advantage of a one-time surge in salary cap space to sign Durant thanks to Curry, who signed coming off ankle surgery for $11 million a year.
How encouraging, Kerr was asked earlier in the series, is the ideal that his core players are in their primes and have the opportunity to play together for years to come?
“It’s encouraging,” joked Kerr, a master of understatement. “Quite encouraging. It’s fun. It’s fun to be part of this. We want to take care of this year. It’s been a great three-year run, but we feel like we can carry this forward. We’ll see how long.”
It would seem that as long as they have Durant they should be able to carry it forward as long as the 28-year-old is motivated and healthy.
“We’re obviously just getting started,” said Curry. “This is something we want to continue to do … I’m happy for him, you got to call Kevin Durant a champ now. He’s put the time in and I’m just so happy for him to realize his goal and be my teammate.”
There were no tears from James this time, just resignation and an acknowledgement from the King that his best wasn’t good enough.
“I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” said James. “So for me, personally, I have nothing to be – I have no reason to put my head down. I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”
It’s Durant’s moment. The Warriors’ time. The rest of the NBA might as well get used to it.