There were a lot of silly narratives spoken and written leading up to the Golden State Warriors’ first meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016-17 season, but the worst — or at least the one that I found most annoying -- was this absurd idea that it was “NBA Finals, Game 8”.
Yes, I wish that the 2016 NBA Finals could have kept going after the Warriors’ devastating loss in Game 7. Yes, I agree that I would love to see a rematch of last season’s championship series. But the thought that the Christmas Day game was somehow an extension of the Finals this past June when the Warriors have six different players (seven, if you want to stretch to account for the fact that Kevon Looney was a non-factor last year) is so contrived that it’s hard to imagine even the most casual fans buying it as reasonable.
I say that not as sour grapes after the Warriors’ 109-108 loss in Cleveland yesterday, but far moreso as an acknowledgement of a fact about the Warriors that some people, who must have been living in a cave without access to NBA broadcasts, didn’t seem to grasp until yesterday: the Warriors are still a work in progress.
(Also, Kevin Durant is a major upgrade from Harrison Barnes but if I have to explain that...)
For those still struggling to grasp the concept of needing time to adjust when you change two starters and give between 30-40 minutes per game to new bench players, Sam Amick of USA Today put it in easy-to-swallow neutral terms prior to yesterday’s game in an article appropriately titled, “Why the Warriors-Cavs Christmas Day showdown doesn’t matter.”
...beyond all the obvious advantages that came with Kevin Durant’s arrival in July, the reality for the Warriors is that he was their reset button.
It might have been the best post-Finals loss move in league history. And for the purpos (sic) of Sunday's Christmas Day showdown with the Cavs that looms so large in the eyes of the fansit (sic) means one thing for the Warriors: With their eyes fixed on the bigger prize, this game doesn’t matter in the slightest.
We just can’t continue to talk about yesterday’s game without first acknowledging that. So since we’ve done that now, on to some other links from around the web to begin the final week of 2016.
The inevitable blame game
There has been a lot of talk about Stephen Curry’s changing role this season with Kevin Durant around and it really came to a head after yesterday’s game in which he scored 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting, clearly a subpar game for the reigning MVP.
Don’t know what to make of Curry’s game. It’s a trend that he’s quiet vs. Cavs, but he also didn’t NEED to be big-gime for them to lead 14— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) December 25, 2016
Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group wrote that Curry is the one who has made the biggest sacrifice due to the new addition of Durant.
The price for integrating Kevin Durant has been Curry’s brilliance. He’s shown flashes of his usual self. But he has no doubt absorbed the greatest sacrifice of the Warriors’ incumbent stars. And beating Cleveland in the Finals, presuming they meet for a third straight year, is going to require Curry being Curry.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN extended that to frame the entire rivalry in his summary of yesterday’s loss.
What used to be Steph Curry vs. LeBron James, a David vs. Goliath tale, has morphed into something else. It's now something more like a souped-up 2012 Finals redux. It's James vs. Durant, a battle of prototypical wings.
We can debate whether that narrative framing even matters one way or the other, but the Warriors, whether it be a coaching issue or a matter of the two individuals, have struggled to get these two playing at the pinnacle of their ability. While the focus of this discussion has been on Curry’s struggles, the fourth quarter on Christmas Day implicates Durant as well.
Warriors 4th quarter field goals: Durant 2-9; Green 3-4; Curry 2-3; Thompson 1-2; Iguodala 0-1.— Fast Break (@GSWFastBreak) December 26, 2016
Ben Golliver of SI noted Draymond Green’s role in the loss, using the now-perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate’s own words to make the point.
These Warriors have experience beating themselves in big games and they know better than anyone that they shouldn’t be left hoping for a whistle on the road on the game’s final play.
“I take a lot of blame for … turning the ball over down the stretch,” Green said. “We could have had easy baskets. We'll be better with that. … If we take care of our business, it never gets to that point.
Matt Moore of CBS Sports mentioned JaVale McGee’s “rough” performance in a game that mattered, undoubtedly a disappointment for some Warriors fans after he has excited people about his potential role as a rim protector for this team.
McGee's ability to contribute in a playoff environment remains uncertain. He might have just had a bad day and could still be the difference for the Warriors in May or June, but he had a rough performance in the only regular-season game that really matters for the Warriors.
Ultimately though, the point is this: yesterday’s loss was a team effort. Trying to pin the blame on one player or moment (or the refs) is just an exercise in futility. They were clearly in position to win the game and blew it. And the reasons were all painfully familiar, as outlined by Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post.
Instead, it wound up being two things that have plagued the Warriors: careless turnovers, specifically six in the fourth quarter that led to 10 Cavaliers points, and poor work on the defensive glass, with Cleveland grabbing 18 offensive rebounds to gain a 17-8 edge in second-chance points.
Fun game. Good test of bad takes: anyone who draws a moral like 'CLE wanted it more'. Up for grabs at the end. Easily could be foul on RJ.— Eric Apricot (@EricApricot) December 25, 2016
A rivalry builds
Despite my dismissal of the significance of this game, make no mistake: this may well be the biggest rivalry in U.S. professional sports right now, or at least the highest-profile rivalry. Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported that Tyronn Lue was asked if it has reached the level of the epic Boston Celtics - Los Angeles Lakers rivalry of the 80’s. I mean, it doesn’t yet, but it’s got a chance.
Given the mounting tensions between these two teams, there should be no surprise that Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News noticed that, “frustration filled the locker room postgame.”
Adam Lauridsen of GSW Fastbreak summarized my feelings entering and leaving the game as related to last year’s Finals so well that I didn’t bother writing them. The whole thing is worth your time to read. (Sidebar: I have not watched highlights of Game 7 since I turned the TV off that day. Yesterday would have been considered triggering if I wasn’t still simply numb.)
But coming full circle to where I began, Jacob C. Palmer of the S.F. Examiner may have summed up yesterday’s loss perfectly in quoting Durant.
“We should’ve won that game,” Durant said. “We had that game in our hands. But nobody’s sobbing in the locker room. We’ll move on.”
Now all that is left is the inevitable over-analysis of one game in December.
This was game 32 of 82. The Warriors still have the best record in the league at 27-5, a level of success that most teams in NBA history couldn’t imagine reaching.
No sense dwelling on this one loss much longer.