The play from the 2016 NBA Finals that will never cease to haunt me is unquestionably Stephen Curry's errant 3-point shot over Kevin Love.
With the Golden State Warriors down 92-89 with under a minute left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the unanimous MVP who has destroyed every 3-point record and has the most lethal off-the-dribble long shot that we've ever seen had the ball against Kevin Love. The same Kevin Love who so many derided for his inability to defend anywhere, much less in space.
Remember when everyone — on both teams — said that Game 7 of the NBA Finals is what everyone hopes for at the end of the season? Who among you wouldn't want to put the ball in Curry's hands with history on the line defended by Kevin Love?
This defensive performance by Kevin Love on Steph Curry was as important as any play in the game pic.twitter.com/HCydWHyt5Q— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) June 20, 2016
The problem is that those narratives that we invent to make sense of patterns of events and predict what will come aren't actually predictive — nothing that came in the months before that moment actually mattered in this moment when it came down to Curry and Love going one-on-one with a title on the line.
Making matters worse, it's really easy to question whether everything should have been set up for Curry to go one-on-one in that moment; why nobody was moving to create another option, the hallmark of Steve Kerr's offense that distinguished it from former coach Mark Jackson's; why they resorted to stand-still hero ball that was supposedly antithetical to everything they stood for.
Curry was at the end of a night when he ended up shooting 6-for-19 and 4-for-14 from beyond the 3-point line. Draymond Green had been 6-for-8 from beyond the arc to that point, though he got the ball in a position where he couldn't really have made a play much beyond what Curry did. And really with everyone else pretty much standing around — and Harrison Barnes (3-for-10) and Klay Thompson (6-for-17) not exactly much hotter options — there just wasn't much else for the team to do.
When asked about the play after the game, Curry sort of fixed his gaze off in another place and put a smirk on his face, appearing to want to be anywhere but in that position.
"I was searching for a three," Curry said during the televised press conference, "and rushed and didn't take what was there, which was probably better to go around him and try to get to the paint."
Curry's postgame quote seem to confirm what most of us probably felt about the end of Game 7: the Warriors seemed to come unraveled at the end, which was unfortunately a theme during this series. Whether it was Draymond Green getting suspended, Curry uncharacteristically throwing his mouthpiece and getting ejected, or going cold at the end they didn't seem to be able to maintain what got them to this point.
After Warriors tied at 89, teams combined to go 1-for-17. Irving is the 1.— Saad Majid (@saadmjd) June 20, 2016
This was not the way this was supposed to end. We went into the playoffs expecting a title. We expected the Cavs series to be easier than the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who squandered a 3-1 lead of their own in the Western Conference Finals. And when our team went up 3-1 against LeBron James and the Cavs?
This was supposed to be a confirmation of everything that had come before it, the stamp of approval to validate — both in the eyes of the haters and perhaps in our own minds — that this team was not only one of the best this year but also among the best ever. This was supposed to make permanent those feelings of excitement that we experienced all season, bottling them up into one champagne-filled moment that we could hold onto for as long as we could find a device to replay it.
If there's an immortality that comes with the finality of reaching the top as champions, this Warriors team could've staked their claim for supremacy as a team that has felt more destined for greatness from the speed of their ascent.
But that's just not the way things work on this planet.
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During the post-game show, Brent Barry discussed how many stars gain incremental postseason experience before making it to the top, just as LeBron James has.
And in modern NBA history, two-time champions have definitely followed that standard formula of years of failing before historic success.
LeBron's record is well-documented. Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers...struggled to the top, became a mini-dynasty, fell apart, got themselves back together, failed again, and won two more. Going back further, Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, and the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons had to fend off more competitors than they're given credit for to reach the top.
The San Antonio Spurs — considered the class of all professional sports franchises — never won back-to-back titles.
This is The Process in the NBA — the process of getting to the top prepares you to stay there.
And I thought Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, of all people, phrased it in a way that makes sense in daily life: failure is ultimately a part of life and a part of learning.
"One lesson to me that comes out of this is that if you're going to be successful in life, you're going to make mistakes — you're going to fail," Gilbert said. "And it's ok to fail as long as you learn from that failure. And nobody makes every right move, every right decision, whether it's business sports or anything. And certainly, I've made my share of mistakes...it doesn't matter because as long as you're learning from them, that's the path to success. There's no such thing as perfection — not on this planet...It's almost as if seeing it this way is almost better than if it was straight shot and everything went perfectly."
The Steve Kerr Warriors, in a way, tried to cheat the process by going straight to the top and reaching for that unattainable level of near-perfection. They won a title, they broke the wins record, created the conditions for a two-time MVP, obliterated team and individual 3-point records, and escaped certain death in Oklahoma City. The Warriors seemed to go from inevitable to immortal, unbound by the rules that confined everyone else and perhaps even beginning to believe they were untouchable to some extent.
You had to have faith in what was happening on the court this season until it all came crashing down.
In one sense, the Warriors had history on their side with no team ever blowing a 3-1 lead and home court advantage in Game 7. But they were just missing something. Perhaps it was that very human story of needing to fail to strengthen your resolve, failing up as the case may be in the NBA. And not just the small failures of blowing opportunities to reach 72 or tainting their unblemished home record, but failing in a way that's final.
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Throughout this season, people speculated about whether Curry was human at all as he accomplished feats that didn't seem humanly possible. And at some point, you really did get the feeling that he believed in his own superhuman powers, constantly testing the limits of those unreal abilities that seemed video game-ish -- in fact, video game developers couldn't even figure out how to replicate Curry in an entirely artificial environment.
He was The Cheat Code, which made him closer to a god-like basketball figure than a mere mortal; we put him on that pedastol and at some point, maybe that improbable and unnecessary shot in Oklahoma City, he just accepted his place in atop the basketball universe.
In watching Curry search for that three — or throw a behind-the-back pass out of bounds when a smarter play was available — you see a player who has done exactly that successfully so many times, defied physics in so many situations, that he was certain that he alone could conjure up another heroic feat. Even in seeing that the team had unraveled, there was a faith that Curry could make almost anything happen this season as he had magically done so many times before.
Except this time, the Warriors found they weren't quite beyond precedent and that their hunger for greatness wasn't enough as they were outclassed by a team from a city that was starving for success after years of failure.
If history is any indication, they'll be back and they'll be better for it, hopefully able to dig deep and find that resolve when trying to take that step next time.
In the meantime, I'll probably speak for others when I say that I'm still stunned by this outcome.