My defining memory of the 2016 NBA postseason will be Stephen Curry, isolated against a mediocre defensive big man like Enes Kanter or Kevin Love, coming down the right side of the arc, throwing out a couple of jab steps, a crossover, a little shake-and-bake ...
... and not getting any separation.
It's a move we've seen a hundreds of times from his this season, and it works against any big. He needs so little space to get his shot, that no big can stay with him. The only defense was to lunge, and he'd breeze past the defender and get an easy run to the hoop. We saw this again and again until a slick spot on the Oracle arena floor sprained his knee. Then, suddenly, you could guard Steph on the perimeter. Then, suddenly, he lacked the precision near the rim that resulted in all of those magical floaters and twisting, spinning lay-ins.
You'll hear narratives about Steph Curry choking in the finals from a lot of people, but they're a crock. He scored 22.6 points a game, on a .580TS%, which is excellent by anyone's standards. Anyone's, that is, except his own.
The Warriors were the best team of the 2015-16 season, but they're not the champions. It takes breaks to win the title, and this year, the Warriors didn't get them. No disrespect to Cleveland, who were the better team over the past seven games and deserve the title, but over the whole season, the Warriors were better than this.
As this series wore on, I began to compose, in my mind, an article comparing the all-time great teams. How did the 15-16 Warriors stack up to the '01 Lakers, the '92 Bulls (don't be fooled, that team was much better than the '96 team), the Laker and Celtic juggernauts of the '80s? But as the Warriors rolled over for yet another ugly loss in game three, I realized something. I couldn't put the Warriors at the top of the list, even if they won. Not anymore. They were too mediocre during the playoffs.
It's not so much being taken to 7 games by the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, so much as the way the team looked. For all the glory of game 6, there was the stink of games 3, and 4, where the Warriors got their asses handed to them, looking lost and overmatched in the process. Even game 5 felt to me like a game where the worse team won, getting by on guile and home-court advantage. As a Warrior fan, I've watched a lot of those games.
And yeah, watching the team step on the gas in the 4th quarter of game six and seven of the Western Conference Finals was amazing, but this was a 73-win team. They shouldn't be trailing late in must-win games. But it's understandable, in a way: this is a team that was so good they could coast, let teams back in it, and then step on the gas and put them away with a five-minute stretch of pure basketball beauty.
The finals seemed like a repeat. The Warriors played in a style unbecoming of a team that aspired to be the greatest of all time in game three. No team that wants to be rated that great can come out and lay the egg that the Warriors laid in the first quarter of game six. And then the chickens came home to roost: in the final two games, the Warriors stepped on the gas ... and nothing happened.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this finals loss, as there always is when you lose to an inferior team. Beyond Curry's ankle/knee/elbow, there was Iguodala's back. There was Draymond's suspension. (I don't blame the league for that, even if the final foul was shockingly ticky-takcy. We're lucky he wasn't suspended in the WCF). There was a brutal Bogut injury which, given how bad Festus and Anderson were in game seven, could easily have been decisive. There was Harrison shooting open shots with both of his hands wrapped around his own neck. There was the refs letting teams abuse Curry, and sometimes even calling him for fouls when he was fouled, in a manner that simply doesn't happen to other NBA superstars (Curry's third foul in game 7 was one of the worst calls I've ever seen, and, again, given the closeness of the game, could have ultimately been decisive). There was Klay hitting a cold streak at the wrong time. There was Kerr, bizarrely, putting Festus Ezeli in during the 4th quarter of game 7, an obvious mistake (even in the moment) for which the team was immediately and decisively punished.
But really, it was about Curry. With Curry playing merely at an all-star level, the Warriors were, essentially, Hawks/West. They struggled to get movement towards the basket. They got strangely tentative - I can't count how many times in game 7 they wrapped up a defense rebound, and didn't run with it, nervous about swiping hands. Most damningly, they stopped looking like they were having any fun out there.
And in the closing seconds of game seven, Curry got isolated against Kevin Love, and did his little shake-and-bake ...
... and couldn't get anywhere.
Curry's physical struggles also got into his head a little. He's not a player who lets arguing with the refs take him out of the game, but he did in game 7. He's not a player who gets lost on defense, off-ball, but I saw that happened repeatedly this series. Could the Warriors have won if Curry was as dialed in as he usually is on defense? Curry's laser-like focus got distracted. If you're looking for reasons that the team lost, you can add that to the pile.
The Cavs will say it was their defense. Some commentators, like Bill Simmons, have suggested that Curry is worn down from how much teams are beating him up off-ball (and make no mistake, they are beating him up off-ball; the refs were insanely stingy with those calls all post-season, to the point where even Tyron Lue could figure out how to exploit it). But whatever the reason - and it's probably a combination of factors - ever since he slipped on that wet spot in the second round, the simple truth is that Curry has been limited. He's not 100%, not even close. Never in this finals, and honestly, only in maybe 2-3 quarters since the knee injury, did Curry look like he could find his extra gear.
In a strange way, Curry showed just how deserving his two MVP trophies are. He wasn't the best player in this series, and the Warriors were mortal. They lost to a deeply flawed team that would have been justifiable underdogs to three Western Conference teams. With a (merely) all-star Curry, the Warriors are just another good team.
And so the best team didn't win the title. That happens a lot. The Cavs outplayed the Warriors in the seven games that mattered the most. It's hardly the first time that the best team didn't win the title: you can make an argument that the '13 Heat, the '11 Mavs, the '10 Lakers, the '06 Heat, '98 Bulls, the '94 Rockets, and the '88 Lakers were all teams that won despite not being the best team in the league that season, and all of those titles count just as much as the titles won by the '96 Bulls or the '86 Celtics. The reality of the math is even if you're an 80% favorite over all four of your playoff opponents (which is almost unheard of) you'll only win the title about 41% of the time. That's what makes the playoffs so fun ... and so agonizing.
So for me, it's hard to be disappointed. We all know the Warriors long history. If, two years ago, when the team fired Mark Jackson and passed on Kevin Love, somebody told you, "Hey, how do you feel about winning 140 games and a title over the next two seasons, all while playing the most beautiful basketball you've ever seen?" there isn't a Warrior fan alive who would have felt the slightest bit sad about that.
The Warriors are now at a crossroads. Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli may well not be with the team next season, and as much as the many fans are eager to run them out of town on a rail, the salary cap will make it difficult to replace even their mediocre production. Additionally, Speights, Barbosa, Clark, Rush, Varejao, and MacAdoo are free agents. There are tough choices to make. But also: Curry, Klay, and Draymond are going to be back next year, and any team with those three players is a force to be reckoned with.
But that's for next week. Because, really, I'm not going to remember this season for Curry struggling to get separation from Kevin Love. I'm going to remember it for 402 times he did get separation, for all the beautiful wins and joy this team gave me this year. My appreciation for the 2015-16 Warriors will not be diminished by the way a hobbled team struggled to score in the most important game of the season. These guys reminded of us how basketball is meant to be played, and, with a little luck, they'll do it again.