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Explain One Playoffs: (Near) Unkillable Warriors Almost Overcome Curry’s Injury

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In short, the Warriors’ leader and hero and the best offensive player we’ve seen in many years (possibly ever) got seriously injured right away. After that, it was a series of incredible comebacks and clutch performances and LUCK and a gutsy comeback from which got the Warriors all the way to within seconds of a repeat title, stopped by great performances by an all-time great player and an excellent sidekick.

2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Okay, I can’t explain the Playoffs, but it’s my traditional title now.

First, heavy congratulations to the long-suffering fans in Cleveland. Lebron played phenomenal basketball in the last three games on offense and defense, and really came through in the fourth quarter of Game 7. The Cavs had many chances to give up, and they never stopped fighting. The Cavs earned it, and don’t anyone say they didn’t deserve this championship. They were lucky (as some of my comments below imply) but EVERY champ is lucky. Compare my commentary last season: Do the Warriors deserve this championship?

Now, it’s been hard for me to consume commentary on these playoffs because I feel like I saw a different story unfolding than most of the mainstream NBA commentariat.

Quick Digression: How To Avoid BS Takes

This was the original title of this piece, but I decided to take the *ahem* high road.

Anyway, sports commentary is contaminated with a lot of terrible takes driven by people wanting to have a strong bold stance more than wanting evidence. Also, recent sports commentary has skewed towards figuring out who to bully and publicly shame and call a loser rather than figure out how to better appreciate these incredible athletes.

Here is a very quick test for crap takes.

First, consider that Game 7 came down to the very very last two minutes. The teams up until the last basket had EXACTLY the same number of points over the whole series.

Both teams had multiple open shots to win it, with one memorable Klay 3 going in and out, and Andre missing two FTs. So, the ending was in some fundamental way random. Klay’s shot is 1 millimeter different and the Warriors win. Same for multiple other shots by both teams.

Here’s the short version:

https://xkcd.com/904/

So each team should hold their heads high. It was an amazing Game 7. There were very few Crying Jordans out there because this was not a series to be ashamed of.

Anyway, so given that this series could have been won by either team, any take that makes its result inevitable is simply wrong.

So here are some takes (some of which I wish were true) that fail that test:

  • Heroball can’t win.
  • You can’t play a deep bench like Kerr did and win.
  • Lebron willed the team to victory. The Cavs wanted it more and therefore win.
  • Lebron’s third title completely changes his worth as a player.
  • GSW can’t win if Curry plays that badly.
  • Cavs would have definitely won last year with Kyrie and Love healthy.
  • Curry shouldn’t have been MVP
  • Can’t win as a jump shooting team

Now throw in the incredible comeback by GSW over OKC, and that wipes out these bad takes:

  • Curry is a choker
  • W’s are chokers
  • W’s can’t handle adversity, don’t know how to lose.

Okay, enough with the bad takes.

Another View of the Playoffs

In short, the Warriors’ leader and hero and the best offensive player we’ve seen in many years (possibly ever) got seriously injured right away. After that, it was a series of incredible comebacks and clutch performances and LUCK and a gusty comeback which got the Warriors all the way to within seconds of a repeat title, stopped by great performances by an all-time great player and an excellent sidekick.

Curry’s Injury(s)

Let’s not mess around. Curry was injured and limited. That’s not a debate. It’s admirable for Curry to not mention it and avoid crapping on the Cavs’ parade and making excuses. But I’m not Curry, I can say the obvious truth. I mean, do you really think Tristan Thompson became a shut down defender on Curry after the 2015 model of Curry tortured him in the Finals? That healthy Curry couldn’t get a shot off against Kevin Love?

I’m focusing of course on the MCL sprain, but he also lost time due to the ankle and also suffered from the "tennis ball" elbow from stage diving into an uncooperative courtside club.

As far as I know, NO great player has ever come back from a serious injury like that to be effective in the playoffs. (Feel free to come up with counter-examples in the comments.) Here’s Haberstroh’s angle:

Serious observers of Curry (clearly not including Jeff van Gundy) could see right away what his limitations were. He couldn’t explode off of one leg, which took away the two big moves that he added this season: the off-the-dribble sidestep 3, and the explosive creative drives and one-leg finishes (including wrong-footed floaters and bank shots). And he lost his long range bomb. I dissected his condition at Explain One Play: Stephen Curry is not going home yet after OKC Game 5 and Curry never progressed far beyond that, excepting a blip of excellence in OKC Game 7.

Most of the 3s that Curry hit this playoffs were catch-and-shoot from close. Of the off-the-dribble 3s, the only semi-reliable shot he had was a simple crossover left, crossover right, into a shot off the right hand. Compare 3 pointers #11 and #12 at Explain One Play: Warriors bomb OKC bigs with 17 threes, Curry’s 3s from OKC game 6, and also Curry’s off-the-dribble 3 from Finals Game 7.

Also, Curry could not get to the rim for easy shots, nor finish at the rim. From Ethan Strauss (whose autopsy I agree with):

Once Curry can’t drive to the rim, you can play up on him. Once he can’t hit from 29 feet, you can play right on the line to also guard against the drive. Once he can’t reliably create from 3, you can single cover him. He still takes defensive attention, but he’s stoppable. Once Curry can be single covered on switches, you can stay man to man on everyone else, and the W’s really have no one else who can create a shot reliably.

Once Curry’s game is neutralized, he presses and makes just enough bad decisions to hurt the team.

Let’s hope the Curry will be back to Super Curry next season. Because his regular season magnificence hid a lot of sloppy play and troubled lineup construction (no two-way centers) this year.

The Story of The Warriors’ 2016 Playoffs

Let’s remember back to the Rockets series. Curry gets injured, and I (and probably you) assume that the Warriors title hopes have been smashed. Right?

We refresh Twitter all day to find out the results of the MRI. It turns out that he will miss at least two weeks, but not two months. So there’s minor hope. I think most of us thought the W’s could beat the Rockets without Curry, and Klay really stepped up. But in any case, it still felt hopeless because Curry would return in Game 4 at the earliest in Round 2, and by then the Clippers would have probably retaken home-court advantage and be up 2-1 or 3-0 and it would be too late for a rusty Curry to save them. Right?

Until fate intervened and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had fluke injuries. Suddenly the Blazers were the opponent and the W’s held them off long enough for a VERY rusty Curry to help close the series.

The Thunder were a much more powerful test. Can Curry and the W’s somehow get through while Curry plays himself into game shape? Curry was clearly still not himself for the series, and I was pretty convinced that OKC would close things out in Game 6. Right?

Nope, the W’s came through on the insane shooting of Klay with some key plays by Curry despite being down 7 with 5 minutes to go. (Relive it at Explain One Play: Klay and Curry splash to Game 7.) Then the W’s came back from ANOTHER hole in Game 7 to win it. (Explain One Play: Warriors bomb OKC bigs with 17 threes ) Amazing resilience.

The W’s jump out on the Cavs due to great role players and tough defense. Despite the blowout in Game 3, they comeback for a very gutsy win in Game 4 in CLE.

At this point, the wheels come off. Despite all the momentum for Game 5, Lebron suckers Draymond into a suspension. Then Bogut is injured for the year. Both those absences destroyed the defense.

That was huge, as after that, (1) LBJ and Kyrie could attack the rim without fear of shot blockers, and (2) that forced Festus Ezeli and, of all people, Anderson Varejao into crunch time minutes they weren’t prepared for.

That ended up being (barely) too much for the W’s to overcome.

Final Thoughts

But it was soooo close. Pain. Sure, like many, I wonder what if Kerr hadn’t gone with Ezeli in the fourth. Or if Curry hadn’t thrown the ball away. Or if Barnes could hit a shot. So, pain.

But in time, pride too. The team got much farther than I thought they would all year. They’ve stayed together as a group in ways I never expected ... what happened to the Disease of Me and the other pitfalls for defending champs? (See How Hard Is It To Repeat As NBA Champions?) They fought hard and successfully against a serious injury to the one player that makes it all run.

And when all is said and done, this was the second greatest year in Warriors history. I mean, we’ve got a pretty big drop after the 2015 title and 2016 last-minute loss. We’re talking a championship from before the NBA was televised and the three-point shot. Then after that... probably We Believe, which was a damned exciting first-round victory.

And maybe if you’re a Laker fan or Celtics fan, you can see a year without a title as a complete failure. But if you’re not as entitled as that, I hope you can see this was an incredible year.

This offseason will be a fascinating one. How do the W’s address the problem of no reliable big men, and a very questionable Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes ? And of having no second shot-creator after Curry?

Thanks for sharing this year with me. Let's do it again next year. And I love this from GSOM’s Hugo:

Though we actually had to wait three looong years to get Return of the Jedi. We will be blessed if the W’s can make it back to the Finals again in the next three years. Tomorrow is not promised!