OAKLAND, Calif. — I was skeptical at first. Don’t get me wrong, any team that adds Kevin Durant to their roster is automatically the favorite to win the title. But I was curious what the Golden State Warriors had taken away from the season before, when they famously steamrolled through the entire NBA only to run out of gas with 4:40 left in what could have ended up being a defining moment of their careers.
In my mind, the Warriors have been the team to beat all season long. Sure, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the champions, but it was generally accepted that the road to a repeat for Cleveland would go through Oakland. However, I was not convinced at the beginning of the season that Golden State was a guaranteed lock to win the title as many made them out to be.
But that didn’t last long.
I remember the game that I drank the Warriors championship Kool-Aid. It was November 23rd against the Los Angeles Lakers, just the 15th game of the season. It was the day before Thanksgiving and it took me three hours to drive from downtown San Francisco to Oracle arena in Oakland, which is just a 15 mile drive.
It was somewhat of an important game for the Warriors, who were playing the Lakers for the first time since getting handed a 20-point loss in Los Angeles just a few weeks earlier. I was interested to see exactly how this team would respond to a rather embarrassing loss.
The game was over by the first quarter. Golden State dropped 41 points and led by 15. Then extended the lead to 31 with a halftime score of 80-49. It was like watching Duke play Serra Monte High School. The Warriors finished with 149 points and an offensive rating of 142.7. This was the moment I realized that there isn’t a team in the league that can hang with these guys.
The Warriors had their ups and downs throughout the season.
Stephen Curry broke the NBA’s single game three-point record. Klay Thompson dropped 60 points in just 29 minutes. Draymond Green recorded a triple-double that did not include points. The team was playing at a historic level of efficiency.
But even with all that said, there were still looming question marks. Curry called out Kerr’s lack of pick-and-roll use — in what might be the nicest way possible — after the Warriors loss to the Cavaliers on Christmas day.
They then blew a 20 point lead to the Memphis Grizzlies a couple of weeks later at home. The thought of the Warriors ‘blowing’ any type of lead was just a punch to the gut after last season.
A rift among the happy-go-lucky Warriors was just what the national media was waiting for, and the negative narratives soon followed. Many questioned if the team was just selling wolf tickets on how easily they could incorporate Durant into the offense.
Who would take control of the offense in a close game? Is Curry having a down year? Is their bench deep enough? What about rim protection? Why don’t they run more pick-and-roll?
Most importantly, is it Durant’s team or Curry’s?
The most remarkable aspect about the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors was their ability to block out the noise. The hype around Golden State resulted in the biggest sports media spectacle ever seen. Writers from all over the country moved to the Bay Area to get the day-to-day scoop on the Warriors.
Whether you hated them or loved them, everyone had a an opinion. If you didn’t want to see them succeed, you wanted to see them fail. There was really no middle ground.
For a team as great as the Warriors have been over the past few seasons, there is no way to escape the talk of chasing history. Sure, everyone is cognizant of opportunities to etch their name in the history books. But it was the chase for such recognition a season ago that resulted in the demise of the Warriors’ chance at back-to-back titles.
This team however wasn’t going to let the record books get in the way of what mattered most — an NBA title.
Golden State took a considerable step forward in their mental approach on the season as a whole. Just about everyone on the squad had something to prove. Curry dismantling the narrative that he under-performed in the Finals. Green proving that his emotions were not detrimental to the team. Durant shutting up his haters’ cries of “ring chasing.” JaVale McGee proving he is more than a Shaqtin’ MVP. The list goes on.
But this team never let their own personal desires for success get in the way of the overarching goal of winning. In it’s simplest form, winning pretty much solves everything.
This is why veteran players like Zaza Pachulia and David West chose to play in Golden State. To win. Durant came to the Warriors to win. As legendary Raiders owner Al Davis always said, “Just win, baby!”
It wasn’t until the postseason that we saw the Warriors play at their full potential. They had persevered through rough patches throughout the season. Durant missed 20 games in February. Head coach Steve Kerr missed the entire second and third round of the playoffs. Yet the Warriors kept pushing along.
The greatness of Curry and Durant took over in the playoffs, eliminating any and all questions about whether the two superstars could lead a team together.
Many people have cried out that a “super team” is bad for the league. In my opinion, it’s great for the league. The 2017 Finals were were the highest rated Finals since Michael Jordan’s final title run in 1998 and the highest for any Finals hosted by ABC.
The NBA has never been more popular in the United States and around the world than it is right now. And the Golden State Warriors are at the very top.
I personally thought that the Warriors would sweep their way through the playoffs. A perfect 16-0 record in the postseason would have locked up the Warriors’ place as the greatest team of all time. They’re still in the discussion, but it will never be clear cut.
The best thing that resulted from the Cavaliers game 4 victory meant redemption for the Warriors in game 5 at home by allowing them to close out their 3-1 series lead, which they failed to do a season ago. And most importantly, winning a major sports championship in the city of Oakland for the first time since the Oakland A’s won the World Series at the neighboring Coliseum in 1974.
I will never forget the three-pointer that Curry sank with just under a minute to play in the fourth quarter. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard Oracle. It gives me the same type of goosebumps just thinking about it as it did when I watched it happen. Although I fully convinced myself that the Warriors would win the title in late November, it was at that exact moment that it set in.
The joy on the faces of the players is something in particular that will stick with me. This was the first full season I had the opportunity to cover the Warriors. And what is really difficult to tell from watching the games on TV is just how grinding the season really is, and I only experienced a small fraction of it.
Their games are picked apart day after day in countless media sessions and there is an immense pressure that continually builds throughout the entire season from the outside world. The Warriors were supposed to win the championship. They had everything to lose and only meeting their lofty expectations to gain.
The smiles in the post-game press conferences were genuine. It was a moment that could never be taken away from them. As LeBron James said after the loss, “They can never take the title of NBA champion away from you.”
Durant reeked like champagne as he entered the interview room after the Warriors’ locker room celebration. More potent than the smell of alcohol on his soaking wet NBA champions tee was his radiating happiness.
The Golden State Warriors are just getting started.
Their core is young and in the prime of their careers. Durant has already suggested that he is willing to restructure his contract and take a home team discount. This would allow the Warriors to have more flexibility when re-signing key veterans like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston this offseason.
It will be fun to watch the growth of youngsters like Patrick McCaw, who the went from second round draft pick to starting the fourth quarter of a closeout game in the NBA Finals.
It seems as though players like JaVale McGee and Ian Clark are destined to sign big contracts elsewhere, which they both deserve. The Warriors are still the most top-heavy team in terms of talent in the league, but it will be interesting to see what players will be willing to take a pay cut to play in Golden State for the opportunity to compete for a championship.
If you are worried that the Warriors’ run at dominance has a shelf life, don’t be. Just take it from Klay Thompson, when asked if he has thought about being the cornerstone for a franchise one day he responded, “Yeah, but winning is just so much fun.”