NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors' reaffirm status as legendary team after play-off run

A year ago, the Golden State Warriors achieved what many thought was impossible: they won 73 of the 82 regular season games, trumping even the 72-10 record of Michael Jordan’s mighty 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Coming off the 2015 championship win, the 2015-16 Warriors team was historically great on both ends of the floor, featured the league’s first and only unanimous MVP (Stephen Curry), two of the greatest shooters of all-time (Curry and Klay Thompson), a superstar defender and playmaker (Draymond Green) and a deep pool of role players to aid them in their success.

Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers players in action during the 4th quarter in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals. Reuters

Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers players in action during the 4th quarter in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals. Reuters

Alas, like every true NBA fan knows, regular season success is just that: regular. 73 and nine didn’t mean a thing without that ring. After stuttering throughout the play-offs, the Warriors collapsed in incredible fashion in the 2016 NBA Finals, squandering a 3-1 series lead to lose 3-4 to LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers. The greatness of the regular season, the records, the race for immortality – all of them were blocked in spectacular fashion by James. The Warriors, known until then for their culture of joyful, carefree basketball, headed into an off-season of serious soul-searching.

That particular mourning period didn’t last long. Exactly two weeks after the heart-breaking game seven loss in the Finals, the Warriors received a gift of their wildest imaginations. On 4 July, Kevin Durant – a former league MVP, an all-time great scorer, and 2016’s hottest free agent target – left Oklahoma City Thunder to join Golden State. Within minutes, the death knell for the entire upcoming season for the other teams was rung: on paper at least, Durant in the Warriors spelled trouble for the rest of the NBA.

Basketball games, however, aren’t won on paper, and the Warriors had to prove that their newly-formed dream team of Durant, Curry, Thompson, Green, and more could actually work on court. Expectations were high and the price of failure was always going to be humiliation way more drastic than the “3-1” memes.

Eleven-and-a-half months later, consider those expectations met, and then some.

No, these Warriors didn’t win 73 regular season games like last year’s squad; they merely “settled” for 67, still the best record in the league and one of the most impressive regular season outings in history. What the regular season did show was that it was laughably easy for coach Steve Kerr to incorporate Durant into a team that specialised in passing, shooting, and small-ball defence. Despite missing 19 games to injury, Durant showcased enough of his brilliance to put all doubts of his fit in Golden State to rest. While Curry didn’t have another MVP season, he once again was the true heartbeat of the team, running the show from the point guard position. All four of their core players made the Western Conference All Star squad.

But the real higher gear of this Warriors ensemble was saved for the play-offs. Golden State swept the first three rounds, winning every game, except one, by double digits (shed a tear for Kawhi Leonard) before meeting their old nemesis, the Cavaliers, in the Finals again. This time, there were no more mistakes: the Cavs had been on a historically great play-off run themselves, but Golden State made them look like just another team, winning the Finals 4-1 and capping off their play-off run with an all-time best 16-1 record.

Some could argue that the Warriors faced considerably weaker competition in their earlier rounds: Trail Blazers, Jazz, and Spurs mostly without Leonard. But it was the ease with which they handled Cleveland – the defending champions featuring a historically great talent in James, All Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and a deep bench of offensive firepower – that elevates this Golden State team into the territory of the greatest NBA teams ever.

While they are chiefly known for their long-range shooting, the true genius of these Warriors lies in their ability to share the ball to always find the most efficient scoring option. This is the reason why they once again led the league in assists per game in both the regular season and the play-offs. Finding the open man helped them shoot at the highest efficiency of any team in the post season (49.4 percent) while also leading all play-off teams in scoring and steals, and finishing second in rebounds to Chicago Bulls (who only played six play-off games). Their eventual point differential over the 17-game post season run was a scintillating +13.53, second only in history to Milwaukee Bucks in 1971.

And it was at the biggest stage in pro basketball – the NBA Finals – that the Warriors showcased the embarrassment of riches in their arsenal. Averaging a series-high 35.2 points to go with 8.4 rebounds, shooting over 55 percent from the floor, and playing stellar defence, Durant ended up as the Finals MVP. Not far behind was Curry, who played some of the best basketball of his career and averaged 26.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 8.0 rebounds over the series. Thompson pitched in 16.4 points while Green averaged a triple-double (11.0 points, 10.2 rebounds), and both of them were at the top of their defensive game throughout most of the series.

The Cavaliers were built to score but failed to stop Golden State on the defensive end. The Warriors’ clinching advantage in this series thus became their own defence: over the past three years, Golden State have been at a historic pace offensively, but have also been one of the NBA’s finest teams in terms of defensive efficiency. The ability of players like Green and Durant to switch and play elite defence while going big or small allowed the Warriors to keep this balance on both ends of the court.

Of course, there were invaluable role players supporting the star power throughout the season and in the Finals for the Warriors too. Former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, David West and Ian Clark all stepped up to support Golden State’s play-off motto of “strength in numbers”.

At the very top, in Durant and Curry, the 2016-17 Warriors featured one of the greatest duos in NBA history, two MVP calibre players playing and succeeding together at the peak of their powers, with skills that complemented each other’s greatness. They can add their name to legendary on-court pairs like Jordan and Pippen, Russell and Cousy, Shaq and Kobe, Magic and Kareem, and LeBron and Wade.

The 2016-17 Warriors were so good that they sparked a legitimate debate to be counted among the greatest teams of all time. It takes perspective to rank how the greatness of certain teams stand over time, but the Warriors have done enough to prove that they could stand in the company of the other great NBA units through history, like the 1960s Celtics, the 1971 Bucks, the 1983 76ers, the 1996 Bulls, the mid-80s Celtics and Lakers, the early 2000 Lakers, and the 2012-2013 Heat.

For the longest time, I held the 1996 Bulls – with Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc, Harper, and others – in reverence as the greatest team of all time. But the 2017 Warriors have shown me enough to commit basketball blasphemy and admit that they may be even better.

The Cavaliers were a great team for 2017; the Warriors were a great team for all of basketball history. And that, essentially, was the difference in these Finals. The scariest part? The core talent behind Golden State’s success are all under 30, all in their prime, all confident in their success together, and all likely to improve on-court team chemistry as time passes. Yes, one of the greatest teams ever is probably going to be even better next season. Enjoy the show.

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2017 18:03 PM

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