The Big Payback

The Big Payback

The Warriors are the NBA champions again. It was the big payback.

Music artists often say that their first album is easy. They have an entire life’s worth of material to write and sing about. It’s the second album that’s hard. What’s left?

Boxing champions often say that winning the title is hard. But defending the title is harder. Why? They’re the underdog before winning. After winning? They’re being hunted by everyone in the division.

Both of these parallel into what I’m about to write.

I waited over 30 years to experience the joys of the Warriors winning their first NBA championship in my lifetime. I had over 30 years of joy and pain (and sunshine and rain) to write about when they finally won it. That piece was easy to write. I’d been waiting to write about what that moment felt like as a fan all my life. This time, it’s much harder. The overall emotional experience is much different.

Last year, the Warriors were that boxer with the bullseye on his back. They added fuel to the fire by also breaking the record for most wins in the regular season. Add to that beating Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder after being down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. And through four games against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s Finals, they made it look easy. They were a wanted team. People desperately wanted to see them lose.

But it’s not easy being champ.

Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and LeBron James’ dry snitching put their stamp on last year’s NBA Finals and closed the Warriors out, winning three games in a row. I think I can speak for the entire Warriors fanbase when I say that losing that series, even though the season was an amazing success for all but the last game, was a new feeling of low. I thought I’d experienced every feeling of low as a Warriors fan. But that was a new one.

It was also a new territory for Warriors fans. No longer were we the lovable, underdog fans. We were getting made fun because of people jumping on the bandwagon. It was championship or bust. I hadn’t felt that way since the mid-90s watching the 49ers lose, lose, and then finally beat the Dallas Cowboys during the 1994 season to make it to the Super Bowl. Just winning most of your games wasn’t enough.

As a kid, I never understood how Magic Johnson could say that a season was a failure if he didn’t win the NBA title. Let’s quickly take a look at Magic’s resume. In Magic’s rookie season, he was the MVP of the NBA Finals with his Lakers beating the 76ers 4-2. His second campaign was marred by injury and the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs as the higher seed. In his third season, he was a champion and Finals MVP again, also beating the 76ers.

But in his fourth and fifth seasons, he’d lose in the NBA Finals to the 76ers in a sweep and to the Boston Celtics in seven games. After five seasons in the NBA, he had a 2-2 Finals record and had been in the championship series four out of five times. And yet, because of his failures in the two losses, including playing outright awful in crunch time throughout the Celtics series, he was dismissed by fans and media as Tragic Johnson.

Imagine making the NBA Finals in four of your first five seasons and people thinking you’re a failure. The bar for success for Magic was higher than any basketball player since Bill Russell. LeBron James knows that bar. After making the NBA Finals for the first time in 2007, James has made it seven seasons in a row, giving him eight seasons of playing basketball until the final series. It’s a tremendous accomplishment except, with a now Finals record of 3-5, his detractors will always point to the five losses in the finals.

This is exactly where the Warriors are now, especially after signing Kevin Durant in the offseason. July 4, 2016 was a holiday for the country, but it also has special meaning for Warriors fans (and probably Thunder fans too – I hope Russ had a cupcake last night) because it was the day Durant announced that he was coming to the Warriors.

I stayed up really late the night before hoping that Woj would tweet that Durant was joining the Warriors, but his last message was that Durant was probably staying with the Thunder. I woke up the next day to the news and knew right then and there that Warriors basketball had changed forever.

Adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team that was the runner-up in the NBA Finals the year before was near criminal, but not without precedence. In 1982, Moses Malone, the previous year’s league MVP was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers had just lost in the NBA Finals the season prior. You might think that trading for Malone is slightly different than Durant signing with the Warriors and you’re slightly right. But the reason Malone was traded had to do with the Houston Rockets not wanting to pay him. And guess who didn’t mind paying him his 13.2 million for 6 years because they felt they were on the precipice for winning a title? The 76ers sent over Caldwell Jones and their first pick in what today you’d know as a sign and trade.

(By the way, the Warriors have another link to that 76ers team. That Sixers team only lost one game in the postseason, going 12-1 and sweeping the Lakers in the Finals in the famous fo, fo, fo playoffs. This year’s Warriors team would go 16-1 in the playoffs, beating the 2001 Lakers 15-1 record.)

The 2016-17 Warriors team had one goal and only one goal and that was to win the NBA championship. Nothing else mattered. Anything less would be a Tragic Johnson-like failure. No matter how great their team was, the challenge was in fulfilling their destiny.

The season wasn’t without turmoil, though their turmoil was different than most. It was less about bad play and roster trouble. Their turmoil was fitting Durant’s silky smooth, though isolation style game, into an offensive juggernaut devised to spread the court and pass the ball more than any team in the league. Their turmoil was figuring out the rotations that they’d eventually use in the NBA playoffs. Their turmoil was an in-season audition to learn how to use a 3-headed center monster of David West, Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee in a way that would be beneficial to the team. I always say JaVale’s name like Shaq does, by the way.

They lost the opening game of the season in blowout fashion to the San Antonio Spurs. It was like the NBA’s way of saying, “Hold on guys. We’re not about to anoint you yet.”

They lost to the LA Lakers in the sixth game of the season in a putrid performance. Steph Curry went 0-10 from three-point land.

They lost a double overtime game at home to the Houston Rockets which made you think that the Rockets might have a chance to upset them in the playoffs.

They lost to the Memphis Grizzlies twice, including one game at home in which they were leading. Curry gave the ball to Durant to close the game and it didn’t look like he wanted to. Durant took a long three-pointer at the end of the regulation and then missed. Draymond Green was upset as if to say, “That’s not what we do around here.” And they ended up getting blown out in overtime.

In the Warriors only visit to Washington D.C., Zaza Pachulia fell backward into Kevin Durant’s knee and Durant was lost for a chunk of the season. Spiteful fans were shaking their karma rally towels at the Warriors. The Warriors would go 2-5 including that game, in their worst stretch of the season.

After the small losing streak, they became world beaters again without Durant, and when Durant came back right before the end of the regular season, the Warriors were playing their best basketball of the entire season.

the big payback

The first and second round of the playoffs weren’t competitive. They blew by the Portland Trailblazers and Utah Jazz in fairly easy fashion. That led to a Western Conference Finals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. It was the first time since the 2012-13 playoffs that the two teams met in the postseason. The Warriors showed glimpses of turning the corner in that series, but ultimately, the Spurs were too good and beat them in six games. Interestingly enough, the only two losses the Spurs suffered in that playoffs before their Finals series against the Miami Heat were in that Warriors series. They cruised otherwise.

In game one, Zaza Pachulia, flagrantly as Jalen Rose put it, stuck his foot underneath Kawhi Leonard’s foot on a corner three-pointer, causing Kawhi to turn his ankle and just about ending his season. It was dangerous. But I don’t think it was on purpose.

Leonard came into the series already hurt, missing the last game of the previous playoff series against the Houston Rockets. He also hurt his ankle again right before Zaza Bruce Bowen’d him when he stepped on someone’s foot who was sitting on the bench. Many people have said it was David Lee and that feels about right.

With Leonard out, the Warriors cruised in four games to face the only team they wanted. It was three-match time. In a fun wrinkle to the series which really showed the dominance of each team, the Cavs had only lost once in their run through the East playoffs. The Warriors hadn’t lost. For pure basketball skill and competitiveness, it was one of the most anticipated NBA Finals in recent memory.

I mentioned some of the turmoil the Warriors experienced earlier, which wasn’t really turmoil for most teams. But they did experience something out of the ordinary. Head coach Steve Kerr, who missed more than half of the 2015-16 regular season after a back surgery gone wrong that caused spinal fluid to leak, was having symptoms again late in the season; bad enough for him to miss game three of the first round series against Portland and the rest of the playoffs until game two of the NBA Finals.

You often see players miss games because of injuries, but it’s rare that a coach misses a game. I was slightly worried about how it would affect the team, but mostly, I was just worried about Kerr. Imagine being the head of a team that is ready to try and fulfill its destiny and not being able to be there on the sidelines with them. He was in pain physically, but not being there with his team had to double the pain.

I thought that if the Warriors struggled in the series with the Cavs that he’d Willis Reed it and return only to inspire them to overcome the odds. But basketball isn’t Disney. Kerr returned when the Warriors had a 1-0 advantage in the NBA Finals.

(By the way, my favorite Kerr story of this playoffs is that whenever Draymond Green shoots a three-pointer, Kerr yells, “Hell, no!”)

While the Warriors may have very well won the series against the Cavs with assistant head coach Mike Brown running the show, Kerr being there showed special commitment from him that the players could see. He was in pain. But he wanted to be there with them. When the Warriors won game five, you could see it in his eyes. It was a much harder road back than anyone knew. And he’s probably still in more pain than anyone knows.

The Big Payback

During the Finals, the Warriors won the first two games fairly easily. I say fairly because both games were competitive until a certain point. The athleticism was tremendous. The game was fast. But the Warriors had too much firepower and eventually ran away from them.

In game three, the Warriors were up after the first quarter and halftime, but the Cavs took a lead before the end of the third and were ahead most of the fourth until the Warriors made a comeback for that ass with Kevin Durant hitting a dagger three over LeBron James to take the lead late and eventually win the game.

In game four, the referees failed to take control of the game, which was to the benefit of the Cavs. But, they were also just flat out better. They tied a NBA record for most three-pointers in a game and won in a blowout. It also made Warriors fan get a little tight in the buttocks area. It was again 3-1 in the series. The biggest fear was that it’d be as Yogi Berra once stated, “Déjà vu all over again.”

But it wasn’t meant to be. Game five in Oakland was competitive and dramatic for about three and a half quarters. LeBron was tired. Kyrie’s back was starting to get stiff. Richard Jefferson’s HGH was starting to wear off. Just kidding.

And it seemed like Kevin Durant sensed it. He scored 11 of his team high 39 points in the final period. LeBron would score 41 to lead the game, but several baskets happened when the game was just about done and the Warriors were trying to run out the clock. And that’s not to take away from anything James did. He’s the greatest player in the game today and that means there’s still something for Durant to shoot for.

This second Warriors championship in three years may have been a bit anticlimactic for much of the NBA. But what it means to me is that the Warriors went into the season as the favorite and did everything they needed to do to. They took care of business.

They made it seem easy to outsiders.

But I don’t think it was as easy those outsiders think.

Losing Kevin Durant for a chunk of the season wasn’t easy. Steve Kerr’s back situation wasn’t easy. And beating LeBron James is never easy.

I know that one thing was on their mind and it was paying back Cleveland for ruining their near perfect season from a year ago. But had they beat the Cavs last year, there would be no Durant. And if there’s no Durant, maybe there’s no title this year.

They got their win back. It was the big payback. Word to James Brown and EPMD. And Harry B.

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