2016 NBA Finals - A Golden Meltdown

The Golden State Warriors were leading the Cleveland Cavaliers (87-86) with 5 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter of Game 7 –  that pivotal moment called ‘crunch time’; a period for the true warrior to rise to the occasion.

In the minutes before that important mark, the Warriors Steph Curry made a 3 point shot (6:53 remaining to tie the game at 83-83), while his ‘Splash Brother’ teammate Klay Thompson made a 2 pointer to put the Warriors up 85-83 with 6:13 left. During the regular season, this tandem was deadly and usually punished teams on route to another victory, but it’s worth noting that those two shots were not in crunch time.
When the Warriors went up 87-83 on a Draymond Green layup, this game was going the Golden State way. With as lethal as the Warriors have been once they start rolling, I expected them to take care of business.

Lebron James hit three crucial free throws to bring Cleveland within 1 point (87-86) and that Warriors magic seemed to suddenly stop. This was a turning point for the Cavs and a key blunder by Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, because he inexplicably had Festus Ezeli in the game, who fouled James on the 3 point shot, giving him the easy aforementioned free throws and stopping the clock. Ezeli should have never been in at this critical juncture, as he clearly wasn’t ready for prime time. In addition, he took valuable minutes away from Shaun Livingston, a terrific bench player.

In the beginning of crunch time, Curry (2x NBA ‘Most Valuable Player’) threw an ill-advised behind the back pass out of bounds with 5:16 on the clock and his team up by 1. As commentator Mark Jackson said, “that was a bad play.” Jackson should have used the word 'awful', as a fancy pass like that should never occur in crunch time. Not long after, Lebron James made an easy 3 point shot (on Ezeli) and Klay Thompson followed with a layup. The score was tied 89-89.  

Curry badly misses a wide open 3 point shot (his specialty) with 4:07 remaining and Klay is off the mark with a well-guarded 15 foot shot at the 3:24 mark.

Andre Iguodala and Green miss wide open 3 point shots at the 2:52 and 2:14 mark respectively and the score remains 89-89. Green was 5 for 5 from the 3 point line in the 1st quarter, but couldn't convert one 3 pointer in crunch time.  James followed with what may be the biggest play of the game – an epic block at the basket of what would have been an easy Iguodala layup. The game was still 89-89.

Curry doesn’t even hit the rim on his next 3 pointer with 1:14 left in the game. I was stunned and sensed that things might start to swing in the Cavaliers direction.

That’s a total of 5 opportunities when tied at 89-89 and the Warriors didn’t capitalize on any of them; including two big misses by Curry. The Cavs didn’t shoot much better in that stretch, but their best was yet to come, courtesy of their point guard, when Kyrie Irving hit that incredible 3 point shot on Curry, which proved to be the game winner.

In the final 4:39 of Game 7, the Cavs held the Warriors to zero points on 0-of-9 shooting.  Curry was 0-of-4.  For the NBA’s Defending Champion and owning the best regular season record with 73 wins and 9 losses, the Warriors looked ordinary in their biggest moment of truth. Has a player of Curry’s caliber ever played so poorly on the NBA’s biggest stage? Patrick Ewing (NY Knicks) in Game 7 of the 1994 Finals is the only player who comes to mind.  Being the first team to lose an NBA Finals after being up 3 games to 1 is bad enough, but the lost swag, confidence and ineffective shooting was a sight to behold.

What went wrong with these Warriors in the Finals?

Did they simply choke? Could you see them learning from it and coming back better and stronger next year?

Was the disappearance of Curry’s shot and ordinary performance the reason?

Did Kerr make a terrible error by playing Ezlie in the 4th quarter of the most important game? Keep in mind that Lebron took full advantage of him during his short stint on the court.

Were the Warriors exposed by the Cavaliers, particularly James/Irving and never as good as most of us gave them credit for?

I think one can take parts of all 4 elements above as there is no doubt about it being a choke of some proportion. Also, Curry wasn’t Curry and who really knows why. If Kerr could take back his faith in Ezeli and his decision to play him in the final quarter, I have to believe he would. Finally, it seems as if the Warriors were over-hyped somewhat for two years, as a team with such fierce firepower should have been able to close the deal on their home floor in Game 7. They lost 9 times all year in 2016, but managed to lose 9 times in the playoffs.

When Curry got injured early in the playoffs, I thought an NBA Title would elude them. Here’s an article I wrote in April - a passage and link are below.

“This could very well be the beginning of the end for Steph, as injuries may rear their ugly head and not give him the chance to compete at his highest level. With Curry’s contract (only $11 million per year and low for a superstar) up at the end of next season, the Warriors will be between a rock and a hard place. Do they really want to give him maximum money ($20 million+ per year) with the chance that he could become another Grant Hill?

I feel bad for him, as he’s a class individual and the team had a chance to do something special, by winning back to back NBA Championships. With him healthy, I felt they would have closed the deal. In addition, Curry’s status as a 2x Champion would have put him in that ‘Isiah Thomas’ category. Without that second ring, one can’t place him in that rarified air.

Can the Warriors win a NBA Title without Curry? Slim to no chance in my opinion. The Spurs and Cavaliers are too strong and currently healthy. Even if Curry does return, a sprained knee isn’t the type of injury one wants to come back from after being out 2-3 weeks.”
With a victory Sunday night, the Curry and Warriors legacy would have been secured with back to back NBA Titles. What a blown opportunity. The Cavaliers also showed how to effectively guard Curry on offense and expose him on defense. If that isn’t troubling enough, his ankles and/or lack of durability may never allow him to fulfill his potential.

It’s not easy to repeat or even appear in consecutive Finals. The San Antonio Spurs have 5 NBA Titles and none were repeats. When you have one of the Top 5 all-time greats (Lebron) to contend with, it makes the task significantly more difficult.  The 1992 Portland Trailblazers and 1993 Phoenix Suns haven’t returned to the Championship Series since losing to the GOAT (Michael Jordan) and the Bulls in the NBA Finals.

These Warriors have consecutive appearances and a strong organization, although with Lebron no longer in the rear view mirror, as well as the Cavs being the Top Dogs now, they may find the road to another NBA Finals rocky and filled with a variety of obstacles – not the least of which seems to be a Curry in need of finding his mojo again.

I wish the Warriors well, but if I was a betting man, my money would be on King James.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

The 'Ultimate Warrior' left no doubt about his Greatness

The Laugh, Overconfidence and Personal Punishment

Reporter to Kevin Durant of OKC Thunder: Do you think he (Curry) is underrated as a defender?

Russell Westbrook:  Covers his face and laughs while Durant is answering the question.              

The Laugh
When I saw Russel Westbrook of the OKC Thunder laugh at that question, I knew his team was in trouble, despite being up in the Western Conference Finals 3 games to 2.  If the laugh had not been directed at Steph Curry (2x NBA Most Valuable Player) and his defending Champion Warriors, I might have understood Westbrook’s reaction, although his action seemed condescending. 

It suggested supreme confidence as Westbrook and his team were in a great position to get to their 2nd NBA Finals, but to give any type of extra motivation to an opponent, much less an NBA Champion, is never a good thing. In addition, the Thunder haven't won an NBA Title and were known for blowing 4th quarter leads, as well as coming undone in “moment of truth’ games.

This incident reminded me of when my confidence was sky high in a much less significant yet intense battle – a 2 on 2 basketball competition in the park. I was playing against my University of Vermont (UVM) teammate Bill Brown and we were up 10 – 2, with the winning number being 11. We were both in our mid 20's.

Not only did I know we would win, but I started playfully teasing Bill and his teammate; not with a laugh but with a taunting banter. As a shooter in high school and college, I was beyond confident that I could score one more point whenever I wanted. That 10 – 2 lead was part of the reason, as it had been easy up to that point. As time progressed, the basket became smaller and smaller.

They never reacted to my silliness and kept playing hard. Bill started to heat up, hitting shot after shot on me and rarely missed as they crept closer.  He was a fierce competitor and one of our college’s best shooters. I had plenty of quality shots to end the game, but nothing was coming close and my teammate was equally inept. When it became 10 – 10, our panic was obvious. Even though we played past 11 (winning team had to win by 2 points), the game was soon over and we were on the losing end.

It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten. 

It was a friendly game but I still feel the sting today. I learned from it though, as any subsequent competitions were void of any trash talking, teasing or misguided comments (unless started first by an opponent), even when the lead was a wide as this 2 on 2 competition had been. 

Westbrook’s laugh probably served as motivation for Curry and the Warriors, as not only did the Thunder lose two consecutive games after Game 5, they were also the first team since the 1981 Philadelphia 76ers to lose a series after being up 3-1 in a Conference Final. 

To add fuel to the fire, Curry personally punished the Thunder and Westbrook (as Bill did to me) by scoring 36 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were up 13 points in the first half of that last game, yet one could feel that it was only a matter of time before the Warriors prevailed. Curry took their heart away that night, and the downfall may have begun with that laugh.

I had seen Bill (a close friend for 34 years) dunk on a Division 1 opponent 6 inches taller than he was and shoot with a ferocious flare, so I should have known better. Westbrook knew what Curry was capable of and he should have known better. I’m sure he was tired of all the “media darling’ attention Curry receives, but it’s unwise to display anything that could inspire a competitor. I doubt Russel Westbrook will ever have that type of reaction again.

The moral of this story is simple. Finish the game, project, sale, goal or whatever it may be that you are striving for. Don’t gloat, assume or get comfortable at any point in the process until your task is done. Instead of waltzing over that finish line, take that Usain Bolt approach and blast through it!

That day was a blessing for me as I’ve rarely underestimated an opponent since, whether it was a game of cards, a sales contest or a sports competition.  It has not only served me well on the basketball court, but the lessons have proven invaluable throughout my life.

Happy Gswede Sunday!