Golden State Warriors Slipped, Then Fell, Despite a Record Season


“I don’t think you can just flip the switch entirely,” Kerr said at the time. “There is going to be a natural elevation and energy and all that. But it’s the habits you have to clean up, because that stuff doesn’t necessarily turn back on.”

It turns out the rhythm did not return, not completely, certainly not enough to stop the runaway freight train that the Cleveland Cavaliers became over the final three games of the N.B.A. finals.

The upset — if any series won by LeBron James could be called that — brought Kerr’s doubts into sharp relief: a record season, yes, but one achieved through a maze of adversity. The worst of it played out on Sunday night.

Had Golden State survived in the closing seconds against Cleveland, none of this would matter, of course. The Warriors would have been celebrated for their determination, their moxie, their brilliance.

Instead, it is easy to look back now and wonder about the emotional and physical toll of their season. Stalking 73 wins. Going seven games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Losing Draymond Green to a one-game suspension against the Cavaliers. How much did the Warriors have left by the bitter end?

“It wasn’t easy what we accomplished,” Curry said after losing to Cleveland, “and it’s not an easy pill to swallow what we didn’t accomplish.”

Klay Thompson, the other half of the duo known as the Splash Brothers, seemed to cast the season’s achievements aside.

“It feels like a failure right now,” said Thompson, who combined with Curry to shoot 12 of 36 from the field in Game 7. “It stings more than anything I’ve gone through in my career.”

It is difficult to pinpoint one game from the season that said it all, but the defensive shortcomings flared particularly brightly on March 25, when the Warriors escaped with a 128-120 victory against the Dallas Mavericks. Kerr described his team’s defense as “horrific.”

Photo

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and head coach Steve Kerr addressed reporters in their postgame news conference after losing to the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Finals Sunday.

Credit
From top: Eric Risberg/Associated Press, Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports, via Reuters, Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Warriors compensated by sinking a preposterous 21 of 45 3-pointers.

For much of the season, the Warriors produced so much offense that they could survive their lapses on defense.

But their margin for error narrowed — because of fatigue, because of injuries, because of waning focus. Kerr harped on his team to keep things simple instead of trying for the home run all the time. The players did not always listen.

“When you win, it kind of masks a lot of things,” Harrison Barnes said before the start of the playoffs.

At the same time, Kerr chose not to rest any of his stars in the final weeks of the regular season. His players wanted to win 73 games, so he made a pact with them: As long as they were honest about their health, he would let them play. Kerr did so with some trepidation. He would have preferred to find opportunities to sit Curry and others.

Instead, the Warriors’ hunt for the record extended to their regular-season finale, which they won.

More problems surfaced once the playoffs began. In the first round against the Houston Rockets, Curry injured his right ankle and sprained his right knee. Once he returned, he was spectacular at times — he had 40 points in his first game back, against the Portland Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals — but he lacked his usual consistency. Questions about his health would linger all the way through the finals.

And then there was Green, whose volatile style had so often fueled his teammates. But in the playoffs, he skirted a fine line between being emotional and reckless. It caught up with him. After he collected too many flagrant fouls, he was suspended for Game 5 of the finals — a game that the Warriors, with a chance to clinch back-to-back titles, lost at home.

“If I don’t put myself in that position and I don’t get suspended for Game 5, are we sitting here champions? Maybe. Maybe not,” Green said late Sunday. “I don’t know. We’ll never know the answer to that question. But the answer that I do know is I won’t put myself in that position again, and that’s all I can really do.”

Kerr was asked whether he felt his team had played its best basketball at the start of the season, back when it reeled off 24 straight wins. He dismissed the question.

“That’s really tough to judge how you play and compare November to June,” he said. “I mean, it’s totally different. It’s a physical game. You’re playing great teams.”

Sure enough, for all their challenges in recent weeks, the Warriors still had a chance against the Cavaliers: Game 7 was tied in the final minute.

So close to basketball nirvana. Cleveland fans might see poetic justice in how the Warriors were denied it: a 3-pointer, this one heaved by Kyrie Irving with 53 seconds remaining. It put Cleveland ahead for good.

There would be no magical comeback, and not much magic at all from Curry, who was 6 of 19 for 17 points — one of his most muted performances of the season.

In the waning moments of their final game, with their dream of forever greatness dangling by a thread, the Warriors became the team that could not shoot straight.

They missed their final nine field-goal attempts, a stretch of futility that included seven errant 3-pointers.

The Cavaliers were not much better, finishing the game by shooting 1 of 8. But the one they actually made — Irving’s — well, it was enough.

Enough to lift the Cavaliers to a 93-89 victory and the first championship in franchise history. Enough to cement James’s rightful place as an all-time winner. And enough to dismantle much of what Golden State had worked to achieve this season.

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