As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Some basketball teams gain a reputation as boom-bust outfits, squads that either fail spectacularly or win with impressive vitality. In many ways, the 2006-07 "We Believe" Golden State Warriors were a stereotypical boom-bust team, but this group was special, because their best moments went beyond merely impressive basketball and took on an air of outright invincibility.
In their now legendary (in the circles I travel in, at least) first-round dismissal of the 67-win Dallas Mavericks, Don Nelson's team didn't just play with a confidence that belied their underdog status — they overwhelmed Dirk Nowitzki and Co., dictating the terms of the series to degrees we usually only associate with title contenders. Whether they just had a particularly favorable matchup or briefly reached a legitimate championship level is up for debate. At their best, these Warriors made onlookers know they were in control. Those who merely believed were late to the bandwagon.
If the Mavs series served as the moment of ecstatic revelation, then the following conference semifinal against the Utah Jazz proved a test of that certainty. Two opening late-game losses in Salt Lake City put Golden State in a hole, although they had played well enough to win both and seemed in decent shape heading back to a presumed gargantuan home-court advantage at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Nevertheless, there was a sense that the Warriors had to show that they were still the team that inspired such passion against Dallas, that band of marauders who could sweep aside any opponent and take wins that hadn't previously appeared to belong to them.
Game 3 rewarded those who had remained Warriors zealots. In a game that was essentially over by halftime, the Warriors made 15 3-pointers, forced 23 turnovers, and won 125-105. The crowning highlight was the play that has since eclipsed most other memories of the series — Baron Davis's dunk on Andrei Kirilenko.
The most vicious acts of posterization carry a fundamental indecency. They endure not just because of great feats of athleticism, but because there is a sense that the dunker has sized up the dunkee and essentially robbed him of his pride and good name. I don't want to claim that Baron's dunk is especially more indecent than all others — the Dunk History series has and will feature plenty of contenders — but it must rank fairly high on the list.
For one thing, it came at a point in the game when the Warriors' best players arguably shouldn't even have been on the floor. (Golden State's lead hadn't dipped below 15 points for more than 25 minutes of game time.) On another level, the physicality of the dunk itself involved Davis brushing aside Kirilenko, provoking a metaphor and making it literal simultaneously. A lot of players drop defenders to the floor with dunks, but Davis actually pushed Kirilenko in the face — I've heard plenty of claims that it should have been an offensive foul — as a (possibly unintentional) dismissal. Then, to top it all off, Davis raised his shirt to show he was wearing a girdle, or at least something that looked like one, which gave the whole play a vaguely self-deprecating but really quite arrogant comic showmanship.
The dunk is impressive enough to excite anyone unfamiliar with the "We Believe" fervor or the specifics of Baron Davis's career. But it's pretty much impossible to appreciate it fully without those contexts, because the play had the characteristics of a climax even when it didn't look like a conclusion was coming within the next week. That was particularly the case for Davis, a stupendously talented point guard who had earned a reputation as a very good player who nonetheless looked unlikely to reach his incredible potential.
At UCLA, Davis burst onto the seen as arguably the most athletic point guard of all time, tore his knee in the NCAA Tournament as a freshman, and returned as a sophomore with slightly less bounce but enough awe-inspiring ability achieve many of the amazing highlights in this clip (my favorite basketball mix on YouTube, incidentally). His NBA career up until 2006-07, his eighth season, was decidedly mixed, with enough high points to deem it a success but several criticisms, including the dreaded "coach killer" tag, doing enough to bar him from unquestioned stardom.
The first few weeks of the 2007 postseason made it clear that the ideal Baron Davis had finally arrived, even if it wasn't entirely clear how long he would stay. Against the Mavericks, he was quite simply the best player of the first round, a do-everything point guard with enough talent, verve, and miraculous shot-making to make the Warriors' largely unwarranted confidence look prudent rather than arrogant. Even when the team lost, like in Game 2 against the Jazz, Davis was impressive enough to reward faith that he would carry his team to more victories. The dunk on Kirilenko was the clearest manifestation of his dominance, a statement of force in a game that was already a blowout. In the moment, it wasn't absurd to believe that Davis was capable of anything.
He wasn't, obviously, because the Warriors lost the next two games in the series — including Game 4 in Oakland, a fairly shocking result given their play at home up until that point — and were eliminated from the playoffs. Whatever the "We Believe" team stood for was to be short-lived. If we take basketball history to be written by the victors, then they'll only ever occupy a few short paragraphs of the NBA chronicles.
But more personal histories can tell us a great deal about the importance of specific events, and in that case the team meant a lot to anyone who wishes to see basketball pushed to its extremes. When Baron Davis dunked on Andrei Kirilenko, "We Believe" reached its apex. It's almost irrelevant that it didn't stay at that peak for more than a few days. A flash of brilliance can inspire more joy and awe than years of steady success.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
• The joy of hearing Scottie Pippen posterize Patrick Ewing
- - - - - - -