The NBA’s best team fulfilled its promise in Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals on Tuesday, making good following a series of preseason risks that would have doomed many similarly talented squads. The Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA title with a 105-97 victory in Cleveland behind its typical end-to-end, team play. The conquest came on the heels of a 67-win regular season, with the Warriors compiling a 83-20 record from October until mid-June.
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NBA regular-season MVP Stephen Curry paced his team with superb ball-handling and leadership in the win, finishing with 25 points, eight assists, five rebounds and three steals. Curry tied for team-lead in points with onetime reserve Andre Iguodala, whose move from the starting lineup last fall helped define Golden State’s identity, and whose move back into the starting lineup in Game 4 saved Golden State’s championship season.
As a reward, he was rightfully handed the NBA Finals MVP award, the first time in NBA history an MVP award was given to a player who didn’t start a single game during the regular season.
LeBron James, who was guarded by Iguodala for most of the contest, finished with 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in the loss. Statistically, he seemed to have help along the way with three other Cavaliers finishing with double-figure points, but for too long James was left on an island as Cleveland struggled to compete with the league’s top-ranked defense.
James did not have his usual spark in the loss. He is allowed to blame fatigue in a wearying season, the fifth in a row to end with a Finals date, and a Finals run that saw him average over 46 minutes per game. With that in place, LeBron paired his spectacular near-triple-double with six turnovers, eight missed three-pointers and several botched defensive rotations. James missed 20 of 33 shots in the loss, too often relying instead on a perimeter-based attack as opposed to the driving and/or low post-heavy movements that marked Cleveland’s inspiring run to make this series a contested one.
It’s hard to believe, but just five days ago James’ Cavaliers were heading into Game 4 with all the momentum on their side. The team was dragging and playing only seven rotation players double-figure minutes, but James’ all-around brilliance and spot play from helpers like Matthew Dellavdova, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov gave Cleveland a 2-1 series lead with yet another contest to play at home.
The W’s responded by winning three consecutive games, as James’ teammates offered inconsistent and spotty play on both ends.
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Smith managed 19 points in Game 6, but he also missed nine of 14 shots and several of his makes came during Cleveland’s last, desperate comeback attempt late in the fourth quarter. Mozgov returned from a disappointing Game 5 that was hardly his fault to contribute 17 points, 12 rebounds and four big blocks, but he also sat out key stretches of the fourth quarter. Shumpert struggled through foul trouble and finished the series having missed 32 of 43 shots (25.5 percent). Thompson managed another double-double (15 points and 13 rebounds) in Game 6, but it wasn’t enough.
The Cavaliers were game to begin the contest, but they started out turning the ball over an inexcusable nine times in the first quarter. Things settled after that (the Cavs turned it over only seven times in the final 36 minutes), but Golden State raced out to a 13-point lead while taking advantage of the Cavalier miscues. The second quarter was Golden State’s time to whiff, however, with the Warriors missing 10 of 11 shots to begin that frame as Cleveland clawed its way back to make this another close one.
The Cavs even took the lead in the third quarter on a Thompson jump hook just one minute into the second half, as Golden State struggled to free itself for its usual perimeter barrage. The Cavaliers may have earned three 24-second clock violations, slowing the game down to a crawl, but the attack was working. The Cavs spent ages at the line, topping the W’s by 20 attempts at one point before having to foul intentionally down the stretch of a game that was getting away from them.
After Thompson gave Cleveland the lead, the Warriors went on a furious 24-8 run to establish a 69-55 lead, banking on stops and muscle memory-bred ball movement that left the Cavalier defense on its heels. The Cavs weren’t finished, however, working up a 10-2 run spaced out between the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarters to turn this into a seven-point game before Curry answered with a three-pointer to re-establish the double-digit lead just a few minutes into the fourth.
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From there, the outcome was obvious.
Golden State pushed the ball and found cutters diving toward the rim, banking on previously unheralded types like Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston and Festus Ezeli to pull away.
Green finished with a triple-double, giving his team 16 points, 10 assists, three steals and a needed 11 rebounds (ten defensive) against an imposing Cleveland front line. It’s true that he was the beneficiary of several perfect Stephen Curry hockey assists, but that doesn’t take away from the marvelous way this 6-foot-7 “center” helped push his team over the top. Ezeli was a coach’s dream as a spot man off the bench, contributing clutch finishes as Cleveland’s defense looked elsewhere.
Livingston, some eight years removed from a gruesome leg injury that had doctors briefly considering amputation, was the perfect straw that stirred the drink – he finished with 10 points, but his heady play in encouraging Golden State ball movement was key.
It was this sort of all-around play that marked Golden State’s season, one that started with a series of moves that could've blown up in the franchise’s face. Golden State fans are used to those sorts of blown moves. It’s been 40, long, years.
The team fired former coach Mark Jackson even after he’d led them to two consecutive playoff runs and a 51-win season last year. Jackson improved GSW’s defense considerably, but his dodgy locker room machinations and isolation-heavy offense needed the boot – Golden State finished 11th in offensive efficiency last season, a basketball crime if we ever saw one.
Rookie coach Steve Kerr was brought in to make the Warriors bigger than the sum of its parts. He and his coaching staff improved the Golden State defense to tops overall, moving the team up to second overall in offense, as the team dominated the regular season.
Kerr took a massive chance in demoting the team’s first and third-highest paid players, David Lee and Andre Iguodala, from the starting lineup in favor of Green (who was a bit player last season) and Harrison Barnes (who struggled in an ill-conceived role as a go-to bench scorer under Jackson). Both pros handled the move expertly, as did the team’s second-highest paid player, Andrew Bogut, who was removed from the starting lineup in Game 4 of the Finals.
Lee played only token last-second minutes in Game 6 after contributing significantly earlier in the season, Bogut did not play at all in the series’ final two games, and Iguodala won the Finals MVP. This ever-evolving, multi-faceted team thought on its feet from fall to summer, and it has Kerr and his coaching staff and especially his crew of talented, intelligent and malleable players to thank for that.
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This is what champions do. They remain open to new ideas and shifting ideals, they play and work hard in the interim and they value the win above all. The fact that Golden State’s marvelous aesthetic value – full of all-out defense, perfect and/or dangerous passes, killer perimeter shooting and unending hustle – only adds to the package.
A championship NBA season doesn’t just begin in October. It begins with the start of a franchise, with lessons learned from both losing and winning, with boo-worthy personnel chances eventually paying off, and it concludes with the execution needed to slog through those 82 regular-season games, and the 16 wins needed to earn the title.
Golden State, in these recent days, those long months, and those unending years prior to Game 6, earned it. It’s a pity we won’t get to see them again until October.
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