Even to the end, as their season was slipping away, the Warriors believed. They believed in their MVP, Stephen Curry, whose ill-advised behind-the-back pass into the corner with five minutes left led to LeBron James’s only 3-pointer of the game, erasing Golden State’s last lead. They believed as Curry missed 3-pointer after 3-pointer; with 4:06 remaining, with 1:14, with 30.7, with 1.8. They had homecourt advantage, they had the best regular season record in NBA history, they had the comforting thought that, 32 times in NBA history a team had taken a 3-1 leads in the Finals and all 32 times they’d finished as champions. The Warriors believed, and in the end belief was not enough.
With under a minute left and the ball in Kyrie Irving’s hands, the game was tied at 89, the series total tied at 699. The games themselves hadn’t been terribly competitive—blowout after blowout, every game a double-digit win one way or the other—but with time winding down it appeared that the entire series could be decided by one shot. Irving’s, as it turned out, a three over Curry’s extended hand. Even then, the Warriors weren’t finished. Were they? They’d come back from worse.
It seems unfair to take much away from the Warriors, who ended their season, well, playing like the Warriors. With a minute left, each team had scored 699 points in the series.
What differentiated this NBA Finals from nearly every other, or at least any I can remember, is that there was never a sense of inevitability to any of it. Most finals we have entire games, or at least a half or so, where the storyline is set and the rest just plays out. Michael Jordan’s titles felt inevitable, at least after the first—which itself was never really in doubt despite Sam Perkins’s huge shot at the end of Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. Or maybe that’s not entirely accurate. This series did feel over, it’s just that everybody (including yours truly) was wrong. The Warriors were up 3-1, ergo the Warriors were going to win.
It will be interesting to see, as the day and the week and the year and all of NBA history go on how this logic-defying finals is ruthlessly edited into a coherent narrative. Already it’s being squeezed into pre-existing formats: LeBron’s surreal chasedown block on Andre Iguodala being christened “The Block” for one, Curry’s misfiring fourth being another. One superstar stepping up into the moment, another failing to do so. That’s a story we know, one we already tell.
In the moment, though, this felt bigger, more unwieldy. LeBron’s block—and his dunk attempt in the waning moments—were both superhuman, but it feels unfair to distill what was James’s finest finals into a single play. As big as the block was, it was everything that came before it that made it possible. But even with LeBron’s otherworldly dominance over the last three games, the series wasn’t over until it was, well, over.
Until then, the game was just about the game. The championship was on the line, but it ceased to matter. I found myself tweeting clichéd inanities like this because I legitimately couldn’t think of anything else to say. Plays like THE BLOCK and Curry’s blanketing by Kevin Love have already been encased in glass, given the boldface treatment. But while they were happening they were delightfully devoid of context. It was just OH and WHAT and OHMYGOD. Everyone involved, from players to fans, were wholly in the present. Phil Jackson couldn’t do Zen any better.
Because of this, it seems unfair to take much away from the Warriors, who ended their season, well, playing like the Warriors. With a minute left, each team had scored 699 points in the series. And while the Cavaliers had indeed fought back to tie the series, the Warriors were still in position to win—tied, at home, a minute left—despite three straight games of God-level LeBron. History will say that James put the team on his broad shoulders and did not let them lose. History will not be wrong. But history simplifies. We need winners and losers, even when the distinction is just a matter of a couple of points spread over seven games.
It doesn’t make it any easier for the Warriors knowing they had three games to close out and were not able to do so. Many times a Finals loser goes into the offseason with the knowledge that they were beaten by the better team. The Warriors have no such comfort. It will be a long time before the “what ifs” start to fade. What if Curry hits one of those threes? What if Andrew Bogut doesn’t get hurt? What if Draymond Green doesn’t get suspended? What if Festus Ezeli could guard LeBron? But as hard as it makes this loss to accept, it should make things easier headed into next season.
Curry still has that unanimous MVP to his credit, still has that 73-win regular season, still has last year’s title, still has the record for threes in a Finals series. The storyline hasn’t run straight—the Warriors won a finals before they lost one—but it continues. Curry’s failure to launch over these last three games doesn’t negate what he’s done before as much as it throws into relief the sheer implausibility of what he’s been able to do for two years straight now. He failed on the biggest stage, yes, but his story is still being written. There is always a chance for redemption.
We impose structure because we have to, we bend reality to fit the arc of stories we already know. And we do it after the fact. Everything has to provide some kind of lesson, there has to be an ultimate winner and loser because we need to justify why we watch, why an in-the-grand-scheme-of-things meaningless sport means so much to so many. But just as greatness isn’t a zero-sum game, neither is a single series, despite the fact that there IS a winner and a loser. The Cavaliers and LeBron won, the Warriors and Curry lost. Curry has his doubters now. It’s up to him to silence them. The story goes on. The Warriors should still believe.