OAKLAND – The defining moment of the 2016 NBA Finals may not have been LeBron James’s sublime block, Kevin Love’s improbable stand or Kyrie Irving’s heaven-sent three-pointer. Those highlights fill up the montages and scrapbooks, rightfully revered in Cleveland from now until eternity. The brilliance required a collapse, though, and the downfall of the Golden State Warriors had been encapsulated in a different play, before the Cavaliers created memories in triplicate.
With less than six minutes remaining in Game 7, with the Warriors clinging to a one-point lead, Steph Curry started to back down his defender on the right wing. Klay Thompson cut to the corner, and Curry, in one motion, flung a left-handed pass behind his back with all the urgency of a philosophy major playing Frisbee on the quad. The ball flew out of bounds, one of four turnovers Curry committed in the season’s conclusive game.
The play represented the Warriors’ central flaw, an unshakable belief in their immense talent that could too easily bleed into hubris. In their three-year reign atop the NBA, the Warriors have often attached an unnecessary degree of difficulty to their performance, as if competition alone could not hold their interest. They treated sloppiness as an accepted side effect of their fluorescence, a trait so ingrained their best player could not shake it in the biggest moment. It was not a problem, until it cost them a championship.
The play echoed Thursday night in Game 1, as the Warriors returned to the Finals for the first time since the Cavaliers spoiled their 73-win romp. For the truest measure of how seriously the Warriors are taking these Finals, of how sick and tired they are of hearing about a vanishing 3-1 lead, of how committed they are to obliterating Cleveland, look past the gaudy numbers – 38 points for Kevin Durant, six threes for Curry – and focus on a slice of absurdity: The Warriors committed only four turnovers.
For all the ways the Warriors have made history over three seasons, limiting turnovers has not been close to one of them. Kerr coined the term “plays of insanity” for how often the Warriors committed needless turnovers early in the 2014-15 season. He spliced video to show the Warriors, Curry in particular, how easy it could be to decrease turnovers and how damaging they could be. Golden State curbed turnovers in spurts, but they remained the Warriors’ Achilles heel.
“We’re so talented that sometimes the game is too easy,” Warriors reserve guard Shaun Livingston said. “This is the highest level right here. It’s the Finals. I think it’s that appropriate fear Steve likes to talk about. We understand how good those guys are over there. They’re the defending champions. We want that. So we have to be dialed in.”
In Game 1, the Warriors were dialed in to a level they had not reached. In the past three years, they had never committed fewer than seven turnovers. And then they committed four, against the defending champions, last seen in the Finals holding them to 89 points. Only Curry and Draymond Green committed turnovers, two apiece. Since at least the 1984 season, no team had accumulated 31 assists with four or fewer turnovers in a playoff game – until the Warriors did it Thursday night. They became the fourth team since 1983 to commit four or fewer turnovers in the NBA Finals, falling one shy of the 2005 Pistons’ record.
Kerr and interim Coach Mike Brown had stressed to the Warriors the importance of careful ballhandling. If the Warriors could win the possession battle, they would be impossible to beat. In the past three years, the Warriors are 30-3 when they turn the ball over less than 10 times.
The concept is simple, but often ignored by Warriors players. They averaged 14.8 turnovers this season, about one higher than league average. As they have developed into a juggernaut, they have bought into the notion of how entertaining they are to watch.
“That’s been our key all year, just to take care of the ball, even sometimes at the expense of not being as flashy as folks are used to,” Warriors forward David West said. “It’s what we talk about. We feel like if we just go for singles and doubles, not swing the for fences every day. Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve got a group as talented as us. Sometimes, the home run is there. But you got to be patient. That’s what we talked about as being one of our main keys.
“That’s been our focus all year. The games that we’ve lost are games that we’ve just turned the ball over. We get up in the 15-plus range, that’s a disaster for us. We know that just sort of maintaining that ball-care aspect is going to be key for us. If we’re not turning the ball over, not giving teams touchdown lay-ups and stuff like that, we’re tough to beat.”
The Warriors, West said, are realizing how superfluous risky passes are. Defenses are so strained from having to cover so many threats, easy passes lead to shots just as open and efficient as dazzling passes. They are capable of highlight passes and showmanship, but they can accomplish what they want on offense through simplicity.
“Just keeping it simple, man,” Curry said. “Just making the pass that’s in front of you. We have playmakers all over the floor. Just let the gravity take hold on the floor, see who is going to draw attention on the ball and find the open guy and knock down open shots.”
Last year, in Game 7, Curry failed to keep it simple. It reflected how the Warriors viewed themselves and their opponent. They looked down on Cleveland, self-assured after their dizzying regular season, and by the time the Cavaliers roared back, they couldn’t adjust their mentality.
Carelessness sank the Warriors last season, and maybe it was the only thing that could have. If Game 1 provided a preview, they are not going to let it happen again. The keenest signal of how the Warriors view the Cavaliers now could be gleaned from that one number, four. They respect them, but they are also focused on destroying them. They are not messing around anymore.