CLEVELAND — Sometimes, the Golden State Warriors are almost apologetic about their greatness. You sensed it early Saturday morning, just after midnight, when Coach Steve Kerr sat for an interview inside Quicken Loans Arena, hair wet from a champagne celebration and wearing fresh clothes. Before he took questions, he praised the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the classy, obligatory gesture was most genuine near the end of his remarks.
“They had an amazing run,” Kerr said of Cleveland. “Bottom line is, we’ve got a lot of talent, and we had more talent than they did, and talent wins in this league.”
He sounded like a college basketball coach explaining why his top seed had to shatter Cinderella’s glass slipper. The Warriors didn’t just sweep the Cavaliers to win back-to-back championships and their third title in four years. They turned the final quarter and a half of Game 4 into what felt like a preseason game. Their journey was substantially more difficult than it appeared, but most of all, we’ll remember the ease of the ending. The Warriors needed 103 games — 82 in the regular season, 21 in the playoffs — to finally perform their best. When they did it Friday night, the result was a 108-85 title clincher and more face-palming from Cleveland and every other team trying to catch them.
If the Warriors are off their game, they still have four all-stars and enough quality veterans to figure out a way to win. If they are locked in, they are as invincible as any giant the NBA has ever produced. You could say that before Kevin Durant arrived. In the two years since Durant joined Golden State, the notion has only become more robust.
Even as the league starts to figure out the Warriors and catch up to them, they have this incredible ability to move the mile marker a little further than imagined. The Houston Rockets understand that now. They led Golden State 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, and even though the Warriors needed some luck in the form of Chris Paul’s hamstring injury to make a comeback, the Rockets were still capable of winning that series. The Rockets’ defensive game plan was perfect. They led by double figures in Games 6 and 7. Still, the Warriors took their game to a place that the Rockets could not go.
Golden State struggled with complacency and inconsistency this season. All of its stars — Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — missed significant time with injuries. The Warriors’ bench was mediocre. Their defense came and went. They were blown out of an alarming number of games, and their 58-24 regular-season record was the worst of Kerr’s four seasons by nine games. Still, they won it all. And now they have acquired resolve to go with their talent, chemistry, unselfishness, intelligence and feel for the game.
“Yeah, it was definitely the toughest from the standpoint that it’s the fourth year in a row that we’ve attempted to get back to the Finals,” Kerr said. “I remember sitting in this room three years ago. It seemed like a dream. This feels more like reality. And I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s just that’s the talent we have, and that’s the experience we’ve gained.
“But it’s a very different feeling. It’s still euphoric, but three years ago was, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ and now it’s, ‘I can definitely believe this happened.’ ”
The defining moment of this Warriors’ championship run illustrated that belief. It came in Game 3 after Durant’s three-point dagger with 49.8 seconds left in the game. After he nailed the 33-foot shot, he stared at the Cleveland crowd and walked away, calm and smooth. Ice cold. No big deal, though. But wait: It was a big deal, and while Durant tried to keep his stone-faced expression, Green celebrated and yelled at him from behind while Curry barked in Durant’s face.
It’s not a dream anymore. It’s reality, and, sorry, the Warriors are still in their prime.
Parity isn’t their concern. They should still have multiple dominant seasons left if ownership can keep tolerating those luxury-tax bills. But windows can close quickly in the NBA, and creative team builders such as Houston’s Daryl Morey won’t stop obsessing over how to beat the Warriors. If Golden State thought this season was a challenge, it should wait to see what LeBron James puts together in free agency and how other teams respond with another year of maturity and roster development. If the young Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers reach their potential, if the Minnesota Timberwolves keep improving and the New Orleans Pelicans find a little more help for Anthony Davis, if the Los Angeles Lakers become relevant again and the San Antonio Spurs return to form, there will be more major competition.
As I’ve written before, the game will ultimately be better for the Warriors elevating the standard. But the NBA doesn’t need another Golden State sweep or gentlemen’s sweep in the Finals next year. The Warriors need a new rival, one more potent than Cleveland. They thought this championship run was tough. It has to get tougher, though.
“Extremely difficult,” Green said of this season. “Not just the playoff run, this entire season. You’re coming off a championship, and you’re expected to get back to get to that level for Game 1 of 82. Like, it’s tough.”
The Warriors are better for it. The rest of the NBA often tries to challenge Golden State’s toughness, usually from a physical standpoint. And the Warriors keep proving that they’re more than pretty jump shooters. There’s a mental component to toughness, too, and the Warriors are also strong there. This season verified it. They outlasted all their struggles and managed to play their best basketball at the end.
It was a reminder that, never mind the Houston series, the Warriors aren’t as vulnerable as they seem. They’ve become hardened champions. It’s a useful trait because age and mileage will eventually take a toll on Golden State, and the challengers will keep coming. They won’t always be able to win impressively. But they have plenty of experiences from which to draw.
“It gets more and more difficult as you go through,” Kerr said. “Next year will be even tougher. I may not show up until all-star break because they’re not going to listen to me anyway.”
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.