OAKLAND, Calif. — For as frustrating as the Golden State Warriors have been during this championship pursuit, Coach Steve Kerr won’t just let anyone take free licks at them. So don’t infer, while meandering through the haze of Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith’s Game 1 gaffe, that Golden State needs a major attitude adjustment after requiring luck to win. Please don’t do it.
The premise is too unrefined, and after four long and hard years of the Warriors setting the NBA standard, Kerr is sensitive to the notion that something is wrong every time they don’t show their most overpowering form.
“I think it’s your wake-up call,” Kerr said, abandoning his cool demeanor. “Seriously. I mean, we came into this series knowing what we’re up against. We’ve seen this team three years in a row, and we’ve had these amazing battles with them. Everybody else was saying it’s going to be easy. We weren’t the ones. So I hope the media got a wake-up call.”
Many probably woke up and hit the snooze button.
This is the Warriors’ burden, especially during a season in which they have alternated between coasting and grinding through injuries. They’re playing Cleveland for an unprecedented fourth straight NBA Finals, but their greatest obstacle isn’t LeBron James and how he controls games. No, the ultimate challenge is themselves. They’re competing against their accomplishments — their 73 wins two years ago, their 16-1 championship run last season, the possibility that they are the most well-devised team in basketball history — and it’s possible that we have seen the best of them, even though their reign should last much longer.
To carry on and win as much as they can during this era, the Warriors must survive the most strenuous phase of this joyride. It could be like this for the rest of the journey. Their bodies are worn from playing into June every year. They’re not old, but age is slithering along their path. Stephen Curry is 30; Kevin Durant will join him in September. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are 28. During the regular season, the all-star quartet combined to miss 66 games. With luxury assets and a $137 million payroll, the Warriors don’t have the depth they once did. Every good hunter in the league is after them, and with the team three victories from a third title in four years, there’s an inevitable complacency to combat, too.
We think their lives are all about rings, champagne and sweet jumpers. But it was hard to become the Warriors, and it’s harder to stay the Warriors. That is what Kerr needs you to understand. Then it’s fair to talk about their shortcomings this season.
Here’s where they don’t deserve a break: Golden State has been in conservation mode for most of the season, and even now it can’t fully snap out of it. From the beginning, Kerr played the long game with this team. It’s tough to fault him because here they are, nearing another parade.
But while the Warriors managed their players carefully and didn’t let them fight through most aches, they also had the misfortune of several significant injuries, most notably Curry’s knee and ankle woes, and that bug continues with Andre Iguodala unable to play. In general, the problem with trying to ease bodies through a season is that it can carry over to the healthy bodies on the court. Clearly, the Warriors have had more unfocused and flighty moments than in the past.
In the playoffs, they have found that they cannot flip a switch and keep the light on, not when opponents are so intent on toppling them. This time, it feels more like they have a trouble button that they can push whenever situations get too tight, such as when they were trailing Houston by double figures in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals. They press the button, usually in the third quarter, find themselves and then outlast danger.
So what you have witnessed from them this time is not greatness. It is too-good-ness. When all else fails, they’re too good — too talented individually, too much shooting, too potent a system — to lose. Watching them win this way leaves much to be desired.
I defend the Warriors often because greatness is good for sport. I will never get tired of watching an amazing team win again and again and redefine the game. But these Warriors aren’t playing at that level. They’re like the high jumper who can clear 7 feet but knows the rest of the field struggles to jump 6-8. If the competitor clears 6-8, he will go 6-8¼ . If the competitor bottles magic and hits 6-9, he will go 6-9¼ .
The Warriors know, in the back of their minds, that there’s a level only they can reach. They used to be obsessed with the standard, with being their best. This season, they’re content simply to win.
Maybe that is how it must be when you’re playing in the finals for the fourth year in a row. Cleveland and Golden State just became the fifth and sixth teams in NBA history to accomplish the feat. The Boston Celtics made 10 straight finals appearances from 1957 to 1966 and won nine of them. The Los Angeles Lakers won two of four from 1982 to 1985. Same for the Celtics from 1984 to 1987 and the Miami Heat from 2011 to 2014.
If you can recall, many of those teams were exhausted in the final year of those runs. It ages teams quickly. The Warriors are built to go even further, but it makes you wonder whether they’re a little closer to the end than imagined. Or maybe extending their window will require resetting a few things.
Never thought I would think this, but the Warriors have become annoying. They’re not annoying in the way that thoughtless trolls believe. It’s not because they win too much or Curry dances too much or Green complains about fouls too much. It’s not because they celebrate three-pointers before they go in. It’s annoying that they have achieved at such a high level that it’s getting more difficult for them to impress. Blame them for succumbing to complacency. Blame ourselves for being tricked into believing that this is as easy as the Warriors make it look sometimes.
Sadly, the Warriors don’t need to be at their most dominant to win another title. But if they are going to win, it would be nice to witness a reminder of how great they are. This isn’t a wake-up call. It is, however, a plea for better. Perhaps the sport needs it more than the presumed winner.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
More on the NBA Finals: