The Golden State Warriors are going to the NBA finals after beating the Oklahoma Thunder last night. For most analysts the return of the defending champions to the finals was unexpected after the Thunder went up 3-1 in the Western Conference finals. What changed the series’ momentum, dynamics, and outcome was, first of all, the Splash Brothers – Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. They are the best long range shooters the league has ever seen. Ray Allen was really good, great in fact. And Reggie Miller and Larry Bird could shoot the lights out at times. But no one has done it quite as well as this pair of marksmen. Steph and Klay have raised the bar and set a new standard.
What many people don’t appreciate is that their shooting prowess not only puts points on the scoreboard at a rapid clip, as it did in this series, but it also spreads the floor. This opens up driving, passing, and cutting lanes for the whole offense, while creating nightmares for the defense. Last night 7 foot Thunder center Steven Adams more than once found himself in the unenviable position of trying to defend Steph beyond the 3 point line and the results were predictable – 3 points for the Warriors.
But it would be a mistake to explain the Warriors success in this series (or the record breaking 73 wins this season) to the Splash Brothers alone. Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, would be the first to admit that the Splash Brothers are incredibly gifted, but he would also add in the same breath that they win (and lose) as a team. At times overlooked, because of the brilliance of their two superstars, is their outstanding complementary players, some of whom are stars in their own right and all of whom make essential contributions to Golden State’s winning ways. A misconception of many basketball fans is the belief that it is enough to have two mega-stars to win a championship. Well, it isn’t.
Look at the great teams in the modern era – Bulls, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, and Pistons. Each of them had outstanding role players too. And their play complemented the play of the stars, including at crunch time in the 4th quarter, when the outcome of a game rested on a timely shot, rebound, stolen pass, or defensive stop of a role player. John Paxon, Robert Horrey, and Mario Ellie are a few names of role players who won playoff games and championships for their team at game’s end.
Perhaps the most unappreciated aspect of the Warrior’s success is their defense. A refrain heard last night and this morning on sports talk is that the Thunder either collapsed under the pressure of the moment or reverted back to “Hero Ball” (which means that the two Thunder stars – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – attempted to win games 6 and 7 on their own without involving their teammates in the offense).
While there’s some truth here, it also gives too little credit to the Warrior defense. In the 4th quarter of both games, the Warriors shut down the Thunder offense, including its two stars. They clogged driving and passing lanes, forced hurried shots and turnovers, came up with timely rebounds and steals, and contested everything.
When the pressure was on the Warriors did what great teams do – play good fundamental basketball, albeit Warrior style, on both ends of the court. That may sound easy enough, but when you’re in the spotlight and feeling the pressure of the moment, keeping to script and doing what got you there in the first place isn’t as easy to do as it might seem. Ask the Thunder, if you doubt me.
Moreover, whoever does this in the finals that begin Thursday night will more than likely be crowned the NBA champion. My guess is that the Warriors will.