The NBA Finals ended with a timeout that wasn’t there, leading to a technical foul. Calling a timeout they didn’t have actually gave the Warriors one final fleeting hope, one dashed after Kawhi Leonard hit both free throws to clinch Toronto’s title. It was an odd end to a noble run: Golden State, already without Kevin Durant, lost Klay Thompson late in the third to a torn ACL. Kevon Looney played most of the Finals with a broken collarbone. DeMarcus Cousins was out for six weeks before the series recovering from a torn quadriceps. Yet the Warriors never surrendered and still had a chance to win in the dying seconds when Steph Curry got free for a 3-pointer. He missed, which was odd, then there was a loose ball and the timeout technical, which was odd. Looking back, Golden State’s run of glory, as dynasties go, was fairly odd.
The Warriors are undoubtedly one of the greatest teams of the past half-century. Since the Bill Russell Celtics, the only teams to win three titles over a five-year span are the 1980s Celtics and Lakers, the 1990s Bulls, the Lakers and Spurs of the 2000s and the Warriors. Golden State didn’t simply dominate the competition. Like the 1992 Dream Team, they inspired their opponents to re-conceive how the game could and should be played. Antoine Walker once said he shot so many 3s because there weren’t any 4s. The Warriors were no less shameless, only they coupled that prolificacy with precision. They pushed boundaries, re-defined them and pushed back the new ones, too. Think they take too many 3s? Watch them pull up from 30 feet.
Now the dynasty may be over. Durant has been heavily linked with a move elsewhere; even if he stays, he’ll miss most if not all of next season recovering from a torn Achilles. Even if Thompson stays, no one knows how damaged his knee is, or what his recovery process will be. Looney is a free agent. Cousins is unlikely to return. And if the dynasty is over? How will history remember these Warriors? It’s complicated.
In 2015, Golden State defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the championship. The Cavs lost two-thirds of their Big Three that postseason: Kevin Love dislocated his shoulder at the end of the first round, and in Game 1 of the Finals Kyrie Irving fractured his kneecap. The next year, the Warriors won a league-record 73 games and staged a memorable comeback from down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Conference Finals, then lost a 3-1 lead in the Finals against Cleveland. That loss robbed them of what could have been the crown jewel of their dynasty.
They signed Durant and won it all the next two years, though in some people’s eyes the former robbed the latter of some luster. And this year ends with the Raptors winning all three games in Oakland, the last three games played in an arena built during the Russell dynasty. So what to make of the era of Bay Area Blitzkrieg?
Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics defined one another. They were two superpowers who looked different and played differently. Golden State versus Cleveland never felt the same. The Celtics and Lakers faced off three times, with Boston winning but once. The Cavs and Warriors met in four Finals and Cleveland won just once, too. But Boston won three championships in six years. They were more successful over more years than Cleveland, which fairly or unfairly means Golden State’s chief rival from those years is more LeBron than the Cavs.
The Bulls are the dynasty most often compared to Golden State’s; it was their 72-win record the Warriors bested. Chicago bossed the league for the better part of a decade. There was a sense of inevitability they carried that these Warriors have, too: if either entered the fourth quarter down 10, you’d bet on them to win more often than not.
But the Bulls’ dynasty was a rigid hierarchy. As many big shots as John Paxson and Steve Kerr hit, as good as Horace Grant was, even with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman both no-doubt Hall of Famers, Michael Jordan was the star, dwarfing a universe that revolved around him 24/7, even the nearly two years he was absent. Golden State’s first Finals MVP was Andre Iguodala. The last two years it’s been Durant, never as loved by the fan base as Curry. This postseason there were still thinkpieces on whether the team even needed Durant. Curry spent most of Game 6 passing out of double-teams rather than forcing the issue. They were almost always the correct plays to make. But history doesn’t remember “correct” as clearly as it does “insistent.” For all Curry’s brilliance, he doesn’t define this dynasty. Nor does KD. No one player does.
The Shaq/Kobe Lakers were the inversion of these Warriors. While O’Neal and Bryant’s desire for personal glory pulled them apart and cost them shared success, Curry and Durant’s willingness to work together and meld their moxie won them two championships that failed to advance either’s singular reputation. The 2003-07 Spurs were the only team in this discussion to never reach consecutive Finals. Their dynasty always felt more metronomic than majestic, and some — many — labeled those teams “boring.” The Warriors have never been “boring.”
So how will history remember Golden State’s greatness? When Durant went down after fighting his way back into his first action in a month, light bulbs started going off everywhere. People who’d grown to take KD for granted and lost sight of what makes him special remembered the foundation of fascination is fragility.
Last night we saw a team that’s played in five consecutive Finals finally run out of steam. Their bodies kept breaking down, but their spirit never did. If Curry hit that last-second 3, it would have given us a Game 7. But that would have kept us from seeing the Warriors fail. Maybe the hallmark of this dynasty is we couldn’t truly appreciate success so sustained, so vivid, until it was gone.