The joy of winning left the Golden State Warriors both inspired and hungry to experience it again. The agony of defeat left some on the Warriors eager to forget the feeling, and others wanting to latch on to it for motivation.
Through those emotional swings, the Warriors (35-9) enter a regular-season matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers (26-16) on Monday aware they are experiencing something special. The Warriors and Cavaliers have met in the NBA Finals for three consecutive years, something that did not happen even in the universally revered Lakers-Celtics rivalry that spanned three different eras. And as Warriors guard Klay Thompson said, “I’d be shocked if we didn’t do it again.”
“We just want to kick each other’s ass,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “There’s no sort of love lost. That’s how it should be. We should be trying to beat each other.”
That mentality played out in different ways. As Thompson summed up,
“I’ve experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. You learn from both.”
The Warriors overcame a 2-1 deficit to win the 2015 NBA title in six games in what marked their first championship since 1975. Cleveland won the NBA title in 2016, allowing LeBron James to help the Cavaliers deliver the city’s first major championship in 52 years and become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in NBA Finals history. Then after acquiring Kevin Durant in the 2016 offseason, the Warriors rectified the previous season’s Finals loss in five games.
“Lakers-Boston was the dominant rivalry. Our rivalry with Cleveland is the analogy of the modern NBA,” Kerr said. “It’s the same thing. You got superstars all over the floor. You’ve had three Finals meetings. You have so many games and so many people watching. It’s definitely a special feeling in the building when both teams are there.”
That special feeling has produced monster ratings.
The 2017 NBA Finals attracted an average of 20,840,000 viewers per game. Those numbers marked the most-watched NBA Finals in ABC history since it began televising the Finals in 2003, and it is the most-watched Finals since the Bulls-Jazz matchup in 1998 in what marked Michael Jordan’s final season in Chicago. Meanwhile, the NBA Finals in 2016 (20,225,000) and 2015 (19,939,000) sparked almost as much interest.
So, the Warriors-Cavaliers three-year history might hardly compare to the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that includes 12 NBA Finals appearances through a 51-year span. The Warriors and Cavaliers became a rating sensation, though, because of qualities that made the Lakers-Celtics rivalry riveting.
They have star power (James, Durant, Stephen Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving). They have ejections (Curry, Green). They have key defenders (Green, Andre Iguodala). They had a head-to-head matchup that evolved through each series (Thompson-Irving). And both teams experienced both elation and sorrow.
“There’s a chance this could go for another five years. But we don’t know what LeBron’s going to do,” said Mychal Thompson, the former Showtime Lakers and father of Klay Thompson. “That’s up to LeBron after this season. If he stays, this could develop into another Lakers-Celtics rivalry. But if Lebron leaves, it’s over.”
Regardless of James’ future, Green said he already has sensed a change. When the Warriors and Cavaliers met on Christmas Day, Green sensed it “didn’t feel like we were playing against the same team.” The Cavaliers traded Irving last summer to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, who missed the first matchup because of a torn labrum in his right hip that kept him sidelined for nearly the first three months of the season. Thomas and Curry are expected to be play on Monday after both sitting out on Christmas.
“To not see (Kyrie) out there was just weird,” Green said. “But maybe with (Thomas) playing, it’s just different because that’s another All-Star level player. But it was different the last time to me.”
After all, Irving made a game-clinching 3-pointer in the Cavaliers’ Game 7 win over the Warriors in 2016. In the 2017 NBA Finals, Irving experienced both clutch nights in Games 1 (45 points), Game 3 (38 points) and Game 4 (40 points) and inefficient performances in Games 2 (34.8 percent) and 5 (40.9 percent).
“He’s one of the best scoring point guards ever so there’s a reason he was playing in the Finals for three straight years,” Klay Thompson said. “Obviously he made huge shots and is a clutch player. It was a joy to play against him for three straight years. Who knows how it turns out this year. But it was a lot of fun.”
The Warriors’ fun began in 2015, when they proved their offense centered on pace, ball movement and 3-point shooting could succeed in the playoffs. The Warriors also unexpectedly started Iguodala over center Andrew Bogut beginning in Game 4, a move that cemented Iguodala the 2015 Finals MVP partly because of his defense on James.
“We didn’t know we were a championship team. We were competing for one. But we had never done it. That first one is so incredibly special,” Kerr said. “That will always be my favorite moment in my coaching career. Nothing will ever top that.”
Nothing will ever top the Warriors’ sorrow in squandering a 3-1 series lead to Cleveland the following year.
Green served a one-game suspension in Game 5 after the NBA gave him a Flagrant 1 foul for striking James in the groin after James stepped over Green. The Warriors also lost in Game 6, which ended with Curry chucking his mouthpiece after fouling out in the final minute. In Game 7, James performed a chase-down block on Iguodala before Irving made a game-changing 3-pointer in the final minute. Kerr admitted, “it will always linger as the toughest loss.”
“I never think about Game 7 anymore, I’ve moved on,” Kerr said. “If you linger on that stuff, you can’t move on. Then in the end, as you move further away from it, it’s a game. Somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to lose. You have to have that kind of perspective.”
Green has a different perspective.
“You don’t want to lose that feeling because you never want to experience it again,” Green said. “You can never guarantee that you’ll never experience it again. But the best way you can get as close as possible to guaranteeing it is remembering that feeling and fighting so hard against it.”
Yet, Green maintained those feelings do not apply to what led to his Game 5 suspension.
“If I did play Game 5, everything is different,” Green said. “I’ll always hold that view. But what I don’t hold is the regret. I don’t regret it at all
“Because I don’t regret anything. I don’t live my life with regret,” Green said. “(Stuff) happens. You move on from it. I would never let anybody just stand over the top of me. If the same thing happened again, I’d do the same thing.”
Regardless, the Warriors’ loss in the 2016 NBA Finals paved the way for them to acquire Durant that same summer. Nearly a year later, Durant played a pivotal role in the Warriors’ redemption. He won the NBA Finals MVP award after averaging 35.2 points on 55.6 percent shooting in 39.8 minutes per game. Durant also made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 45.3 seconds remaining that secured the Warriors a Game 3 victory over the Cleveland.
“It doesn’t ruin my day when I think about it. But you obviously wish it didn’t happen,” Curry said of the 2016 Finals loss. “I’m all right with those memories. It makes you better. It makes you appreciate winning more. It makes you hungrier.”
Will the Warriors show enough hunger to face Cleveland again in the Finals? Many in NBA circles believe so. Kerr, however, has equally monitored Cleveland, Houston, Toronto, Houston and San Antonio because he considers them all potential playoff opponents that could disrupt the Warriors’ quest to repeat. Regardless of how the 2018 NBA Finals turns out, Curry said the Warriors’ NBA Finals history with the Cavaliers is “going to be up there” among the league’s top rivalries.
“From a historical perspective, it’s going to be to tough to top Lakers and the Celtics and the prime of the 80’s in NBA history,” Curry said. “But we can strong arm the 21st century, and see what happens.”
Regardless of what happens, the joyful and painful memories will stay forever. As Curry concluded, “These are the moments we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives.”