ESPN – HOUSTON — It has been in the back of everyone’s mind all season — this feeling that this NBA season would end up right back where the past three have, in Oakland and Cleveland, with the best team of its generation going another round against the best player of his generation.
In some corners, the potential of a fourth NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers inspired dread or boredom. In others, it evoked frustration or anger at the salary-cap spike two years ago that allowed the Warriors to add Kevin Durant.
But after two epic Game 7s over this Memorial Day weekend — during which James delivered 48 minutes of resilient brilliance in Boston and the Warriors rallied back from an 11-point halftime deficit against the Rockets with some gorgeous shot-making and championship poise — another emotion feels more appropriate now.
Redundant as a fourth chapter of Warriors-Cavs might be, it also feels earned this time around.
“This was a harder-earned road, so far,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers told ESPN late Monday night after Golden State’s 101-92 win in Game 7.
“We haven’t won anything yet. But to where we are now, what we’ve had to overcome was harder.”
Myers was referring to the season as a whole, during which all four of Golden State’s All-Stars suffered significant injuries. But Myers also was referring to the difficulty of summoning the same intensity, focus and poise night after night, for four straight seasons.
“Being hunted is different than hunting, and we’ve been in that role for a long time,” Myers said. “The scrutiny that is on these guys, they can’t help but feel that. We were supposed to win every game we played this year. Every single game. That’s, I guess, the position you want to be in. But there’s a weight to that.”
It’s a weight the Warriors bear without complaint. But a weight nonetheless. And this season, more so than any of the previous three, there were real questions of whether they’d be able to climb out from under it. That is something that Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue empathized with.
“Playing them for the fourth time is just an unbelievable achievement,” Lue told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears on Monday. “I don’t think people understand how hard it is. How hard it is to win. And to get back to the Finals, it’s not easy. It’s tough. It’s a grueling season. When you get to the Finals so many times, the regular season becomes boring. It’s too long. So, to have the resilience to keep playing, keep fighting and not letting go of the rope, is huge.
“They’re a well-coached team. I love Steve Kerr, what he’s done with that team. They have a lot of firepower, they’re great defensively. To be the last teams left again, that’s a cool thing.”
The Rockets made no secret of the fact they had constructed their team to match up with the Warriors. There are those who will always feel like they could’ve dethroned Golden State if Chris Paul hadn’t hurt his hamstring at the end of Game 5.
“We needed Chris. He would’ve settled us,” Rockets forward PJ Tucker told ESPN as he sat at his locker, drinking an electrolyte beverage after cramping badly in the final minutes of Monday’s game.
“After that Game 5 we won, we had that feeling. We could see it in each other. We can make this run. Then when he went down, I could feel our team like, ‘Oh no.’
“We were rolling,” Tucker continued. “We could see it.”
But as has been the case over the past four seasons, the Warriors just had more of everything. More firepower, more poise, more depth, more swagger.
They lost former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to a bone bruise after Game 3, a significant loss because of how important Iguodala is to organizing the Warriors’ offense and his defensive ability on James Harden.
But ultimately, the Warriors could withstand the loss of Iguodala because they simply have more than every other team in the league. The challenge becomes trusting that talent, rather than tightening up and crumbling under the expectations it creates.
Several times throughout this series, it seemed the Warriors might do just that. In Game 6, they fell behind by 17 points in the first half. In Game 7, they trailed by 15.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr called Monday’s first half one of the “most bizarre first halves of basketball” they had played in his four years as head coach.
“I walked in at halftime and said, ‘I don’t even recognize this team. We’ve been together for four years. I didn’t recognize the group that we were seeing.'”
But instead of spiraling, the Warriors seemed to settle down. If anything, being down only 11 points at halftime after playing so poorly seemed to give them confidence.
“That was a moment it could have splintered, to be honest,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “It could have been a moment where guys went their separate ways. But I think that the way we fought all year and the way this team is built, with the chemistry we have, that got us through that rough patch.”
And of course, the Warriors simply had more.
“Our talent took over,” Kerr said. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve got three of the best shot-makers in the league. They all got hot at different points of the second half and made great plays.”
Durant had 21 of his game-high 34 points in the second half. Curry had 19 of his 27 points after halftime. Klay Thompson had 12 of his 19.
Some of that was due to the Warriors’ defense. But a lot of it was fatigue too. At one point, Houston missed a staggering 27 consecutive 3-point shots.
“We knew at some point they’d tire out,” Durant told ESPN Radio after the game. “James dribbled so much each possession, I know at some point he’ll wear down.”
According to Second Spectrum, Harden dribbled a staggering 600 times in Game 7. The next highest total was Gordon with 250. The rest of the team combined for just 179.
That’s a huge burden on one player, not to mention chasing Thompson around the perimeter at the other end of the court.
“I knew how tired Houston was,” Kerr said. “The way they play with James running so many screen and rolls, that’s exhausting.”
Paul was supposed to help ease that burden, and he absolutely did until he got hurt at the end of Game 5. Houston didn’t have much to fall back on after that. Its only choice was to hope Harden could do what LeBron James had done for the Cavaliers in his Game 7 against the Celtics on Sunday night, after All-Star Kevin Love was lost to a concussion.
Harden could not.
Which is why we’re back in the same place the previous three seasons have ended, with the NBA’s best team facing off against its best player.