Game 7 is done. LeBron is King, and laying a claim to be one of basketball’s greats, with an incredible topping of almost every stat in the Finals.
Where does that leave Curry? He may be the best shooter ever, but is unlikely to reach LeBron’s level as an all round basketball player. He just doesn’t have the physique to bulldoze thru the traffic like LeBron, and is more of the bulldozed type, especially when it comes to defence.
But somehow all year, Curry and his Warriors did what LeBron has not even come close to doing. They played out a record 73–9 during regular season. And they did it with a brand of entertaining basketball where every player literally seemed to be having a ball. The audience just loved it.
The Warriors go for their shots in a way that’s reckless by established basketball standards. But recklessness becomes skill when the shots go in. And go in they did by the bucket for Curry. He ended up with 402 three pointers, breaking the season record by a ridiculous 126. What made it even more unfathomable was the previous record of 286 was his own 2014–15 mark. His Splash Brother, Klay Thompson wasn’t far behind with 276.
So how did the Warriors achieve what none before them could?
There is a physical side of practising 3-point shooting, in motion, in the air, with either hand, shooting in a fraction of a second, and so on. But it’s the mental side that may be more important. Players speak about getting into a rhythm. It’s basically a singleminded focus on the basket when the body and mind work in perfect harmony. Once a player achieves that zen-like state, the ball just starts going in.
The Warriors were easily getting into rhythm right from the 2014–15 season and all the way through their 73–9 regular season.
But once they were into the 2016 Finals, they began to lose their rhythm. Playing was no longer so much fun as the pressure of being defending champs began to be felt. It could be seen towards the end of their 73–9 run, and was clearly visible in the Western Conference Finals when they were on the verge of being knocked out by the Thunder. But somehow Klay got his mojo back in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, and knocked off a record 11 threes in his 41 against the Thunder. But that seemed to be Warriors’ sharpshooters’ last hurrah.
The Warriors came out strong against the Cavaliers in the first two games. But it was the less stressed out bench led by Livingston that carried them through the first game.
After falling behind 0–2 in the Finals, LeBron and the Cavaliers think tank realised one simple truth. A three always beats a two, and the Warriors were masters of the three. The Cavaliers had no chance of winning the Finals if they focused solely on playing their best basketball. The only way they could win was if they forced the Warriors to play well below their peak level.
To do that, they had to get into the Warriors’ heads.
Curry had to neutralised so the team could no longer keep rolling with the ‘Look for Steph’ mode. If Curry stopped scoring, self doubt would creep into the rest of the Warriors. Likewise, the key to the Warriors defence was Green. As long as he was playing, James would not get free runs to the rim so something had to be done about Green too.
This is pure guesswork on my part, but I can almost see Tyronn Lue and the think tank of the Cavaliers analysing their options. To get into Curry’s head, they had to attack his weakest link, his defence. So they came up with a plan of passing the ball to whoever Curry was guarding, implying that Curry was not going to be able to guard his mark.
The second part was to use LeBron’s famous blocks on Curry, and destroy his confidence in attacking the rim. That would only leave him with the option to go for a three pointers. The last part was to get physical with the smaller Curry. This was possible as the referees seemed to go easier on foul play during the playoffs. The Cavaliers stuck to Curry like leeches, and never gave him the space he needed to play.
The Vine below shows how this played out. Curry did everything right in this layup, down to the superb fake with his right. But LeBron knew Curry’s game, and was waiting for the left, and he contemptuously swatted it away when it came up. Only a player of LeBron’s skill could have done that. The trash talking right after the block shows how determined LeBron was about psyching Curry.
It worked as the shots that Curry was making all season began to misfire. They may have been an injury angle to it. But I think it was the mental part that got to Curry. The unanimous MVP was no longer the best player on the court. He wasn’t even the second best player on the court, with Kyrie outcurrying Curry on three pointers.
The Cavaliers found tackling Green a lot easier than Curry because of his volatile nature. He was already in flagrant foul trouble for kicking Steven Adams of the Thunder in the groin. One more flagrant and he would miss a game. So what’s the best way to provoke Green? Do something that makes him go for another nut shot? Tyronn Lue’s initial claim to fame is being walked over by Iverson when he was a rookie with the Lakers. So if LeBron stepped over Green, he was quite likely to lose his head and take a swing at the nearest target, which is this case would be LeBron’s nuts.
It was a plan that played out exactly as planned, and Green was suspended for Game 5.
Green quickly realised that he had been had. Worse, he had let down his teammates at a crucial juncture. Even when he came back in Game 6, he was still mentally off, and allowed LeBron to score 41. By the time Game 7 came around, Green was back at his best keeping LeBron away from the rim, and shooting in threes at will. But it was too late, as the rest of the Warriors had been psyched out of the series. This was best exemplified by Harrison Barnes, a key member of the Warrior’s Death Lineup. The Cavaliers treated him with contempt, not bothering to guard him, and daring him to shoot. He was 0–8 from the field in Game 6, and just a bit better in Game 7.
So is all fair in love and games?
In an ideal world, the team or player with the better skill should win a contest. These teams were evenly matched, reaching the last minute of the playoff series with both sides having scored an identical 610 points.
When two teams are that evenly matched, the difference is the mental toughness. The ability to keep an even keel when the mind games begin. The Warriors were not able to do that. Curry lost his head and his mouthpiece, while Green went nuts. Their luck also ran out as their best big man, Bogut, was injured. The Cavaliers collected a lot more rebounds than they should have, and went on to win the NBA Championship.
However the Warriors are a young team, and have shown an ability to learn. Hopefully, they get their act together, and come back mentally stronger. There’s also the possibility of getting players who will even the odds in a matchup against a team like the Cavaliers. Like if the Warriors can persuade Kevin Durant to join them with the lure of a ring, this team might go further than 73–9. And what if the tables turn the other way with KD joining up with Batman?
Who says we can’t dream?