Even when an outcome is expected, it can still manage to be surprising. When the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night to win the NBA title, it should have seemed like a formality. After all, the team cruised through the season, amassing the third-most wins in league history and breaking records with Stephen Curry, the NBA’s most valuable player, at the helm.
Nevertheless, there was something odd about watching the team storm the court after the final buzzer. Few had predicted the Warriors would win a title this year, much less cement the team in the pantheon of all-time greats.
There were plenty of reasons to doubt the Warriors. Curry, their undisputed leader, has a history of injuries. Then there’s the persistent myth of jump-shooting teams—the veritable definition of the Warriors’ offensive style—failing to win championships. Playing a number of their games at late hours on the West Coast, the Warriors literally couldn’t be seen to be believed by many viewers across the country.
Then there was the opposition: the formidable Western Conference with its dynastic Spurs, towering Rockets, and flashy Clippers. To win the title, the Warriors had to defeat LeBron James, the world’s best player, who was making his fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Meanwhile, not a single player on the Warriors’ roster had ever played in the Finals—it was the first time a team with no experience in the championship round had won a title since Michael Jordan and the 1991 Chicago Bulls. The Warriors also pulled it off while being led by Steve Kerr, a coach in his first year with the team.
For a few moments, particularly after the Cavaliers went up 2-1 in the series, it looked as if experience would win out. But the Warriors, already stocked with both chemistry and talent, ultimately came back because their roster was also deep.
The difference wasn’t a combustible scorer like Curry or a shutdown defender like Draymond Green, but rather a bench player, Andre Iguodala, who became the first player ever to be named the NBA Finals’ Most Valuable Player without starting all the games.
With the team struggling after two straight losses, Warriors coach Steve Kerr started Iguodala to round out a smaller lineup. Iguodala scored, rebounded, assisted, guarded LeBron James admirably, and opened the floor for the Warriors to shoot three-pointers over a taller and stronger Cavaliers team. The team won the next three games, including the clincher in which Iguodala scored 25 points. An unexpected hero for an unexpected champion.
Despite the title, some still aren’t willing to believe in Golden State. Just hours after the Warriors won the title on Cleveland’s home court, Las Vegas oddsmakers made the Cavaliers the league favorite to win the title next year. If this past season is any indication, it’s not a bet worth making.