The Warriors' All but Inevitable Victory

The outcome of the NBA Finals between Golden State and Cleveland was rarely in doubt, even if the winner didn’t need to play its very best.

The Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant goes to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James in the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals on June 8, 2018, in Cleveland
The Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant goes to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James in the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals on June 8, 2018, in Cleveland (Tony Dejak / AP Photo)

The Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday evening, 108–85, bringing a mercifully quick, four-games-to-none end to the 2018 NBA Finals. The Warriors had the finest collection of talent in basketball: two players, in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, who have combined to win three MVP awards; the reigning defensive player of the year, in Draymond Green, who doubles as the team’s best passer; and the four-time All-Star Klay Thompson, a lethal spot-up shooter and stout defender in his own right. The Cavaliers had LeBron James, and not much else. Curry scored 37 points in the clincher, Durant added 20, James put together an exhausted-looking 23, and the series ended as predicted: in a Golden State win, with more uncertainty surrounding the identity of the Finals MVP than the outcome itself.

There were some moments of tension along the way—ones that enlivened an evening even if they didn’t put the ultimate result in doubt. In a back-and-forth Game 1, Cleveland had a chance to steal a victory on the Warriors’ court before J.R. Smith inexplicably opted not to try a last-second put-back attempt; the Cavaliers lost by 10 in overtime. Game 3 in Cleveland held its excitement into the fourth quarter, but Durant proved too much, scoring a playoff career-high 43 points and canning a long, victory-sealing three-pointer in the final minute. The other two entries were blowouts, with Golden State winning by a combined 42 points.

With their second straight title and third in four years, all coming against James’ Cavaliers, the Warriors put themselves indisputably among the ranks of the best teams in NBA history. But if the previous two championships indicated some kind of newness—an upstart, three-bombing outfit led by Curry, Thompson, and the then-first-year head coach Steve Kerr in 2015; the addition of Durant to that already heady combination in 2017—this year’s reflected a team cognizant of, and comfortable with, its advantages. At moments during the Warriors’ playoff run, the team seemed less to pursue a trophy than to resolve an equation.

“He can’t just have a terrific game, he has to have an almost iconic game to get a victory,” the ABC announcer Mike Breen said during Game 4 of the challenges facing James this postseason. The Warriors’ players enjoyed the opposite situation, finding themselves constantly buoyed by teammates, the standout depending on who had the hot hand on a given night. In Game 2, Curry set a Finals record with nine three-pointers en route to 33 points. In Game 3, Durant’s 43 offset a combined 7 for 27 shooting performance from Curry and Thompson. There were flashes throughout the series of the Warriors’ old telepathic-seeming ball movement—Curry passing the ball, flitting to the other side of the floor, and receiving and shooting it all in one motion; Green tossing alley-oops from every angle—but underpinning it was the growing understanding that style was an indulgence. The offense increasingly reduced to Durant stretching past a defender or Curry shooting over one, exploiting a mismatch. The sheer talent set the terms.

There’s a growing concern, among NBA observers, that Golden State’s excellence has tipped over into tedium. “In truth, I’m a little bored,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote of seeing the same championship contestants for a fourth straight year and knowing the likely victor. Durant himself has acknowledged, somewhat dismissively, some fans’ waning interest: “It may not be as suspenseful or drama-filled as you may want it to be, but that’s what you have movies and music for.” The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, in a press conference before the start of the Finals, recognized both the benefits and pitfalls of a top-heavy league. “The greater the competition you can create, the greater their interests will be,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s inconsistent to celebrate greatness.”

At their best, sports refuse this dichotomy; greatness is revealed in the utmost competition. Since the arrival of Durant following the 2016 season, though, the Warriors have become the kind of team that doesn’t need to play its best to win a championship. Curry missed the playoffs’ first six games due to injury, to no detrimental effect; Durant alternated nights of incandescent scoring with ones where he receded to the background. Golden State looked listless at times as the Houston Rockets built a 3–2 series lead over them in the Western Conference Finals—their only spot of real concern over the last two postseasons—then simply turned it on. Thompson scored 35 points in a blowout Game 6, Durant scored 34 in a comfortable Game 7, and the NBA’s status quo continued.

It has become stylish, among basketball fans, to say that the offseasons now hold more intrigue than the Finals; this year, it’s true. This summer offers the best chance since the Warriors announced themselves as a dynasty for the league to come up with a corrective, for some number of teams to mount a credible charge. The Boston Celtics, who took the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals without two injured All-Stars, will have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward return from injury and boost their precocious squad. The San Antonio Spurs’ star Kawhi Leonard, reportedly uneasy with his current team, may force a trade to join a contender elsewhere. The headliner is James, who later this month can become a free agent and take his pick of any organization able to pay him, with Houston presenting a particularly compelling option. Players around the NBA sense an impending shakeup; Lou Williams, the veteran Los Angeles Clippers guard, tweeted late Friday night that the “League gonna be weird as hell next year lol.”

If this looking-forward is in some ways a symptom of modern fandom—championship recaps and season previews run on the same day, in today’s news cycle—it also suggests that the Warriors’ latest championship win wasn’t quite enough to hold the attention. The Finals had the feeling not of an action-packed crescendo, but of an opening-credit sequence, Durant and Curry drifting across the screen performing feats at once mind-bendingly impressive and utterly familiar against an inconsequential backdrop. Real, exciting trouble hasn’t reached the Warriors yet. It might soon.