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.