OAKLAND -– It’s tempting to believe, upon hearing Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving is done for the season, that the Warriors can now stroll to an NBA championship.
Simply show up for three more games and they’ll be hugging a trophy and spraying champagne and picking confetti off their sweat-soaked jerseys.
Don’t buy it. Don’t fall for the rational narrative. Don’t be fooled.
Irving’s injury, a fractured left kneecap that requires surgery, means he won’t play before next season. It means Cleveland is without its star point guard, who was fabulous in Game 1 until his knee buckled and he limped into the locker room. It means the Cavaliers are heavier underdogs than they were before the series started.
Losing Irving does not mean the Cavaliers will quit. They lost Kevin Love and didn’t skip a beat. They in many ways improved. Losing Irving is wretched luck for a yearning, woebegone region, but it also removes all pressure from LeBron James and his teammates.
Who in their right mind would give them a chance?
“To me, it’s a little bit more scary,” forward Andre Iguodala said of facing the Cavs without Irving. “You always worry when a guy goes down, because that’s when a team is kind of like a wounded animal. They’re always going to attack.”
Understand, the Warriors still are going to win this series. They’re the better team, were all season and into the playoffs. They’re deeper and more versatile. They are practically unbeatable at Oracle Arena.
But they still have to bring it. They have to stay on point, using effective team defense and collective intellect and, above all, unwavering focus, to put away LeBron and the rest of the Cavs.
And it’s conceivable, even as they play for the title, that the Warriors would be susceptible to the human tendency to relax a little bit when a job becomes “easier.”
“Absolutely,” guard Shaun Livingston said. “It’s happened in the regular season.”
The Warriors lost only 15 games in the regular season, but only one truly stands as an anomaly. Their loss last Dec. 23 to the Lakers –- with Kobe Bryant held out for rest -– was particularly memorable. The Warriors were picked apart by the likes of Wesley Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Ronnie Price and even Robert Sacre.
That was the night the Warriors learned they could be beaten by any team in the NBA. The Lakers, by the way, finished with the season with a 21-61 record.
The Warriors are better than they were then. But the Cavaliers, even without Kevin Love and Irving, are appreciably better than the Lakers.
And now, with Matthew Dellavedova likely to replace Irving, the Cavaliers are that much scrappier. With Irving restricted to 12 minutes in Game 6 against the Bulls, Delly played 34 minutes and was star of the closeout game.
Cleveland swept Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals despite Irving sitting out two of the games.
So now would be the wrong time for the Warriors close their eyes and start visualizing the finish line.
“On this stage, we have to understand what’s at stake,” Livingston said. “This is The Finals. This is the world championship. In that sense, our intensity and activity has to pick up. There has to be a sense that blood is in the water, so to speak. We have to go for the kill.”
The 11th year veteran tells the truth. The Cavs are not likely to curl up and quit, and the Warriors would be remiss to consider the possibility.
Cleveland, dismissed on the basis of simple logic, is a team with nothing to lose.
The Warriors would be wise to realize logic, no matter how impeccable, does not win or lose basketball games. The championship can’t become theirs unless they do all that is necessary to take it.