In the end, the game, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, stood supreme. All the legacy blatherings, all the When-Will-Northeast-Ohio-Be-Free historicisms, all the Best-Team-Ever proclamations, all the Draymond-Green-destroyed-the-series adjunct narratives -– they all shrank before an epic event in NBA Finals history.
One that gave the Golden State Warriors an enduring memory of what is, what could have been, and what never will be.
The Cavaliers won their first championship ever, 93-89, in a gloriously taut game that elevated the game as it depressed the Warriors' belief in their omnipotence. Kyrie Irving's coldblooded step-back three-pointer with 50 seconds left in an 89-89 tie freed a state from 52 years of stackable pity and near-paralyzing angst. LeBron James reminded people (stupid people, mostly, who should have already recognized it long ago rather than inflate a legacy debate that should never have been) that he is a genuinely generational player, and the logical inheritor of a line that runs through Mikan, Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Bird, Jordan and Bryant.
And the Warriors learned face-first that winning the regular season is less than half the job, and debating how great they are stops at the shoreline of “Yeah, but.”
“We’re stunned,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “We thought we were going to win. I was extremely confident coming into tonight . . . but this is why you can’t mess around. Not that we messed around, but this is why every game counts. Game 5 was really the key. That was the turning point of the whole series."
Ahh, yes, Game 5. The one in which Draymond Green didn’t play, and the one in which Andrew Bogut was injured, and the one Cleveland won in Oakland with James and Kyrie Irving at their intergalactic best. That “messing around.”
But reducing this series to that game is a false front, because the signs that the Warriors had run into a far different Cleveland team were already beginning to show, and the chances to correct that still remained. The Warriors shot poorly in the final five games -– never better than 42.1 percent -– and were routinely out-rebounded. Curry and Thompson were incandescent only in short bursts, and not at all in Game 7 when the game cried out for them to be so. Much was made of the series being separated by only four points (703-699), but in the last five games, the Warriors were outscored by an average of 10 points per game.
They were, in short, not the team of dominant destiny they had given every indication they would be for six and one-half months. They were “merely” the equals of the Oklahoma City Thunder, needing a massive effort merely to advance, and “merely” the equals of the Cavaliers, failing to finish what was there to be done.
Therein lies the real disappointment for the Warriors as well as their customers. They believed their fate was to double down on parade happiness, and establish themselves as not only the team for their generation but as the vanguard of the “new basketball.” They were the team without limits, only to find out that there were limits after all, and that the future has been forestalled if not derailed.
In short, the target number was not 73 at all, but 89. They did 88. In this athletic culture, even 88, the most ever, isn’t the most ever enough.
“It sucks,” Green (32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists to be the nonpareil Warrior among so many pedestrian ones) said, immediately channeling his image-denting suspension. “Obviously you hate to lose being we had a 3-1 lead, so you think about all that stuff. You think about what if, what if I would have done this, what if I would have done that. All that stuff replays in your head.
“But you have to give them a lot of credit. They were down 3-1, and they continued to battle and the never quit. . . I’m not sure if it’s more what we did than you’ve just got to give them credit. They battled, and they deserved to win it.”
Green, with Curry and Andre Iguodala, made certain to go onto the floor and congratulate those Cavalier players and staffers peeling off from the mosh pit, and Green, the quintessentially caricatured lousy sport, was the one who needed to most.
“When I walked in the locker room, I sat down,” he said. “Obviously they were jumping around so you wouldn’t be to congratulate anyone anyway, so when I sat down, I knew it wasn’t right for me to just sit in there. Those guys, they earned it, and it I knew that it was my duty, pretty much, to go back out there and congratulate them. I take pride in being a high-character guy, and to just leave the floor like I did, I would have been able to -– I wouldn’t have felt right about myself for a long time if I didn’t go back out there.”
He won’t feel fully right anyway, and neither will his teammates. Losing stays with competitors a lot longer than winning does, and any competitor will say so. Steve Kerr still burns over Oklahoma beating Arizona in the 1988 Final Four, a year in which UA finished 35-3. This will be that moment for Green, and Curry, and Klay Thompson, and the entire roster, staff and organization. It burns because it must.
And Irving’s step-back three with 50.6 seconds left in the season of destiny, the one that broke an 89-89 tie and the season with it will be in their mind’s eyes forever. They can say this isn’t a failed season, but their guts will tell them otherwise. Guts are remorselessly cruel.
So it ends. LeBron James is hailed as the magnificent player he already was. Cleveland’s self-esteem is redeemed while it continues to struggle through the same real-life issues all other cities face daily. The Warriors are the best team to never win a title, which technically makes them the 71st best team in NBA history, which is as laughable as trying to give them a dynasty before the second ring was won, or assuming that they are just a one-and-done because they came with four points of winning a seventh game. The past is written by those who win, and the future is guessed at by fools.
What we know is that destiny isn’t always destined at all, and that nothing is ever over until the last game ends, and nothing ever stops the news cycle from debating what might have been even when what might have been is just an exercise in shadow-chasing.
The best team won because they did what the best team does –- win. It is in the end the only real tautology that matters.