The Golden State Warriors lived up to its favourites billing by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time in the last four years to win its sixth overall NBA title. The NBA would have liked to market the finals as a pulsating and even-keel contest between an unstoppable force (the Kevin Durant-led Warriors) and an immovable object (the LeBron James-anchored Cavaliers), but it was not to be. The Warriors shut out the Cavaliers 4-0 and – barring a fortuitous opening game victory, helped by a mental lapse by Cavaliers shooting guard J. R. Smith in the final seconds of regulation time – the team never looked like losing a game.
The anticlimatic finals should not take away from the Cavaliers march to that stage. Featuring a squad that changed considerably over the course of the season, the team beat the odds time and again in reaching the finals, heped by talisman LeBron James, who had a spectacular 15th NBA season and willed his team forward through some outstanding performances.
But even a resurgent James couldn’t handle the might of the Warriors’ four-headed beast – ace shooters in guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, finals most valuable player Durant and defensive lynchpin Draymond Green. The Warriors side was simply too versatile on both ends of the floor and far more cohesive than the Cavaliers, who never found a rhythm or a specific style of play except for leaning on James.
Route to the title
While the Warriors cruised through the finals, it did not get to that stage easily. The Houston Rockets, a squad built specifically to counter the Warriors, nearly managed to upend the champions in the Western Conference finals. But a hamstring injury to point guard Chris Paul in the pivotal Game 5 resulted in a 3-4 series loss after holding a promising 3-2 lead.
The Rockets’ unique style of play – reliance on scoring in bunches through umpteen three-point attempts, empowerment of guards James Harden and Paul to create in isolation due to their superior skills and a much-improved defence that allowed for switching on picks and rolls – created a template that allowed it to contend against the Warriors and nearly overcome it. Next season, the Houston team is expected to double down on this strategy and find more adept role players who can fulfil this.
Indeed, the Warriors players had to battle hard to win by the skin of their teeth against the Rockets. They were also helped by a season-long tryst with adversity. Curry, Green, Thompson, Andre Iguodala and other role players were injured for substantive chunks of the regular season, and the Warriors’ reliance on Durant helped the team steel themselves for the playoffs. Durant emerged as theie fail-safe option and gradually improved his performances, which culminated in two masterpieces in the finals. At the height of his game during the 2017-18 season, Durant was un-guardable and a two-way menace, too. His much-improved shot-blocking made him an anchor in the defence, and his partnership with Green at that end of the floor helped the Warriors throttle attacks at will, be it on the perimeter or in the paint.
The Warriors’ style of play, featuring off-the-ball screen setting, player movement, outstanding three-point shooting and unselfish passing, has given the squad the right to call itself one of the best ever. Scarily, the team threatens to dominate the league for more years to come (salary and luxury tax issues notwithstanding).
Credit must go to coach Steve Kerr, who used knowledge of playing in championship-winning teams such as the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 and 2003 to evolve a free-flowing offensive system for the Warriors and to instil a winning and selfless attitude in a hitherto underperforming outfit. With five championship rings as a player and three as a coach already, Kerr is already in the pantheon of top coaches – sharing space with former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson (a two-time champion as a player with the New York Knicks) who has 13 rings and Red Auerbach, who won nine rings in 10 years, including eight straight, as coach of the Boston Celtics in the 1950-60s, among others.
Unlike the Warriors, the other finalist does not have the guarantee of a prosperous immediate future. James – who has played in eight consecutive NBA finals, winning two with the Miami Heat and one with the Cavaliers – is primed to make another move to a new team in free agency. Speculation suggests he might be looking at the Lakers, who have the ability to create two maximum-salary slots on its roster for next season. He could also be enticed to play for the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers. James now seeks to cement his outstanding legacy as an all-round, consistent performer to rival that of the GOAT – Michael Jordan.
LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers, for whom he made his NBA debut in 2003, after a successful sojourn in Miami was to prove to the world that he could usher in a championship for an underdog, and his team’s surprising defeat of the Warriors in 2016 did just that. Now 33, James, in the later part of his storied career, would love to fit into a scheme where he can contribute to a team without having to lift the bulk of its weight. The Cleveland side is (salary) capped out and has limited flexibility in enhancing the current squad, making it likely that James will be wearing another team’s jersey next season.
There were a lot of positives this season for teams that have built their squads to contend in the longer run. The Celtics, which have patiently added talent by trading for All-Stars in free agency and garnering multi-skilled young players in the draft, are best placed to fill the space of leadership in the Eastern Conference if the Cavaliers inevitably decline. Rookie Jayson Tatum was outstanding in both the regular season and in the playoffs, playing with a veteran-like poise on both ends of the floor and taking up responsibility as the go-to scorer after key player point guard Kyrie Irving was injured late in the season. His fellow swingman Jaylen Brown also improved his game by leaps and bounds, flashing outstanding defensive skills besides playing well within the intricate system crafted by astute coach Brad Stevens.
The ever consistent centre/power forward Al Horford always delivered when his number was called and anchored the Celtics’ defence. Irving, when healthy, was terrific on the offensive end. Small forward and star free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward missed the entire season due to a freakish leg injury in the very first game of the season, but he has recovered and will add significantly to the team next season. Despite a heartbreaking loss to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals that stretched to seven games, Boston will look to the future with a lot of hope and anticipation as its young players mature and its star players deliver.
The 76ers, which finally made the playoffs after years in oblivion as they built talent through the NBA draft, are also poised for more success. Centre Joel Embiid and freakish point forward Ben Simmons willed their team to the Eastern Conference semifinals (losing to the Celtics), but the squad will require atl east one more star teammate to contend for the championships.
Other up-and-comers include the Milwaukee Bucks, whose point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo made the leap to superstardom this season. The 6’11” Antetokounmpo, who can play at every position on the court, improved in most aspects – ball-handling, court vision, scoring relying on his athleticism and finishing with outstanding numbers: 26.9 points, 10 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. But he lacked support from the other players in the squad and a clear coaching input for team improvement. Ergo, the Bucks picked up Mike Budenholzer (formerly of the Atlanta Hawks) as coach for next season, promising greater squad success. The New Orleans Pelicans in the West seemed to mirror the Bucks with power forward/centre Anthony Davis impressing with yet another outstanding season but failing to get help from a diminished roster (after star centre DeMarcus Cousins got injured) in the playoff semifinals.
It was a disappointing end to the season for the resilient Toronto Raptors, who yet again failed to clear the Cavaliers hurdle, losing 4-0 in a demoralising Eastern Conference semifinals. Guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had anchored a squad of considerable depth to finish first in the East in the regular season, but they failed miserably in the playoffs in the clutch. The Raptors opted for a coaching change, too, hoping that a fresh set of ideas would help them take the desperate leap forward.
Perennial contenders the San Antonio Spurs had a weird season, with lynchpin and a pre-season MVP favourite Kawhi Leonard injured all year. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, grizzled veteran Manu Ginobili and newcomer Dejounte Murray carried a team with a clear talent-deficit to the playoffs, but that was the ceiling for the team, which made it to the post-season for the 21st consecutive year. Coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs front office will try to win over a disgruntled Leonard, who has asked for a trade after falling out with the team over differences over the characterisation of his quadriceps injury. If they fail in doing so, the Spurs will look to trade Leonard and build with younger talent, ending a long saga of contention and success.
In the off-season, teams like the Rockets, the Celtics and the 76ers will try to address their shortcomings as they get close to glory in their respective conferences. In 2018, it might have seemed easy for the Warriors in the end, but sustaining success for even a half a decade has been a near-impossible task in the NBA. Expect a more competitive 2018-2019 season.
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