As the clock approached zero in the final seconds of Game 7, nine-year veteran Mo Speights launched a desperation three from the corner that fell helplessly short and ensured the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52 years. The fact that Speights, who averaged just under 12 minutes per game in the 2015-2016 season, took the last three pointer on a team who had Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the best shooters in the modern era was fitting for one of the most bizarre collapses in the history of sports. It is not quite to the level of the 2004 Yankees – coughing up a 3-0 series lead to the Red Sox who had not won a World Series in 86 years – but it is pretty darn close.
After sustaining a 73-win regular season, the greatest stretch in NBA history statistically, Golden State saw their fair share of monumental milestones in the playoffs, which at the time further cemented themselves as one of the best. It began when Stephen Curry took home league MVP for the second straight season, this time unanimously. Next, came an epic comeback in the Western Conference Finals, in which they overcame a 3-1 series deficit to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the inspiring play of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It seemed inevitable that Curry would dribble out the clock to cap off one of the greatest single seasons from a player in NBA history and also one of the greatest single seasons for a team ever. However, thanks to the heroics of LeBron James and unsung hero Kyrie Irving, plus the terrible finals performance from Thompson and Curry himself, it was Cleveland celebrating on Golden State’s home floor – much like how Golden State celebrated their title last season in Cleveland. Instead of triumph, the Warriors now head into the offseason filled with uncertainty and are left wondering what might have been.
Despite Golden State’s talented young core of Draymond Green, Thompson and Curry, the road back to the NBA Finals after falling short in a deciding game seven will not be easy. It will be a path marked by rough patches, complexity and doubt. Although Curry and the Warriors seemed held together in their post game press conferences, I doubt it has even sunk in yet just how big of a collapse this was.
Golden State was not good at home this year, they were historically good. Entering Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Golden State had only lost three games all year at Oracle Arena, only one of which was in the postseason. However, they proceeded to lose their final two home games, Games Five and Seven , to cough up their championship to Cleveland.
In clutch moments, Curry had been as good as it gets throughout the 2015-2016 season. Remember Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, when Curry scored an NBA record 17 points in overtime and finished with 40 points, eight rebounds and nine assists before famously proclaiming “I’m back” to the stunned Portland crowd? How about his fourth quarter in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals when he stripped Kevin Durant at half court and finished at the other end, before again hitting a dagger three-pointer from the parking lot a play later that propelled the Warriors to the Finals? I certainly do not have to remind you of his 30-plus foot three pointer against OKC in the regular season to cap another incredible fourth quarter and overtime for the MVP. Yet, during Games 5 and 7 against Cleveland on his home floor, Curry shot 4-17 overall from the perimeter, including missing his last four shots in the final game. In the process, he handed his second title to still the best player in the world, LeBron James.
It is still very difficult to fathom what happened in those three final games. The greatest home team in NBA history could not win one of their last two home games and lost three games in a row for the first time all year to “choke” away the NBA title to the Cleveland Cavaliers? Now the once invincible Warriors will in all likelihood lose starting small forward Harrison Barnes to an extremely overpriced free agency market and backup center Festus Ezeli as well. Besides the big three, this Warriors team could look very different come opening night next season.
How this Warriors team and star Steph Curry respond to this finals defeat will define their legacies. Will they be remembered as choke artists who folded when the lights shined the brightest? Or as legends who overcame adversity and reached the mountain top again? There are certainly plenty of examples of individual players and teams overcoming the toughest of blows to rise again. A great example is Kawhi Leonard, who after missing a crucial free throw in the 2013 Finals to allow the Miami Heat to defeat the Spurs in seven games, responded by winning Finals MVP in 2014 and bringing home a title to San Antonio. However, as crazy as it sounds to say, there is no guarantee Steph Curry plays in an NBA Finals again.
When Speights’ three fell short against Cleveland in the final seconds of Game Seven, the long road to redemption began for these Golden State Warriors. This defeat will certainly test the character of Curry and will force him to prove to the whole world just how special he and many others believe he is. It will also test the mental toughness of the Warriors team who will have to go through the murders row that is the Western Conference to reach the mountain top again. Their greatness will be questioned over and over and they will have to find the strength within themselves to keep their belief that they are, as Klay Thompson said, “The best team in the world”. As the saying goes, “it’s not how hard you fall, it’s how fast you get up”. Time to see if the Golden State Warriors truly have the heart of a champion