The Golden State Warriors didn't go Fo', Fo', Fo' through the West. They didn't play a conference final in which their triumph was a constant inevitability, as we saw with those six Michael Jordan championship teams. Over the past two weeks, Steph Curry and Co. showed they're far from invincible and changed the dynamics of the NBA Finals from a would-be coronation for a team with dynastic ambitions into a virtual tossup, with the two best players in the world facing off in the most anticipated series the league has seen in years.
For the past week, we were living in a bizarro NBA world. Up was down. Down was up. The Knicks were a model franchise and the Curry Twos were cool, fashionable sneakers. And all because the Dubs were something they hadn't been in about two seaons: underdogs.
Last Tuesday night, the 73-win Warriors had just fallen to the Thunder to go behind 3-1 in their Western Conference Final. You didn't need to be Harrison Barnes' UNC tutor to know that the Thunder were the overwhelming favorites to make the NBA Finals while the Warriors would need a near-miracle to continue their already-miraculous season. There have been 232 series in NBA history in which one team went up 3-1. In those series, that team has lost just nine times.
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The numbers, and ball, don't lie. Still, it was baffling and almost insulting how quickly people hopped off the Warriors bandwagon. Needing three-straight wins wasn't cause for celebration, but this was a record-setting 73-win team. They had the first unanimous MVP in history and a bevy of players that could shoot threes like they were on fire in NBA Jam. If ever there was an expectation that such a big comeback could be in the offing, it was here.
People fled anyway and started saying things like "Billy Donovan is the greatest basketball coach in the world" and "Russell Westbrook was the real MVP." The Golden State Warriors, who started the season 24-0, were 48-4 at the All-Star Break and finished with 73 wins, breaking the once-untouchable 72-10 mark of the 1996 Bulls, were being counted out like they were some common team. It might as well have been the Thunder vs. the Rockets.
Then - poof - everything is back to normal. Golden State won not one, not two, but three games in a row to knock off Oklahoma City, wins sandwiched around a Game 6 for the ages. The Steph vs. LeBron final - the one we've been expecting since a few weeks before Christmas - is here.
And Golden State is going to put a-hurtin' on Cleveland.
"But the Warriors are vulnerable! Oklahoma City exposed their weaknesses! If not for one or two insane Klay Thompson threes, they'd have lost the series!"
Maybe. Or maybe Golden State took one on the chin, survived and now, with that experience behind them, are more unbeatable than before. There's a confidence that comes with knowing you can go on the road in a do-or-die game, be trailing throughout much of the fourth quarter and still survive. There's no need to rehash details from a game that will be discussed for years, but the ending was quite simple: When it mattered most, Golden State didn't miss.
So, while logic says the Warriors aren't as good as we thought - that their quest to beat 72 wins might have taken subconscious precedence over the process of starting a season in October and building toward a championship in June - it's important to remember one key fact: Sports are illogical.
That's why, even though it shouldn't make sense, a team that has lost more games in the past 14 days than it did in the first 76 days of the season - a team that was 48-4 at Valentine's Day and is now 5-4 since Cinco De Mayo - isn't more susceptible to defeat than ever. They actually look more impressive and unbeatable than ever. There's something to be learned from imperfection and Golden State, who played the first 92 games of the season without so much as contemplating that concept, just took a crash course.
They knew they could win big. They knew that no individual game was out of reach. Now they know that no series is either. The ability to sweep a team is tremendous. The ability to come back from the dead is more essential. That's why a situation that should have been a knock to a team's confidence (coming with three minutes of the most spectacular failure the NBA has ever season) is emboldening.
It's a different feeling in the other locker room. Instead of believing the Warriors are there for the taking, as you would expect, the Cavs must feel like Sisyphus staring at that boulder on the bottom of the mountain, one that's gotten even bigger over the past two weeks.. If the Thunder couldn't knock out a flat Golden State team after building an insurmountable 3-1 game lead, what chance do they have, especially with the nagging knowledge that four games will be played in the arena Golden State has won 96 of 103 games over the last two seasons?
Cleveland would much rather be facing a team that just came off a sweep rather than one that made a historic comeback. They're just picking up steam. In that way, it feels a lot like the 2004 baseball playoffs after the Red Sox came back from three games down to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. After that, the World Series against the Cardinals was a mere formality.
The NBA Finals will be too. Golden State knew it could beat all comers, giving them a confidence that a handful of teams have ever had in the history of the game. But now they know something else - something that's perhaps more important. They're never out of a series. That builds a different kind of faith.
Over 82 games, the Dubs repeatedly showed they were one of the greatest basketball teams in history. But it wasn't until they stared defeat in the face, coming within a game, and a few minutes, of the most memorable series loss in recent sports history, that the Golden State Warriors proved their basketball invincibility.