By Steve Lichtenstein
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You’ve got to love Steve Kerr’s wit.
The coach of the two-time NBA champion Warriors, who won their rubber match against the Cavaliers with a 129-120 victory on Monday night to take the Finals in five games, defended his club’s legacy last week after a litany of former pros suggested that Golden State was inferior to past collections.
“They’re all right,” Kerr said of those critics. “They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in their 50s would’ve destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
Kerr doesn’t have to say it, but I will. These Warriors are the best team to ever play in the NBA.
Not since the turn of the century has anyone been able to trot out two MVPs in their prime like Golden State’s breathtaking tandem of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. Those three-peat Lakers squads led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, by the way, also counted mere mortals such as Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Ron Harper, Glen Rice, and Horace Grant among their starting fives. That’s a far cry from boasting All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the court alongside Curry and Durant.
Before that, you have to go back to the Celtics of the 1950s. While I’m not here to denigrate the significance of what Bill Russell and Bob Cousy meant to the league in their era, today’s NBA looks nothing like how the game was played in its early iterations. For anyone who would mistakenly elevate Cousy over Curry, for example, let me remind you that Cousy shot 37.8 percent from the floor during his MVP season of 1956-57 and 37.5 percent over his 13-year career.
According to NBA.com, Curry converted 37.5 percent this season — on 32 attempts between 30 and 39 feet!
Forget the Lakers and Celtics of Magic and Bird lore, and, most of all, the Michael Jordan Bulls, who never had a foil anywhere close to the quality of LeBron James’ Cavs. Even during Chicago’s then-record 72-10 season in 1995-96, the only player other than Hall of Famers Jordan and Scottie Pippen to average double-digits in points was Toni Kukoc (Kerr, ironically, was a key reserve during the Bulls’ dynasty).
Sure, those squads were all super in their times, but we’ve never seen anything like what the Warriors accomplished this season, in terms of both dominance and “wow” factor.
They had it all — an unbridled pace, exquisite ballhandling and passing, remarkable shot-making, suffocating defense, and adept coaching. There’s never been a better shooter from anywhere on the court than Curry or a 7-footer (yes, Durant may be “listed” at 6-9, but everyone in the league knows that’s a myth) with Durant’s all-around skills.
Now add in Thompson, the NBA’s best “3-and-D” wing, who owns the league record for most points scored in a quarter (37), and Green, the ultimate glue guy who does all the little (and some big) things necessary for winning teams, including the ability to guard anyone from positions 1 through 5.
Zaza Pachulia was the nominal fifth starter, but the Warriors always seemed to take their game to another level when they replaced their center with veteran wing Andre Iguodala. This “Death Lineup” outscored their opponents by 23.9 points per 100 possessions in their 224 minutes on the court this season. Their net rating jumped to a ridiculous plus-32.9 points per 100 in 65 postseason minutes.
They were unstoppable.
Unlike several past great teams, the Warriors’ deep and experienced bench allowed their stars to get their requisite rest. Durant and Curry each averaged approximately 35.5 minutes per game this postseason. You saw the devastation to the Cavs when they sat James for even two minutes.
Golden State’s 67-15 regular season record may seem like nothing special when compared to its record-setting 73-9 campaign of a year ago, but the Warriors learned a lesson after coughing up the title to the Cavs by losing the last three games after taking a 3-1 series lead.
This time around, it was all about getting ready for the playoffs, especially after Durant missed 19 late-season games due to a knee injury.
So it wasn’t “Fo, fo, fo” a la Moses Malone’s bold prediction in 1983, when the 76ers only needed three rounds instead of the current four to capture their championship. Still, it took an otherworldly shooting performance by the Cavs and conspicuously one-sided officiating on Friday to produce the Warriors’ one and only postseason defeat in 17 games.
The Cavs, however, were not going to repeat their miracle.
A 28-4 second-quarter run during which the Warriors scored on 13 consecutive possessions turned the tide on Monday. After the Cavs responded with a third-quarter spurt of their own to cut the Warriors’ lead to five points heading into the final frame, Durant, the Finals MVP, and Curry took over to give the Warriors some breathing room.
The downside to the Warriors’ supremacy was that it meant these playoffs had no drama. Only a couple of contests came down to the wire. Everyone outside of Cleveland knew the outcome well in advance.
That only enhances my argument, since it’s not like the league is suffering through a talent drought.
We may or may not see a rerun a year from now, but it doesn’t matter. For one season, you can feel free to call these Warriors the best to ever play the game.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1