CHICAGO – Well, as Ron Harper famously told the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, “Don’t mean a thing without the ring.”
That was the last season rallying cry/plea when the Bulls were clearly on the way toward a then record breaking 72-win season. Coach Phil Jackson had tried to rein them in some, but the players wouldn’t have it. So veteran Harper one day came to practice with the slogan on a T-shirt to emphasize the point.
Not that the Golden State Warriors were unaware after breaking the Bulls record with a 73-9 season. After all, Warriors coach Steve Kerr played on that 1995-96 Bulls team. And with media more personal 20 years later, the Warriors were reminded of that after every playoff loss, and especially when falling behind 3-1 in the Western Conference finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Perhaps that took it out of them as the Warriors finally went down Sunday in Game 7 of the NBA Finals as LeBron James was redeemed again and the city of Cleveland got its first pro sports team championship in more than 50 years.
As an aside, it was probably the first time in James’ career that the consensus rooting interest was for him.
It really wasn’t in his first finals in 2007 against San Antonio. As Wilt Chamberlain famously said, “No one roots for Goliath.” Lebron was just too big and too dominant. And it certainly wasn’t in Miami after James fled Cleveland. And it really wasn’t last year in his return against the cute Warriors with their passing, moving, shooting game as they became the darlings of basketball.
Stephen Curry was invited to play golf with President Obama.
But the Warriors in their preening, mouth guard sucking ways were becoming a bit insufferable, especially the groin kicking Draymond Green, whose suspension in Game 5 — which was unfortunate, if deserved — probably turned around the series for the Cavaliers. If also with James and Kyrie Irving having 40-ish games to get back in the series.
James had suddenly been turned into a sympathetic figure, his legacy at stake as a sort of Wilt loser with what looked like a fifth finals loss in seven appearances. And Cleveland breaks a title drought. Americans love that as with the Boston Red Sox a few years back and perhaps the Chicago Cubs this season. NBA Nation for the first time seemed to be rooting for LeBron.
But it really was his fault the Cavs were where they were, trailing 3-1.
It’s subtle, but he’s not that LeBron anymore. He doesn’t finish at the basket as strongly anymore. Yes, with power but not with explosiveness like he once did. You could see it all season, though the view often was he’s cruising to the playoffs.
So LeBron went more toward his “play the right way” game of drawing attention and passing. It may be the right way for normal basketball players, but not LeBron. Stars have to exert themselves offensively in the finals, and LeBron wasn’t. He’d get to the paint and pass to J.R. Smith or Richard Jefferson for a three. C’mon. He wasn’t making himself enough of a threat.
He finally realized the losing nature of that strategy in Game 5 and he and Irving each scored 41 points as he looked to the basket instead of other human objects. He kept it up in Game 6 as Irving faded some, but Irving’s presence was vital. He became the teammate to save LeBron as Dwyane Wade was at times. Irving, after all, made the big three at the end of Game 7.
Heck, LeBron barely rattled in that second free throw to make the difference at the end.
LeBron’s never been a good shooter and in the first four games he backed away from shooting. You can’t do that when you are relied upon as he is, and that changed in Game 5 as well. James was a bit too passive much of Game 7, but this time the Warriors seemed too spent to do enough about it.
Maybe the rush to get to 73 finally took its toll in the NBA Finals.
After all, Warriors’ star Curry, is slightly built and did have knee issues that kept him out earlier in the playoffs. He isn’t the dominant physical figure like Michael Jordan.
Maybe the longer playoffs and having to come back the way they did against Oklahoma City sapped them. Remember, it was Klay Thompson with that amazing Game 6 back in Oklahoma City who saved them. As the playoffs progressed, it was Thompson who was the splashier brother.
Plus, the Cavs and the Thunder, at least until the latter was ahead 3-1, played the Warriors like you need to and few did during the season. You have to beat them with size. Play your bigger guys, but mobile bigger guys so you can switch and trap on the perimeter.
The Thunder did that through four games and then went away from that some and it was fatal. The Cavs came back with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love late in Game 7 playing together as the rebounding deficit proved decisive against the Warriors. Sure, losing Andrew Bogut hurt Golden State. But he wasn’t exactly part of their famous so called “Death Lineup” that they featured all season playing small to befuddle opponents.
No excuse there, and not for the whining that there was holding against Curry. That’s the playoffs. Heck, there used to be hand check/holding all season. The playoffs are always more physical. But the Warriors did average just 96 points the last three games.
Before we write them off too quickly, they were basically two shots, Irving and James 3-pointers and perhaps a three-point foul on James, away from being a back-to-back champions. The Warriors failed to score the last four minutes of Game 7. Some of those shots could have gone in. So it’s inaccurate to say what they did failed to work. They led at halftime and throughout much of Game 7.
They got the worst performance of the year from Harrison Barnes the last three games, Bogut was gone and Curry perhaps was feeling the pressure to save them. That did hurt as he and Thompson began searching out threes instead of moving the ball, passing, trusting your teammates as they had done so remarkably well all season.
It proved lethal, but understandable and often what we wish LeBron would do.
That it worked this time for LeBron and not for Curry and Thompson doesn’t mean it was wrong or the Warriors have to find a new method. Curry and Thompson had just two assists each in that last game. That wasn’t them. It always was said you can’t win a title as a jump shooting team. But the Warriors did last season and were really, really, really close to going back to back. That’s impressive.
But America has a standard: Winning and losing.
Now the Warriors are losers but for the actions of just a few seconds. But losers they become.
So the Warriors join that pantheon of American failures like the 2007 New England Patriots, 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2001 Seattle Mariners to have record-breaking seasons and not win the championship. The Bulls survive.
Barnes is a restricted free agent and has been rumored as a major summer catch. His playoff performance will raise issues about that and could put his value back at the level the Warriors would spend.
There have been rumors all season that Kevin Durant would opt out to become a Warrior. That seems unlikely as he’s probably not likely to go where someone else is the main player with the ball, like Curry.
My sense is the Warriors tweak rather than overreact.
They’re a great team with a great formula and a great coach.
There are more T-shirts with slogans like, “You Can’t Win them All,” and “Wait ’til Next Year.”
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”