The Cleveland Cavaliers had an incredible Game 4 to cut Golden State’s series lead to 3-1, and Richard Jefferson feels like the Cavs have no pressure on them.
Jefferson was a member of the Cavaliers when they won their title last season, and he wholeheartedly believes there’s more on the Warriors to win the championship than the Cavaliers:
“Damn right it is. It’s not on us. Where is the pressure on us? They had a 73-win team and they added a former MVP. We added Kyle Korver and Deron Williams. They added an MVP to a 73-win team after being up 3-1. And then KD was up 3-1. The pressure is all on them.
“We believe that we are the defending champs. We believe that we have enough here to win a championship and we haven’t played great thus far, but there’s no pressure on us. There never has. There’s never been that. It’s been about them proving that last year was a fluke. KD validating the move here, which has been validated. No, we feel very comfortable.”
Saying that Cleveland has “no pressure” at all is a longshot. Even though it may be true, the defending champ is (usually) expected to repeat. This year, it’s different because of Durant’s move to Golden State, but the Cavaliers are one of the only teams who has given the Warriors a hard time this season.
On the flip side, I see why Jefferson would say that about Golden State. And I agree with him. Kevin Durant is the NBA’s second-best player, and he teamed up with Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP who already had two other All-Stars alongside him. In addition to Curry’s accolades, he’s one of the league’s three best point guards, and you could also make an argument for him being one of its five best players. In short, the Warriors constructed a team with the talent to blow everyone away, and their two-way dominance as an aggregate adds to everything. Not bringing a championship back to the Bay would be a shock.
As the season progressed and Golden State started playing better and better, the pressure only added because it looked like nobody was going to stop them — unless we went back in time and pitted them against the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Showtime Lakers or 1983 Philadelphia 76ers. According to various former NBAers, those teams would have the best chance at stopping this juggernaut.
We also have to throw LeBron James into this because any player who is worthy of the “Greatest Of All Time” label always has pressure on them, and James is the most micro-analyzed superstar in the game. Once the Finals started, the expectations weren’t as high as years past because the gap between both squads would be too great for Cleveland to overcome — after all, they have Korver and Deron Williams coming off the bench. Oh, and Jefferson, too.
Heading into the Finals, Durant and Curry had more to gain and more to lose than anyone else. The trend of blowing a 3-1 lead started with Durant in the Western Conference Finals last season, where he played the worst basketball we had ever seen him play. He put up great all-around numbers — 30.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks — but the radically efficient killer who torched defenses on a nightly basis shot just 38.1 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from three over the last four games of the series.
Not all of the blame goes on Durant. Since the Thunder had an All-Star duo, half (or close to it) falls on Russell Westbrook. He also put up nuclear numbers in the final four games — 28.5 points, 10.8 assists, 8.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals. Westbrook was never someone who shot a high clip from the field, but even he struggled to put the ball in the basket and finished shooting 38.8 percent overall and 33.3 percent from three.
Hold on… you mean to tell me that Westbrook, who went 7-of-21 in Game 7, shot better than Kevin Durant over the series’ final four games? I need to lie down.
Steph took full advantage. Since I highlighted the struggles of Oklahoma City, it’s only right to acknowledge Curry because he showed up when it mattered most. His overall shooting numbers were lackluster (43 percent), but he shot 41 percent from three which included 7-of-12 in the seventh game. Additionally, he added 7.0 assists, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists to complement his 29.3 points.
Then, he disappeared. The unanimous MVP who brought his team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit couldn’t channel that same energy again, and he didn’t save his team from blowing three-straight games on the NBA’s biggest stage. Could we make excuses for him? Sure. Was he hurt? Maybe he was. I’m not going to. If we’re not going to afford the same luxury to other NBA stars, Curry shouldn’t be exempt. He didn’t play at the level he needed for his team to win. And that’s okay. Plenty of superstars had come up short when the moment mattered most.
If we go back to 2011, a worse version of this happened with James during his first season with the Miami Heat. Remember when LeBron was non-existent for six games against the Dallas Mavericks? Everyone does because it was appalling to the see the NBA’s best player not show up. No one’s going to forget that — even the biggest LeBron fans will have a hard time washing that out of their memory. The Heat returned to the Finals the next year. If anyone had pressure on them, it was LeBron, and this year’s Warriors team is in a similar situation. There are some differences, but redemption is the theme that ties the two narratives together.
Miami was far superior to the Thunder. Westbrook nor James Harden were the players they are today, and Dwyane Wade was still somewhat near his prime. If the Heat lost that series, how would we view James today? I don’t think he’d be as revered as he is now and rightfully so.
(For what it’s worth: LeBron is my favorite player ever, and I think he’s certainly in the GOAT debate, but I wouldn’t believe that this if he lost back-to-back Finals against lesser teams and his career played out the same way.)
The fundamental difference between the 2011 Heat and this year’s Warriors is that Miami never dominated like Golden State did. Their chemistry is so great that you would think Durant spent the last few seasons there. With Miami, it was evident they had growing pains, and they weren’t head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league.
Should Golden State lose the 2017 Finals, I don’t know how we’d talk about Durant and Curry. They’ll still be great players, but will they be able to redeem themselves? Blowing a 3-0 lead is considerably worse than a 3-1 lead, but doing it with two of the league’s best six players? That would make it sting even more. Even with James and Kyrie Irving putting on clinics, we’re going to look back on this series and know the Warriors were much better on paper.
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