OAKLAND, Calif. -- The fascinating thing about the the NBA Finals rematch is that while this is a healthier, stronger version of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's also a better Golden State Warriors team than we've ever seen before.
Better than when they beat the Cavaliers for the championship last year, better than when they won their record-setting 73rd game in April. They emerged more confident and resilient than ever after overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that seemed to be finally maximizing its potential.
Oh, these Warriors are smarter, too.
One piece of evidence of their increased savviness could be found cradled in the arms of Stephen Curry's brother Seth as he walked through the Oracle Arena hallways not long after the Warriors finished off the Thunder in Game 7. Seth Curry held the game ball, entrusted to him for safekeeping after Stephen Curry secured and handed it to their father, Dell. This one will stay in the family, perhaps passed down to Riley one day, unlike the ball from the 2015 NBA Finals.
"He learned his lesson last year," Seth Curry said. "He threw the ball up in the air and Andre got it."
Now, Stephen Curry has learned to grab the souvenirs and bask in the moment, as he did when he hit one last rainbow 3-pointer to put the Warriors up by 10 in the final minute and he stood, staring into the crowd. He'd gone from yelling "We're not going home!" at the end of Game 5 to holding seven fingers aloft at the close of Game 6 to now simply standing and savoring.
"You appreciate how tough it is to get back here," Curry said. "That's the one thing I've learned. You can't take anything for granted because it's such a grind, it's such a battle against a great Thunder team that pushed us to the brink. So you've got to be appreciative of this accomplishment. And I look forward to getting four more wins."
That's obviously the goal for both sides, although few would put it out there the way Curry has. But that's been his way all season. It was there with the early eagerness to set the record for best start (check). It was evident in his nonchalant confidence that the Warriors would retain the No. 1 seed against the drafting Spurs even immediately after the lowest loss of the season to the Los Angeles Lakers put in in doubt (check). And his insistence on playing it out and not taking rest days in the final stages of the pursuit of 73 victories, something he'd better have delivered if it cost him chances to rest for the playoffs.
It even manifested in the Western Conference finals, when he said the setback in Game 1 would make things more interesting in what he assured would be a long series. He wound up being right, but not before the Thunder threatened to wrap it up early after demolishing the Warriors in games 3 and 4.
They've expanded their capabilities. Before the reference point for adversity was the 2-1 deficit they faced in the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies last year, which they drew upon when they found themselves in the same position against Cleveland. Curry referenced that early in this series, only to find himself down an even deeper hole in these conference finals.
Now the Warriors are the 10th NBA team to come back from down 3-1 in the playoffs. That's a much better label than being the first team to win 73 games and not reach the NBA Finals. That's the thing, they neither fell short in their pursuit of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls nor did they buckle under the weight of living up to the demands their achievements placed on themselves.
"We're the best road team all year, and just think back to what makes you so great," Thompson said. "You watch some clips of yourself having success against this team. That helps a lot. But I never try to look into the past and think, 'Oh, if we blows this, what a historical collapse.' There is no need for that."
There's a belief in their greatness, individually and collectively. Because they've lived up to it. Curry and Thompson each made more 3-pointers in this series than anyone had in any series before, and Thompson's 11 3-pointers in Game 6 set single-game playoff record. Thompson emerged as a playoff-worthy star both in Curry's absence with injuries and alongside Curry at the end.
"You can't take anything for granted because it's such a grind ... you've got to be appreciative of this accomplishment. And I look forward to getting four more wins."Stephen Curry
They received positive minutes from five bench players in Game 7, and were reminded that Andre Iguodala can still switch to starting late in the season, just as he did midway through the Finals last year. Steve Kerr went with Iguodala in place of Harrison Barnes at the start of the second half of Game 6 and stayed with that lineup at the beginning of Game 7. It was a completely different rhythm to the game for Igoudala, who found himself winded after the first few possessions and wound up on the court for 42 minutes. Better to make the adjustment now than at the start of the Finals when he could be asked to resume his LeBron James defending duties.
But in the end it came back to Curry, the reigning MVP looking like the best player on the court for the first time since Game 2, setting up a battle with LeBron for individual and team supremacy. Curry finished the climactic game with 36 points, eight assists and five rebounds...and the game ball.