To keep on winning, the Golden State Warriors have to strike a balance

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two

Back in late November, with the NBA regular season less than two months old, a bleary-eyed Steve Kerr leaned against the scorer’s table in Orlando’s Amway Center challenging his team to play better. The Golden State Warriors had already won 16-of-22 games, but Kerr was surprisingly not impressed.

“That’s the story of the season,” said Kerr, walking the thin line between frenetic energy and exhaustion that he often does. The Warriors had beaten the Los Angeles Lakers the night before and then made the cross-country trip to Orlando to start a six-game road trip. Rather than take a day off, Kerr had the team trudge their way to a late-night practice, eschewing the standard game-day shootaround.

“We’re not where we want to be [although] we’ve shown flashes at times,” said Kerr, “but we haven’t really competed at a high level consistently. I think our players would agree with that...So we have to stay on our guys without grinding them to a pulp and keep reminding them that we have to play to a certain standard. We’re not playing to achieve a certain record. We’re playing to achieve a standard that we should set for ourselves.”

In the months since Kerr’s challenge, you could argue that standard has been reached. The Warriors amassed the third-best record in the league and are just two wins away from their second-straight title. But, if there has been one recurring theme for Golden State’s season, it might be one of complacency, a descriptor that has dogged the team throughout the year.

The by-product of assembling a roster of superstar talent and playing at historically high levels over the course of four years is that challenges are increasingly more difficult to come by. Almost every NBA player is driven by slights, both real and perceived, to fuel the level of competitiveness required to excel at that level. For Golden State, those slights grow harder to manufacture with each victory.

Golden State’s style of play is both carefree and careless, and straddling that balance while finding a way to continue winning has proven to be the self-imposed obstacle that drives them. They take wild shots that challenge historic convention. They throw the ball away at an alarming rate for a title contender, often in an attempt to make a play that is captivating and aesthetically pleasing even if the result is a turnover. Their third-quarter excellence is fast becoming the stuff of legend, an uncanny ability to turn on self-fuelled engines at their choosing, lulling opponents for the first two quarters into believing they stand a chance, only to have those hopes dashed against the rocky shores of Steph Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s long-range shooting.

The argument has often been made that the Warriors have greatly benefited from a number of factors along the way to their successful run. Injuries, officiating and, as seen in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a series of fortuitous mental miscues no one could have counted on. The Warriors are not invulnerable, but the point still stands that those vulnerabilities come across as being of their own choosing, something that flies in the face of everything we have ever known about professional sport.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two

Still, even over the course of the first two games of the Finals, Golden State seems - finally - more aware of what is at stake.

In Game 1, LeBron James’ individual brilliance had the Cleveland Cavaliers mere moments from a surprising win, only to have J.R. Smith snatch a loss from the hands of assured victory. Despite their complacent philosophy, the Warriors recognized the opportunity when it presented itself; a dominant performance in overtime en route to a victory showed they were done casually flying too close to the sun on wings of nonchalance.

Game 2 showed an edge that has been seen, as Kerr hinted at in Orlando, in brief flashes throughout the postseason. It was a more complete and dominant performance, and a 19-point win that never felt that close was the result.

The series now shifts back to Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are a significantly better team. Whether or not he does most of his work at Quicken Loans Arena next season, James seems determined to put on a historically dominant performance, one that might result in an Finals MVP award, regardless of the outcome. Role players that have largely been non-factors thus far typically rise to the occasion when playing at home, and we might expect key performances from Smith, Kyle Korver and George Hill (whose missed free throw in Game 1 has largely been forgotten because of Smith’s debacle).

For the Cavaliers to make the series a competitive one, these things must all come to pass. Allowing James and company to shift momentum is a dangerous risk and perhaps the shadow of 2016 still haunts the Warriors, as Curry suggests.

But the title seems largely dependent on whether Golden State continues to understand the significance of the moment. If fans have become embittered with the Warriors’ stretch of dominance, therein lies the root for that frustration. Fans are taught to appreciate the tireless worker, the gritty underdog that overcomes all obstacles to achieve success. Golden State’s effortless product challenges that convention.

There is a sense in watching the Warriors that they have yet to play as well as they can, although Game 2 seemed indicative of that trending in a different direction, a frightening thought for a team that battles complacency so regularly while seeming largely unbeatable, If this is the standard Kerr hoped for back in Orlando, then it seems they are on the cusp of reaching it at long last.

The Cavaliers’ faint glimmer of hope relies that their might not be a higher peak for the Warriors to reach. And yet, the painful reality might be that even a partially committed Warriors team is still unstoppable and there just might not be a thing that anyone can do about it.

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