There was a moment in the 4th quarter with 9 minutes left of Blazers-Warriors Game 4 where Stephen Curry dribbled in the corner, took a half-step back and drilled an absurd (naturally) fadeaway jumper over Al-Farouq Aminu. It wasn’t necessarily surprising in the spectrum of Steph ridiculousness in this season. What you saw in that instant was the league’s MVP, coming off nine straight missed 3-pointers, finally finding his legs in his first game back after a knee sprain. After calmly nailing that shot, he turned around towards the hushed Portland crowd, removed the mouthguard hanging between his teeth, and pointed towards his wrist. He was imitating, likely even mocking, Blazer star Damian Lillard’s signature move. The words that clearly came out of his mouth were “you know what time it is.” But as he tilted his head and said those muttered Lillard’s catchphrase, it felt more as if the two-time MVP meant to say “not on my watch.”
How one defines success in the NBA will garner you many different answers depending on who ask. Naturally, the easy answer is “winning an NBA title,” but that response is only realistically applicable to four or five teams in the league. For some teams, success can achieved by finishing over .500, or earning a playoff berth. Hell, even tanking to finish with a bottom three record in the league and winning the number one overall pick is considered “success.” So if we’re going to aptly quantify success in the NBA, it would seem that a team must do two things: 1. Outperform pre-season expectations and 2. Progress in a direction such that your franchise has made steps toward a title in the future.
The Portland Trail Blazers were only supposed to win 26.5 games during the 2015-16 season, according to Vegas sports books. But the team that lost four of their previous season’s starters ended the regular season with a 44-38 record, nearly 18 games above the projected wins total. Rarely is Vegas ever that wrong.
Yet few people outside of Portland fans will remember this in the grand scheme of things. They won’t remember Damian Lillard willing a completely revamped team whose players have an average age of 24 (one of the youngest averages in the league) to the 5th seed in the Western Conference. They won’t remember the development of key rotation players such as the aforementioned Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless or Allen Crabbe. They won’t remember the season that you can, almost without question, quantify as a success.
What will be remembered is 73. You’ll remember Steph’s 402 three-pointers in the regular season. You’ll remember the numerous half-court shots, the home court dominance, and so much more. You’ll remember the Warriors strolling into the second round of the playoffs and (barring a major upset in Game 5), handing Portland a gentlemen’s sweep. And most specifically, you’ll remember Stephen Curry, on the even of being named the league’s MVP for the second straight year, coming off the bench after missing two weeks and unleashing a flurry of long-range bombs to set a playoff OT scoring record of 17 points. You’ll remember all of this, and rightfully so.
Aside from the fact that the point of basketball is to defeat the opposing team, it’s not as if the the Warriors intended to overshadow the entire league this season. It’s not as if they want to leave fanbases questioning whether they should rethink the entire structural foundation of their franchise or simply drink a bottle of Clorox. But there is an innate swagger to what they do. It’s the same swagger carried by mom A, who off-handedly mentions her child got accepted into every Ivy League school to mom B, whose 7th grader just brought up his earth science grade to a B-. Oh, your kid is on the Junior High honor roll? That’s cool. Here are my kid’s acceptance letters from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Cornell. Oh wait, did I mention Brown too?
It’s not so much that they’re trying to bully the opposition into a corner, it’s just a mentality that, not surprisingly, matches their Warriors home base of the Silicon Valley. While other teams view the Warriors as their biggest competitor, other teams are hardly in Golden State’s rear view mirror. Google’s biggest competitor isn’t Yahoo, it’s Google. They’ve created a product that’s so far and above the competition, yet they still have the audacity to dream about how to improve it (Kevin Durant, anyone?) while other teams drive themselves crazy struggling to create even the faintest of Golden State imitations in hopes to compete with the Warriors.
Again, it’s not intentional, it’s #FACTS. And in the current NBA zeitgeist, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy any type of success with the Warriors constantly pushing the ceiling of limitations. For instance, Damian Lillard scored 40 points to lead the Blazers to a game 3 win in this series just a handful of days ago. It was a masterful performance by a forgotten Western Conference point guard, reminding the league that he could , as many would say so casually, be “Steph Curry-esque.”
But compare it to the 40-point game Curry had in game 4 and you’ll struggle to find similarities aside from the actual number of points. Curry came off the bench, struggled from the outside, the erupted like a Russian nuclear reactor in the 4th quarter and OT.
17 points in overtime (NBA record)
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 10, 2016
As each 3-pointer dropped during the 17-point eruption in overtime, it was a reminder of what the Warriors had done all season. They deflate. The fruits of your labor immediately feel rotten in the presence of Golden State. They’ll leave you with more questions and less answers. They constantly remind you of your imperfections no matter what you do well. Oh you have a nice young core of role players signed to pretty fair contracts, Blazers? We have Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and (in all likelihood) Stephen Curry locked up through 2020. You have a top-5 point guard in Damian Lillard? We have the greatest shooter, ever. Golden State pushes the ceiling so high and does so with such flair, that any positive outlook you have about your franchise is immediately flushed down the drain along with any self-confidence one might have in your team. Simply put, no matter what the success you find in your season, they make you feel insignificant.
Sure, you can try to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can celebrate your free agent signings, your over .500 records, your postseason berths, your playoff series wins. Just don’t expect to enjoy any of it when you face the Warriors, because they’re not going to let you.
Not on their watch.