It’s not a surprise, nor is it as impressive as it would have sounded about a month ago. But the Golden State Warriors have run through the Western Conference playoffs with a perfect 12-0 record and await the winner (Cleveland) of the still hotly contested (Cleveland) undetermined (it’s going to be Cleveland) Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When you look at how loaded the Western Conference is, year in and year out, it’s gained the justifiable reputation as the alpha dog to the East’s beta. This year was even more of a standout season for the West with five 50-win teams and a sixth containing the soon-to-be-named league MVP. The Cavs may still repeat as champs, but the regular season belonged solely to the West and the Warriors were the head of the class.
So dispatching of their three opponents in record-setting and utterly dominant fashion would normally be an unmistakeable display of invincibility.
Well, maybe not so much.
Look, I’m very much a proponent of the idea that you play who’s in front of you. There’s no “if game” when it comes to the scoreboard. Golden State is clearly the team most deserving to come out of the West.
But they managed to do so in a way that turned out to be soft, which goes against everything the Western Conference was about all season. Sure, the opening-round sweep of Portland was expected. The Blazers even put up a good fight for long portions of a few games and kept the Warriors honest, but they knew they were the sacrificial lamb.
A potential second-round upset lost almost all of its credibility when Blake Griffin was ruled out for the postseason in round one. Suddenly the Clippers were fighting for their lives on the aging back of Chris Paul, who very nearly got them through the seven-game slugfest. But the upstart Jazz came out on top and won their first playoff series since 2010.
Utah is a very good team that won 51 games, but it’s still a long way from competing with Golden State in a playoff setting. Would the Clippers with Griffin have been a better test for the Warriors? If nothing else, it would have revived some previous playoff rivalries and been the far more compelling match-up. The Clippers don’t back down from the Warriors. They don’t usually win, but they still go toe to toe. Going 8-0 through that series would have been an eye opener.
Then came the Western Conference Finals that started with such promise and ended with such disappointment. The Spurs are really good. That is to say that the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard are really good. That’s because Kawhi Leonard is really, really good. Without him, they’re still quite good.
But you can’t beat the Warriors if you’re quite good. The difference is enormous. When Leonard re-injured his ankle in Game 1, it was over. There was no reason to continue. If NBA refs were allowed, they would have ruled a TKO at that point. Better yet, they should have been able to let the Rockets try their luck against the Warriors. San Antonio had just survived against Houston, but James Harden would have had a much better chance against Golden State than Jonathan Simmons.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knew his team didn’t stand a chance and you could see him coaching as if he were leading the junior varsity squad against the upperclassmen. He was almost more engaged than usual, taking pride in his guys playing hard during late possessions with the game well out of reach. It would have been mildly inspiring if not for the fact that a potentially really good series was lost with that dirty slide by Zaza Pachulia.
That being said, injuries are part of the game. Golden State has been able to avoid them for the most part during their last three or four seasons, especially this time of year. They’re ready for whoever is to meet them in the NBA Finals (Cleveland) and they’ll have an unblemished record next to their name when Game 1 tips off.
But not every 12-0 is equal. Despite the fact that we’ve never seen it before, this one could have been so much better.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.