The Warriors Flirt With the Villains’ Role
By Benjamin Hoffman
After securing his seventh consecutive appearance in the N.B.A. finals, LeBron James, considered by some to be approaching Michael Jordan’s level of greatness, spent his postgame interview last Thursday talking about getting ready for “the juggernaut out West.” Las Vegas has made his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors, and social media has exploded with discussions about whether the Cavaliers can avoid a sweep.
The Warriors, for some, have become the “Big Bad” that Cleveland will try to vanquish. After a few years as the darlings of the league, Golden State has found that its reputation has evolved, and while any backlash against it has been far from universal, it has at times embraced the heel turn as just another step in its relentless pursuit of basketball perfection. If they had to become villains along the way, so be it.
Even Stephen Curry, who still looks almost childlike while knocking down 30-footers, has worn the black hat, playing to the darker version of the Warriors when asked to preview the series, which begins Thursday.
“It looks like they’re having fun,” Curry told reporters. “We want to do something about that.”
That attitude may seem surprising to those who know the Warriors mostly for their long 3-pointers and exuberant celebrations. But even as the Charles Barkleys of the world wrote off Curry and Klay Thompson as soft, the Warriors worked to surround them with teammates willing to mix things up. Draymond Green is the face, and flailing appendages, of that effort, and Zaza Pachulia, like Andrew Bogut before him, provides a hard edge to the roster as well.
Stephen Curry, when asked to preview the N.B.A. final between his Warriors and the Cavaliers, said: “It looks like they’re having fun. We want to do something about that.” Credit Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
It was Pachulia who stepped under Kawhi Leonard’s foot on a defensive closeout in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, knocking the San Antonio Spurs star out of the series with an injured ankle and drawing the ire of Coach Gregg Popovich who likened the play to manslaughter. But even as people have clung to the incident, and pointed to other similar actions from Pachulia’s past, he has brushed off the criticism.
“That’s all history for me,” Pachulia said during Wednesday’s news media session. “If you want to win, you have to be strong not only physically but mentally.”
Perhaps no one has embraced the role of villain more than the team’s owner, Joe Lacob, who let his Silicon Valley brashness border on Lex Luthor-like megalomania after Golden State’s sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals. Lacob skipped right past praising his team and started discussing the unfinished business it had against the Cavaliers, a team that was still battling the Boston Celtics for the right to appear in the finals.
“We were the better team, but they did win,” Lacob said of last season’s finals, brushing off his team’s collapse after building a three-games-to-one lead. “We need a chance to go in there and prove that.”
Despite that, the idea that the Warriors, who have been so thoroughly embraced by the game’s youngest fans, can be regarded as anything but darlings seems a bit absurd.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former N.B.A. coach who will be calling the finals for ABC, said the Warriors’ embrace of the bad-guy role may simply be an iteration of their efforts to remain motivated.
“I don’t think they’re villains,” he said. “I think they’re nice guys. I think they think people are criticizing them, but all I see is 99 percent overwhelming praise.”
Van Gundy’s broadcast partner, Mark Jackson, the Warriors’ coach immediately before their three-year run of striking regular-season success, agreed with Van Gundy that the idea of the public turning against them was mostly in their heads.
“They’re great guys and they’ve been able to accomplish a whole heck of a lot,” Jackson said. “When you get to this level you look for different ways of motivation and you’re searching for it, but it’s been a love-fest as far as the Warriors are concerned.”
If there has been a backlash, though, it is easy to establish its origins: the Warriors’ off-season acquisition of Kevin Durant.
An All-N.B.A. performer and the last player to win a Most Valuable Player Award before Curry’s two-year run, Durant followed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s painful loss to the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference finals by packing his bags and heading to Oakland as a free agent. It was a move that did not sit well with most anyone outside the Warriors’ fan base.
“I knew the backlash was coming; I knew how many people would ‘hate’ me,” Durant told The Vertical in an interview in which he insisted that hate be placed in quotation marks when it appeared in an article.
While Durant may have understood that his decision would be unpopular, he very likely did not guess how seriously people would continue to react to the move nearly a year later. In a recent conference call, the basketball analyst Kenny Smith laughed at the idea that a backlash against Golden State could come from any other source. He said the move would have implications for Durant’s legacy and for the Warriors’ reputation regardless of whether they win a championship.
Smith, who won two N.B.A. titles with the Houston Rockets in his 10-year career, said that the move was as egregious as James’s decision to leave Cleveland and play with his friends in Miami before the 2010-11 season, and that it would not be forgotten anytime soon.
“Could you imagine if Larry Bird lost in the N.B.A. finals and went to the Lakers the next year?” Smith asked. “I would hate Bird. I wanted Bird to be the alpha.”
Smith said that the marriage between the Warriors and Durant would be a problem with fans no matter how this season turns out. “They want Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant,” he said, “not for them to tag-team together.”
Regardless of how Durant’s decision has been received, the move made a team that seemed nearly perfect even better. The Warriors became just the third N.B.A. team since the 1956-57 season to enter the finals without having lost a playoff game, and their dominance has led many to complain that the postseason has become nothing more than a formality.
Durant, perhaps frustrated that anyone could be bored by some of the best basketball that has ever been played, brushed the critics aside, saying, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”
That statement, which seemed cold and distant from a player who has never been thought of as either, earned Durant a great deal of criticism. Van Gundy said that he did not have any problem with the remark and that it seemed reasonable in light of all of the blowout wins.
“I took Durant’s advice,” he said. “I did turn it off.”
The time for tuning out, however, is over. Starting Thursday, the Warriors will try to take back the title Lacob, the team’s owner, felt was rightfully theirs last season, with James, and perhaps the best group of teammates he has ever had, standing in their way. Whether looking for vengeance with Durant along for the ride makes Golden State darlings or villains is up to the people at home.