The defending Champion Golden State Warriors didn’t lose the NBA Finals simply because Lebron James and Kyrie Irving dominated the stat sheet the last 3-games vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
The difference wasn’t in the numbers we can measure. It was in the way the two teams channeled their emotional energy. At critical moments, the Warriors lost focus and discipline.
In Game 5, the Warriors were back home, leading 3-games-to-1. But they were without Draymond Green. He had been assessed a flagrant foul in game 4 for hitting Lebron James in the groin. It was Green’s third flagrant foul of the post-season. That triggered an automatic game suspension.
He deserved it.
Whether actions are premeditated or not, a player is responsible for controlling his body and for the contact he initiates. Already under scrutiny for his physical play, Draymond Green had to show better self-control.
His absence opened the door to Cleveland’s comeback. When Andrew Bogut suffered a knee injury early in the 3rd quarter of Game 5, and was lost for the rest of the series, Green’s absence was an even bigger problem.
Draymond Green Wasn’t Alone
In game 6, it was Steph Curry who lost his cool, fouling out and earning an ejection with his team trailing by 12-points. There was 4:22 left in the game. While a comeback was doubtful, the Warriors were still in it.
You just can’t pick-up a technical foul in that situation.
Was the 6th foul a poor call by the official? It appeared so on replay, but Steph put himself in a bad position by taking unnecessary chances while in foul trouble. The 4th and 5th fouls he picked-up appeared to be “frustration fouls”. He let calls by the officials affect his game.
Go back to the video and look at Steph’s body language throughout Game 6. It wasn’t good for him or the team.
And, then there is game 7. With the NBA Championship on the line, the Warriors did not score a point in the last 4:30 of the game. Give some of the credit to the Cavaliers. They were tenacious on defense. But the Warriors also were hurt by their lack of focus down the stretch. It wasn’t just that they missed their last nine shots. They didn’t make good decisions.
The last three games saw the Warriors fail to match the drive, focus and discipline of their opponent. The Cavaliers were mentally sharper, more disciplined, and exhibited a stronger will to win.
This isn’t meant to disparage the Golden State players. Draymond Green’s emotional play was a key factor in the Warriors success this season. He had an outstanding Game 7. And, while Stephen Curry’s play declined in the post-season, he was playing with ankle and knee injuries that clearly affected his mobility.
This is just meant to point out the difficulty athletes face in managing their emotions when so much is at stake. In the heat of competition, even the world’s best players find it challenging to keep mentally and emotionally focused.
Channeling your emotions, so that they work for you, rather than against you, is a skill only learned through experience. It is a valuable skill that should be developed more effectively at the youth sports level.
Give the Warriors kudos for the way they handled the loss. This is a team that won more regular season games than any team in NBA history. A team that held a 3-games-to-1 lead in the NBA Finals, and then lost Games 5 and 7 on their home court.
I was especially interested to see how Steph Curry would respond to questions about his play in the series. He had been gracious in victory after the Warriors rallied to beat Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals.
How would he handle such a gut-wrenching defeat in the NBA Finals?
Give Steph credit. He offered no excuses. He didn’t blame injuries, when asked about their effect on his play. He accepted responsibility for the role he played in his team’s loss, and for errors that cost his team.
As Curry put it, “I didn’t play efficient…I was aggressive, but in the wrong ways”.
Curry expressed disappointment that he hadn’t make better decisions in the critical late stages of the game.
“There were probably three or four possessions where I personally settled, looking for a big three when that’s not what the possession called for”, said Curry. “Obviously, (if I had made those shots) maybe we’re having a different conversation. But when you don’t execute like that, it haunts you.”
Steph Curry was publicly accountable. And, that is a tough thing to do for a competitor, especially after a stinging loss on such a big stage. It is a lot easier to just say you had an off night. We often hear it after poor performances. “I couldn’t find a rhythm tonight”, “My shots just weren’t falling”.
More difficult is to acknowledge that choices you made with the game on the line, were a factor in your team’s defeat.
That takes courage because, in sports, mental mistakes are judged more harshly than physical ones. There is less of a stigma attached to missing shots than with making poor decisions.
The upside is that when we acknowledge a mental mistake, it is easier to learn from it.
Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.