OAKLAND, Calif. -- In a game for everything, the Golden State Warriors couldn't stay even-keeled enough to win, losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers 93-89. Perhaps they would be holding another trophy if Stephen Curry was in top form, but he wasn't (17 points on 19 shots) and ultimately couldn't compensate for the Warriors' shaky stretches.
Steve Kerr appeared to have wasted his $25K in ref complaints, as Curry, again, picked up three first-half touch fouls. The beginning was concerning for Golden State; they were getting outplayed, save for 3-pointers. Eventually, it cost them.
On April 14, when asked what it means to have won 73 games, Draymond Green wasn't shy in his response: "It means I'm part of the best team ever."
That was back when such a dream seemed more inevitable than merely achievable. Nobody was stopping the Warriors because, all season, nobody had stopped the Warriors. They'd beaten everybody - literally, they had beaten every team at least once. The postseason was to be the culmination of many preceding coronations.
Today that dream ended. Nobody, or at least extremely few, will describe the 2015-16 Warriors as the best team ever. Fair or unfair, they needed a title to validate that sentiment to the greater public.
Maybe the Warriors were already on borrowed time by Game 7 of the NBA Finals. They faced elimination three times against Oklahoma City and narrowly escaped. In theory, that bolstered their resolve.
But their initial stumble also showcased eventual issues. The start of that series featured Green on tilt, Curry rarely finishing at the rim and a slew of careless turnovers. It was tempting to think that what didn't end the Warriors' season just made them stronger, but instead, it was foreshadowing.
Beyond the brilliance of LeBron James (who became just the third player to notch a Finals Game 7 triple-double), the 2016 Warriors were felled by their tragic flaw: recklessness. Steve Kerr has been saying it for two years now: His team walks the line between explosive and reckless. Golden State seemingly had this Finals wrapped up before Green tried something from the latter category.
As James stepped over Green in the waning moments of an already-decided Game 4, Green could have done nothing. He could have, but that isn't him. That's not indicative of the burning, furious pride that has allowed a wing-sized man to excel as a part-time center. And so, Green reached out and swatted -- and the NBA swatted back.
There will be at least a summer of recriminations, of fans decrying the NBA for influencing this series with a one-game suspension. That's understandable, but it's probably less understandable than tempting fate when you're up 3-1. The Warriors had this in the bag; only an act of insanity could rip the bag wide open.
In these parts, many will decry James for his role in instigating the suspension, speaking bromides about "respect." Let's say James did indeed concoct this because he wanted to play a momentarily weaker opponent. So what? That's gamesmanship. If he intentionally did this, it was a smart play at a desperate time and an illustration of how a winner gets past his foe. Ultimately, history respects the scoreboard more than anything else.
Also, that is hardly where the story ended. Really, it's where the 2016 Finals began. Getting Green suspended for one game might have gotten Cleveland going, but James had to take his team down the path. He did so in way that will be remembered for as long as basketball fans exist.
Curry couldn't lead his team similarly, for whatever reason. Chalk it up to the MCL injury, chalk it up to Cleveland's defense, or chalk it up to the MVP being overrated, if you like. The Cavs culled Curry from Golden State's defense and targeted him repeatedly in pick-and-roll. Other opponents will try this. He has a summer to recover and find answers to this blueprint.
There will be questions and theories, many of them accusatory. That might not be entirely fair, but it is how this works. It comes with the praise and the endorsements. If people weren't so reactive and judgmental about the biggest games, the games wouldn't resonate. Further, all the prisoner-of-the-moment reaction regarding long-standing legacies means there's always another opportunity around the corner.
If the Warriors swallow this pain and get back again, there will be a new game for all the hypothetical historic marbles. The Warriors are good enough to do that, provided they're emotionally strong enough. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs certainly were. So were the 2012 Miami Heat.
But this will be no easy defeat to bounce back from. The past two seasons have been grueling, and the roster just might be in flux.
Kevin Durant? Not likely. The free agency of Harrison Barnes? After a disastrous turn in these Finals, his return is a very open question. Festus Ezeli? The free-agent big man is well-liked, but he received little trust this postseason. Finally, Andrew Bogut's knee injury muddies the waters on his future with this team.
While we don't know if this exact Warriors roster is coming back, we should be confident that the core remains. Golden State's big three of Curry, Green and Thompson have a chance at redemption because all contenders have a chance at redemption. It just so happens that this shot arrives slowly, after months of slogging. First, it's a hypothetical year away, then a few months. Suddenly, it's an all-important moment. The Warriors failed in their moment, and that cast a dark cloud over what is now the Greatest Season That Never Was.
These Warriors will carry that pain for the rest of their careers. After 73 wins, the Warriors were finally, at the end, witnesses to history. It just happened to be the first Cleveland championship in 52 years, on the Oracle floor.
What the Warriors trusted for two seasons wasn't there when Golden State absolutely needed it, which opens a painful question for offseason: What does a team that won 73 wins do about failing when it matters most? Do they pace themselves next year? Re-sign Barnes and Ezeli? Chase free agents?
In Golden State, those questions currently reside in the background. Right now, pain is in the foreground.
Perhaps, when and if the next moment arrives, this pain will serve as a reminder to cast recklessness aside when victory is within grasp.