Programming note: Relive Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals when NBC Sports Bay Area re-airs the Warriors' win over the Cavaliers on Saturday, March 28 at 8 p.m. PT.
Their mission began three months before they convened in Oakland for late-September training camp. Winning alone was not going to be enough, not for these Warriors, not for this season. They wanted to exact revenge for all the negative noise.
All the chatter surrounding Kevin Durant upon his July 4th decision to leave Oklahoma City to join the team that defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western ConferencefFinals five weeks earlier.
At the start of the 2017 playoffs, the Warriors turned punitive. The goal was to leave opponents face-down at midcourt, twitching from head to toe. They swept the first three rounds, psychologically dominating the Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Spurs before throttling them with offense and burying them with defense to stand with the greatest machines in sports history.
One series, The Finals, against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, remained between the Warriors and their second championship in three seasons -- and avenging the events of the 2016 Finals.
After Game 1, in which the Warriors rolled to a 113-91 blowout, Game 2 –- which NBC Sports Bay Area is re-airing Saturday night at 8 p.m. -- came with a subplot that lent curiosity.
Coach Steve Kerr was back.
Kerr had stepped away six weeks earlier, before Game 3 of the first round in Portland, to give his body a break from the pain and misery stalking him after two back surgeries in the summer of 2015. Lead assistant Mike Brown had stepped in as interim head coach and gone 10-0.
Kerr’s return, to a rousing ovation at Oracle Arena, was a new wrinkle for a streaking squad. Would it inspire? Would it disrupt? Well, the Warriors opened Game 2 in a slumber, trailing by five less than two minutes into the game.
“I heard when I got to the arena that he was doing his press conference,” Steph Curry said of Kerr’s return, which was announced less than two hours before tipoff.
The Warriors committed eight turnovers in the first quarter -- each starter gifted one within the first eight minutes -- but refocused and reeled off a 22-7 run, taking a 40-34 lead into the second quarter.
The Cavs, however, would not give up. Down as much as 12 early in the second quarter, they cut it to one before going into halftime trailing 67-64.
The Warriors then remembered their mission. To squash without remorse. Curry and Durant combined for 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting from the field, including 5-of-10 from distance, after intermission. Durant submitted game-highs in points (33) and rebounds (13) rebounds. Curry totaled 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to achieve the first postseason triple-double of his career in the Warriors' 132-113 win.
"It seemed like it's personal for both of them,” Draymond Green said of Curry and Durant. "And you’re talking about two of the greatest players that we got in this world locked in the way they are? That's why we're up 2-0."
No doubt it was. Curry surely remembered the final seconds of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, when his snug defense on Kyrie Irving could not prevent the Cavs guard from draining the game- and title-winning shot at Oracle, forcing the Warriors to live with being the only team to blow a 3-1 lead in The Finals in NBA history.
Durant was, for his part, acutely aware that this series was, in the eye of many, about he and James. The loser would face a long summer, the winner would own bragging rights while also punching a hole through the perception of the loser.
Going up 2-0, Curry and Durant were halfway to the sweep they so fervently desired.
“It's been a great run,” Kerr said, assessing the team’s 14th consecutive postseason win. “But none of that matters unless we can finish the job with this series. "Trust me, we know. It was 2-0 last year. We lost."
They didn’t lose this time. After winning Game 3 in Cleveland three days later, the Warriors fell 137-116 in Game 4 and returned home to take Game 5 and settle for the “gentleman’s sweep.”
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They are the only team in NBA postseason history to finish with a 16-1 record (the 2001 Lakers went 15-1). Twelve of the wins were by double digits, five by at least 20 points.
“You cannot simulate what they bring to the table, no matter how many days you have to prepare,” said James, practically reaching for a white flag to raise. “I’ve seen a lot of great teams, and they rank right up there.”
The Game 2 victory eased minds of those concerned about whether Kerr’s return would be an issue. Moreover, it was one of 16 postseason messages sent by the Warriors to the rest of the NBA and all those who had been critical of KD and the franchise.