CLEVELAND -- Long after the Golden State Warriors were presented with their third NBA Finals trophy in the past four years on Friday night, the game operations crew at Quicken Loans Arena had a few unenviable final tasks to get through.
Because these Finals were so short, and the last game so noncompetitive, the flame-blowing machines affixed to the jumbo screen high above the court had to burn off extra fuel in their tanks before the arena and the NBA season turned over to a long, uncertain summer.
As the Warriors players and coaches celebrated in their locker room, fire sprang forth from the scoreboard toward their families and friends on the court. One last angry, empty lament from the Cavaliers and every other franchise that's tried and failed to dethrone these Warriors over the past four seasons.
"Wow, that felt like that last scene in 'Game of Thrones,'" Warriors coach Steve Kerr's wife, Margot, said, referencing the iconic battle scene in Season 7 of the hit HBO show, when the presumptive ruler of the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen, flies in on her fire-breathing dragon to destroy the superior Lannister army. A great analogy, except the dragon was far more effective.
These flames, like the flames 29 other teams in the NBA hurled at Golden State this season, never really touched them.
Yes, the Cavaliers had a chance to win two of the four Finals games. But that was only due to the brilliance of LeBron James. And even then, there was never a time when the Warriors genuinely felt threatened in this series.
The Houston Rockets took them to seven games in the Western Conference finals and may have prevailed if point guard Chris Paul hadn't injured his hamstring at the end of Game 5. Of course, the Warriors might've won that series in five games if former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala hadn't missed most of it with a leg injury. And even when the Warriors faced elimination, it always felt like they should win, if they simply played up to their capabilities.
Golden State had more talent, more depth, more swagger and more experience than any team in the league -- maybe ever. That's been the case since the Warriors added two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant to a team that won an NBA-record 73 games two years ago.
"We're loaded, and I'm not afraid to say that," Steve Kerr said.
Kerr's challenge this year hasn't been harnessing that talent or figuring out what to do with it. The challenge this time came from within. The Warriors' toughest opponent this year was themselves. Could they stay motivated through the slog of the regular season? Could Kerr remind them to be grateful for the chance at history, rather than bored or resentful at the obligations of greatness?
"Probably the hardest road we have had," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. "A lot went into this year, mentally and physically, to get to the finish line."
High-class problems, to be sure. But nothing compared to the problem Golden State has created for the rest of the league.
WARRIORS OWNER JOE Lacob is known for a lot of things in business and in life. But as a basketball owner, he's known for telling The New York Times that the Warriors were "light-years ahead" in terms of culture, process and talent.
The Warriors didn't just assemble this team for the ages on the fly, with one crazy summer. They built it from within, with savvy draft picks, the right infrastructure under team president Rick Welts and sagacious guidance from Kerr.
"We live and breathe this every day," Lacob said. "We plan what we're going to do and hopefully we make the right decisions. We don't always. But I think history so far has proven that we've made some good decisions."
Good decisions like building around Curry on a manageable four-year, $43 million contract extension, despite a history of ankle issues early in his career. Or being disciplined about keeping salary-cap space for the summer of 2016, when revenue was set to explode as the new television contract kicked in. Or not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love in 2015. Or finding a second-round pick named Draymond Green who became a future superstar and Defensive Player of the Year.
All of those moves allowed them to add Durant to the 73-win team and go from the NBA's darlings to its villains.
"That [NBA] owners meeting, the July after we got Kevin, was a difficult one," Lacob said. "I felt really personally persecuted by the other owners."
Lacob understands very clearly why other owners and fans around the league resent him and the Warriors even as they respect the dynasty they've assembled. But if you're asking him to ease up a little, or even just to sympathize, it's not happening.
"We can't worry about that," he said. "Our job is to win. Our job is to do the best for our fans and for our partners and our organization.
"The truth is, we've got to keep doing it. You can't just rest on your laurels. We have to start working on next year right now."
In other words: No mercy.
You see, Lacob adheres to the Ayn Rand doctrine of hardcore free-market capitalism. A philosophy the Russian-American author called, "the virtue of selfishness."
"Every man is an end in himself," she wrote in "Atlas Shrugged," her 1957 novel. "He exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose."
So devoted to the Randian worldview is Lacob that he named his dogs John Galt and Howard Roark, the main characters from Rand's seminal works.
In 2016, after the Cavaliers rallied back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals, Lacob said that it took him 30 minutes to get over the loss and start thinking about how the team could get better the following year.
"When somebody else wins or does well, my dad doesn't think, 'Oh, that's so unfair,'" said Warriors assistant general manager, Kirk Lacob. "He immediately goes to, 'How can we beat them?'
"If you don't want to lose, be better. Don't complain about it, do something about it."
Kirk Lacob said he had lunch with his father Friday afternoon before Game 4 and all he wanted to talk about was the upcoming NBA draft and what the team could do to improve for next season.
"He's going to be really happy for like the next five minutes," Kirk Lacob said. "And then he's going to yell at us about the draft. He's been doing that for the last week."
For as much as the Warriors dynasty was built on Kerr's humanism and Curry's joyfulness, Lacob's ruthless devotion to improvement is also a key tenet of the culture.
It's what makes Golden State's dominance as much a story about the rest of the NBA's futile pursuit of this team as it is about the Warriors overcoming their own existential angst and sustaining a level of excellence no one else can match.
Some teams have tried to copy the Warriors' style of play by targeting versatile, two-way players who can guard multiple positions on defense and stretch the floor on offense. Others have brought in multiple superstars in Frankenstein-esque science experiments to match the Warriors' talent. Other teams punted on this season, knowing it would take several years to even think of lining up the players and salary cap space to challenge Golden State.
"You can't just rest on your laurels. We have to start working on next year right now." Warriors owner Joe Lacob
As James put it before Game 4, "Everyone is trying to figure out: How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State?"
It's hard to say if any of these approaches will ultimately be enough to topple Golden State, or if the Warriors empire is only fallible from within.
"People always try to copy winners," Lacob said. "That may or may not be the right thing to do, because things always change. I think you have to re-evaluate every year and see what you want to do for the future."
For the Warriors, that is going to start being a very expensive proposition as Durant, Thompson and Green are all in line for massive new contracts in the next few years. Lacob said Friday night that he intends to offer extensions or new deals to all of them this summer.
"All good things cost a lot," he said simply. "We're going to try to sign Klay and Draymond to extensions this summer. They've earned the right to do whatever they want; maybe they want to wait until free agency. I can't control that. But we'll do whatever we can to keep them.
"We've proven that if we think we're competing for a championship, we'll be in the luxury tax. No one wants to be, but we expect to be. All I can tell you is we're going to sit down and do our planning on how we're going to improve the team for the future and setting ourselves up in the future. And it could go a number of different ways."
THERE'S A GLIMMER of hope for the rest of the league in that last statement.
"It could go a number of ways."
For now, it's about as good as any other team or superstar in search of a title can hope for after yet another year of Warriors dominance.
It's also what made this fourth run so exhausting and precarious compared to the first three. There were plenty of times this year when it seemed the Warriors might not be able to summon the right kind of attitude and energy to get back to their championship level.
After a lethargic loss in Indiana in April, Kerr publicly wondered if his team needed to care more. That didn't go over well with the players, and Kerr subsequently walked the statement back.
Kerr and general manager Bob Myers met privately after that loss in Indiana to discuss what could be done to rouse the team from its late-season slumber.
"I told Steve, because he was upset after Indiana, 'We have to give them the benefit of the doubt. They've earned that,'" Myers said. "Was I worried? My first thought was, 'Yes.' But my second thought was, 'Have they let us down yet?'"
Kerr had already pushed every button he could think to push throughout the team's languid regular season, which ended with 10 losses in the final 17 games. If the Warriors were going to find their way back, it would have to come from within.
They'd have to fight for it and through it, without the joyful lift they all felt when all this was new.
"Doing the same thing over and over again. It's tough to get up every night," Green said. "But we enjoy competing. We enjoy competing."
It was the same for all of them. Kerr quietly battled the same health issues he has for the past three years. Imagine a migraine every day of your life and you'll get some sense of the constant suffering Kerr's spinal fluid leak has caused him. The only differences this season are that he's learned to manage it better, and most people stopped asking him about it.
Myers had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip and spent most of the playoffs limping around. In years past, the former UCLA player has kept his connection and love for the game strong by playing pickup with coaches and staffers. But he's not cleared to do that until September as his hip heals, so he could only watch as others played.
After Game 1 in Houston, Myers, Kerr and second-year forward Patrick McCaw sat together by the court while the rest of the team practiced. In April, they'd all gone to bed not sure if McCaw would ever walk again following a frightening fall during a game in Sacramento.
The game had been taken away from all of them. Joy replaced by pain. And yet there they were, sitting together on the court while a team for the ages geared up for a final, championship push.
"When you have something to be excited about when you wake up in the morning," Kerr said. "And you have a great family like I do, it's all worth it."
A week or so later, Myers and his wife welcomed their third child, a girl, into the world.
Three weeks later, the Warriors added their third championship in four years to the trophy case. They celebrated in the same building and at the same restaurant -- Morton's The Steakhouse in Cleveland -- as they did for the first championship in 2015.
So much had changed since that first year. For the Warriors and for the league. And yet there was a sweetness in the symmetry.
"It's like your first kid; there's nothing like it," Myers said in comparing championship runs. "And then you try to get more."
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