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 on 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 like a kid while knocking down 30-footers, has donned 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.”
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 in the wake of 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.
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.