All it took was one swing of one foot to change the history of the NBA. Draymond Green, driving to the hoop with serious intention, got fouled by Steven Adams. A routine play in a hard-fought playoff series became so much more when Green put his leg out and cracked Adams in the crotch.
It was swift and devastating, not unlike the Warriors offense itself during that historic, if ultimately disappointing, 73-9 season. That it would come back to haunt Golden State made it all the more ominous. It was a sign of things to come. Over and over this postseason, fans and pundits have quibbled over what was purposeful and what wasn't, what someone meant to do in addition to what he did do.
A flagrant foul call that seemed merely unpleasant at the time became pivotal when Green was suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. His absence in a potential closeout game at home helped turn the tide toward the Cavaliers and shifted the balance of power in the series.
"I'm sure he wants to have kids one day," Green said of Adams in the aftermath. "I'm not trying to end that on the basketball court."
As far as we know, Adams retains his ability to sire children, but that moment goes beyond one man's biological ability to procreate. It was also a marker on the Golden State Warriors' journey from a team that could charm even the least invested casual fan into something akin to a modern-day interpretation of the 1980s Boston Celtics—a team comfortable asserting its dominance through physicality. In a word, they became "dirty." But what fans call dirty play exists deep in the DNA of every great basketball dynasty.
The end of Kawhi Leonard's season, inauspiciously as it came in Game 1 against the Warriors, sent Golden State haters into uncontrollable spasms of righteousness and disgust. How could this happen again? A Zaza Pachulia closeout that closed out a bit too much exacerbated Leonard's already-banged-up ankle and he never played in the series again.
Zaza brazenly slid into Kawhi's leg like Joel Embiid sliding into Rihanna's DMs. It fit the narrative we've created for the Warriors: They're brash, they're determined, they're the stereotypical pro wrestling heel transplanted to the NBA. That Pachulia, a minor cog in the Warriors machine, proved to be so pivotal was even more infuriating.
The dirty label that's been sticking to Golden State since the Steven Adams incident isn't how this team perceives itself at all. When asked if now, a year later, the Warriors could finally put the dirty play chatter behind them, a defiant Green told B/R: "I forgot it was going on. We've been moved on from that a long time ago. We just play basketball."
Green has excelled at playing basketball in these playoffs, and without letting his errant limbs get in the way of his talent. If you take a cursory glance at the stat sheets for these playoffs, Green has been pretty conservative with his legs (and elbows...and fists) so far. It seems that he's controlled himself enough that another flagrant foul suspension in the Finals is mathematically unlikely. He's only amassed two technicals and zero flagrants this year, compared to the five techs and one flagrant that cost him Game 5. He's accumulated 38 personal fouls in the 2017 playoffs, compared to 81 last postseason and 89 in the year they won the title.
A closer look reveals a different story.
Draymond's per-36-minute foul average (3.3) is identical to last season's controversial, karate-kicking playoff run. Per 100 possessions, he's only slightly down—from 4.6 fouls per 100 to 4.4, per Basketball Reference. The fouls are the same, but the severity of them is less, a sign that maybe a kick to the nether regions isn't the ideal move toward another championship.
It's interesting, then, that the talk inside the Warriors' locker room is that they aren't quite playing hard enough. Durant said that they're "not playing with an edge," and "We're playing too relaxed," after last Sunday's shootaround prior to the series-clinching Game 4 win. What's clear is that to win an NBA championship, teams of this caliber believe that a killer instinct is necessary.
The Warriors, with their young backcourt and flashy style, didn't seem geared for long-term success the way hard-nosed squads like those Showtime Lakers, Larry Bird Celtics and Jordan Bulls were. They made the game seem fun, dancing to O.T. Genasis' "CoCo" and throwing the footage up on the internet after every win during that championship season.
The calls for them to grow up, to develop a thicker skin and to scrap with their opponents were heeded. Now, the captivating Splash Brothers and Co. are something else entirely. They're girded for battle. They've suffered and lost. Hell, they didn't just lose. They collapsed. That makes them less fun, less sympathetic and easier to hate for any fan outside of the Bay Area.
Their shift in attitude makes their on-court infractions stand out even more. The guy we used to call the "Baby-Faced Assassin" throws his mouthpiece in the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant yells obscenities at mascots and tells fans that if they don't like watching Warriors blowouts, then they shouldn't watch at all. Sometimes, it makes them hard to like. But what it might also make them, when June comes around, is champions.
"We've answered a lot of challenges throughout the course of the playoffs and learned a lot of lessons," Curry said. Perhaps the greatest lesson of them all is you don't have to be liked to be a winner.
It's interesting to see a team led by a player observers have called soft finding itself being called dirty. For years, the Warriors have been looked at as an undersized, jump-shooting team that can't get tough when the moment calls for it. The free-flowing play of the Dubs runs counter to a certain kind of basketball that's lost favor in the modern age, typified by Jalen Rose doing to Kobe Bryant what Zaza did to Kawhi: leaving a leg underneath a jump-shooter falling down back to earth. Years later, after the controversy died down, Rose admitted that the move, which Bryant was lucky didn't cost him the chance to compete for a title, was no accident.
The NBA has a long history of enforcers—players like Rose eager to get an edge in a critical game in any way possible. It's hard to build a dynasty without a guy willing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable on the court. The Pistons had Bill Laimbeer. The Bulls had Dennis Rodman. The Lakers had Kurt Rambis in the 80s, Rick Fox in the early 2000s and Metta World Peace in the early 2010s. The Spurs had Bruce Bowen. Last year's Cavaliers had Matthew Dellavedova swinging arms and legs wildly, like a severed electrical wire still pulsing with current.
Delly's aggressive annoyance of opposing guards was more critical to the Cavs' success than what was readily apparent. It took them months to find a suitable backup point guard to fill the role after Delly took his money (with LeBron's buoyant blessing) and ran to Milwaukee.
A pattern emerges of teams with players who have been accused of being dirty then winning championships. Is it still dirty if everyone does it? Apparently so, because even Curry took exception to physical play in the Spurs series. He labeled a clumsy Dewayne Dedmon screen in Game 3 "dirty," which seemed like a pointed rebuke to critics out to demonize Pachulia.
"Luckily, no one was hurt," he told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. For Golden State's detractors, this is the height of irony when factoring in Pachulia's errant closeout which ended MVP finalist Leonard's season in one moment. The Warriors benefit from rough play, but they criticize it when it comes back at them. The thing is, these situations are as much a part of playoff basketball as interminable timeouts in the last two minutes of a game.
In the 2003 Western Conference Finals, Dirk Nowitzki suffered a knee injury that tanked the Mavericks' chances of besting the Spurs. In 2005, those same Mavericks faced the Phoenix Suns. Jerry Stackhouse broke a bone in Joe Johnson's eye socket, and while the Suns ended up getting past the Mavs in that series, they lost to the Spurs in the Conference Finals 4-1. Injuries happen every year in moments no one expects.
As fans lament the rote, predictable nature of this NBA postseason, it's important to remember how tenuous every team's grasp of success really is.
"We've lost a lead before," Green told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News after Game 3 of this year's Conference Finals, a mild humblebrag considering the likelihood the Warriors would beat the Spurs one more time, but also a reminder of how easy it is to defy the odds through a twist of fate. Green's suspension in Game 5 of last year's Finals was, in a way, as devastating as any injury—a loss of a key player on both ends of the court in an elimination game at home.
That's last year's team. Throughout the Warriors' subdued Western Conference Finals celebration Monday night, there was talk of this being a different squad from the one that blew a 3-1 lead.
"It's a new team," Shaun Livingston told B/R. "I think the core guys try to do a great job implementing [the team philosophy on] the rest of the guys. It took some time to really feel it out, but we're in a good place right now."
Those core guys are the ones who remember blowing 3-1, who see the memes, who fumed at LeBron's trolly Halloween party and who can remember how it felt to have a championship slip away. This is a team that plays like it is determined to wipe that entire series from the history books forever. Great vengeance and furious anger might not always be fun to watch, but ask Kevin Durant how much this team cares about all that.
Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.