J.R. Smith won the championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. He made the NBA Finals four years in a row in Cleveland. And yet, even he could admit that once Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, it was effectively over for the rest of the league. Smith appeared on the HoopsHype Podcast with Michael Scotto and lamented the inevitability of Golden State's dominance.
"When that happened, everybody was pretty much playing for second," Smith said. "Don't get me wrong, in the heat of the battle, we're thinking, we have a chance, and we can win, but at the same time, it's like, "What the hell are we supposed to do?" You've got three Hall of Famers, legit. What are you going to do?"
Smith's Cavaliers played 13 Finals games against the Warriors before Durant's arrival and won six of them. Cleveland would then face the Durant-era Warriors in nine Finals games and only won one of them. That number could have been two, but Smith infamously forgot the score after rebounding a critical missed free throw by George Hill at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals.
While the Cavaliers struggled mightily against the Warriors, other teams did manage to put up a better fight. The lowly Los Angeles Clippers, a No. 8 seed, took two games from the Warriors in the first round of the 2019 postseason. The San Antonio Spurs held an enormous lead over the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard's injury effectively knocked them out of the series.
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But most notably, the Houston Rockets pushed the Warriors to the absolute brink twice. In the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Rockets led the Warriors 3-2 before an injury to Chris Paul swung the series back to Golden State. Even so, the Warriors needed the Rockets to miss 27 consecutive 3-pointers to squeak out a Game 7 win in Houston. A year later, the Rockets pushed the Warriors to six games, and after Durant got hurt in Game 5, there was a moment in which many expected the Rockets to finally overcome their rivals and steal the series. Stephen Curry had other plans, and the Warriors went on to win.
There's no such thing as an unbeatable NBA team, but the Warriors came as close as any team ever has. At the peak of their powers, they had four Hall of Famers in their starting lineup and arguably the greatest sixth man of all time coming off of their bench. They may not have had it quite as easy as Smith suggests, but from his perspective, the best Cleveland could ever really hope for was second place.