Warriors vs. Cavaliers: Part IV. Is there a more cataclysmic set of words in the lexicon of a certain segment of NBA fandom? For some, this matchup is the death knell of the great sport of basketball.
The players and the league feel differently.
“Teams have had their opportunities to beat the Cavs over the last four years,” LeBron James said before the start of the series. “Teams have had opportunities to beat the Warriors over the last four years. If you want to see someone else in the [Finals], then you gotta beat ’em.”
Critics will say the system is rigged, that a great Warriors team should never have been able to upgrade the way that they did by signing Kevin Durant two summers ago.
No matter your feelings, it is undeniable we are witnessing something special. After the Warriors’ 110-102 Game 3 victory Wednesday night gave them a commanding 3-0 series lead, the story is poised to take yet another turn. And what a story it is.
Never before have two teams competed four years in a row in a major sports championship, and this one pits one of the greatest players to ever live against one of the greatest teams ever assembled with what could be a dizzying summer of free agency awaiting.
Indeed, the Warriors aren’t just good; they can look like the most insurmountable obstacle ever in the NBA. Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and Duncan’s Spurs didn’t punish teams quite like this. They didn’t shoot like this. They never quite made it look this easy. And LeBron’s near-superhuman performance throughout these playoffs makes him look borderline extraterrestrial.
That these two remarkable forces of nature exist at the same time and play basketball at such a high level (and have done it four years in a row) is something to marvel at, not scoff at. We watch these games in record numbers to see how these players continue to bend the sport to their will, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it. Perhaps we’re jaded. Steph’s brilliance, LeBron’s physical dominance and KD’s grace are old hat, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
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It’s the inevitability that’s the problem, the feeling that the final chapter has already been written. And yet, despite all the bad feelings, we trudge on. The games must be played, after all. And while the series is all but over, the games have been intriguing: a Game 1 nail-biter filled with drama, controversy and consequence. A Game 2 featuring the once-in-a-generation brilliance of Stephen Curry. And a transcendent performance by Kevin Durant in Game 3 in front of a hostile crowd. Complain as we might, we seem to be paying attention. The Finals thus far has retained its ratings success and dominated social media. The saga of Golden State and Cleveland might not be ideal for the 28 other NBA fanbases, but it’s clear that the contest continues to resonate with fans anyway.
The NBA itself certainly seems to think so. “I think this league is about celebrating greatness, and I think that’s what you’re seeing on the floor here,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in his customary pre-Finals press conference. “There is an enormous amount of interest in these Finals. I think the drama, it couldn’t be more exciting.”
According to the league, there’s material reason for the optimism. Game 1 of the Finals was up 27 percent in total viewers from the previous year’s Game 1. The NBA also says merchandise sales have hit all-time highs since the first Finals meeting of these two in 2015. Despite the fatigue that is expressed on social media, the NBA maintains it has 1.5 billion followers across all its platforms. Those people spend countless hours debating and discussing the machinations of the league and the games being played.
As much of a foregone conclusion as this all seems to be right now, that isn’t stopping fans from participating and fueling the various narratives, from JR Smith’s Game 1 blunder to Steph’s magical circus three on Sunday night. The players themselves recognize what’s special about all of this, even if we sometimes have a problem recognizing it in the moment.
“For me as a competitor, it’s fun,” LeBron James told reporters on the eve of the Finals. “It’s truly fun to know when I’m done playing the game of basketball that I played against some of the greatest teams that ever played, ever been assembled. And this is one of them.” It might not be fun to lose, especially not as badly as the Cavs did in Game 2, but it’s easy to forget that there is joy in the trying for these athletes. There’s a pleasure for them in the competition.
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For Smith, the scapegoat and the symbol of derision for Cavs fans heading into their two home contests, he can still find something to get hyped about within the struggle, even if he’s done this three other times and lost the title twice. The Warriors don’t surprise him anymore, but they do confound him. “One thing you know for sure is that they’re going to come out and play hard every time and they’re going to play pretty much the same way,” he said of the Dubs’ consistency on the court before Game 2. “They’re going to move the ball. They’re going to play defense. They’re going to bring their A-game for you to beat them.”
Still, fans and media members alike complain. On May 31, Knicks studio analyst Alan Hahn tweeted “Warriors-Cavs again? So boring.” Cable TV analysts have blamed the referees for unduly influencing the outcome of the series. Putting aside whether the officiating is subpar in this series, the players themselves are the ones who dictate what happens.
In a way, it’s understandable that so many feel so dissatisfied.
Perhaps the problem rests in the idea that there isn’t an obvious rallying point in the series. Rooting interest in championship matchups for those with no home team to pull for often falls on the side of that underdog, the feel-good story or the surprising twist that no one saw coming. The winners, the legacy-chasers and the behemoths are the easy villains. One can look at last year’s Super Bowl, where the Eagles became the sentimental favorite primarily because they were expected to lose and weren’t the hated Patriots. In these last four NBA Finals, however, there has been no underdog, no plucky upstart. It’s the same two teams who were fated to be there at the start of the year: the King and the Splash Bros, KD and K-Love. A win for LeBron is another line item on his resume as the potential best of all time. A win for the Warriors further cements their dynasty.
It’s hard to quantify whether this phenomenon existed in previous eras without social media recording and preserving everyone’s hottest takes. How many fans were up in arms when the Lakers and Celtics traded titles in the 1980s? How many people grumbled at yet another iteration of that age-old rivalry? How many people rolled their eyes as Michael Jordan vanquished another Western Conference pretender? Now, we see it all as we scroll through our timelines. We can make a mental note of everyone in our vast circle of influence who just can’t stand to watch another one of these games. It’s all out there and will never end until one of these teams falls apart.
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There’s a universe where LeBron stays in Cleveland, retools the team, and we do this all over again next year. If we do, those same fans who shake their fists at the thought of it and claim the NBA is irrevocably broken will talk about it. They’ll watch. They’ll debate on Twitter, because sports give us one of the most valuable things in the world: a chance to express ourselves. They also give us something even more important. They give us the chance to witness athletic greatness—the pinnacle of achievement in a visceral, spectacular venue. The only guarantee left in this Finals is that we will continue to get that and more.
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for B/R.
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