For Lebron and the Cavaliers, it became clear in Game 3 that their best might not be enough. But at least got to witness some incredible Kyrie wizardry.
The GOAT Conversation We Shouldn’t Be Having
It feels like a lifetime ago that we were debating what another title would mean for LeBron’s legacy. If the Cavs won, would James eclipse Jordan? In a pure basketball sense, who was the better player? Was it even possible to compare the two?
With the NBA Finals pretty much in the bag, we’re having a very different conversation. If the Warriors keep this up for the foreseeable future, the rest of LeBron’s prime might very well go to waste. Arguably the greatest player in the history of the game will steamroll the East every year only to get unceremoniously bounced by what very well be the greatest team we’ve ever seen. At best, it would be a strange, uneasy coda to a brilliant career. At worse, it could cast a pall over James’s accomplishments. After all, is losing every really blameless? To paraphrase Big Wos: That would’ve been a win against any team other than the Warriors.
You can imagine ruefully repeating this statement for the next few seasons and almost feeling sorry for LeBron. Except last night, LeBron wasn’t entirely, indisputably perfect—at least not in the game’s final minute. First, he opted to kick it out to Kyle Korver for an open three rather than drive the lane. Then on the Cavaliers’ final possession, James was stripped by Andre Iguodala before accidentally batting the ball out of bounds. Strictly speaking, none of these are mistakes. But because we expect LeBron James to be perfect—and because the stakes he’s playing for are so high—any ambiguity becomes a flashpoint. Although James did practically everything within his power to try and win, we’ll remember happened down the stretch.
LeBron’s talent, intelligence, skill, and sheer effectiveness have never been up for debate. For years, though, he was criticized for intangibles. He wasn’t clutch in the most obvious ways. He lacked a killer instinct. He gave up the ball too readily. LeBron has a truly singular approach to the game and over time—with the added heft of three titles—he stopped having to answer for it. But while Game 3 should’ve made us all sympathetic to the huge bind LeBron finds himself in going forward, instead it’s going to stir up old debates that, frankly, we should all be too smart for at this point. LeBron taught us better. Unfortunately, the way this game ended offers just the right opening for those people who live to tear down athletes. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail before next year’s NBA Finals and LeBron’s real long-term prospects set in.
…and the One We Should
Speaking of unthinkable, riddle me this: If LeBron James has a decent case for GOAT and Kevin Durant might be outplaying him right now, what does that say about Durant’s place in history? It’s impossible to overstate how well KD has played in this series at both ends of the floor. We’re seeing a fully actualized version of a player whose immortality was already all but assured. What’s happened with Durant’s game in Golden State is akin to how LeBron was transformed in Miami—an absolute crystallization of what Kevin Durant can do on a basketball court. Sure, James and Durant are totally different players, but it’s safe to say that KD has kept pace with—and sometimes even outpaced—LeBron. We’re facing the real possibility that, when this series is said and done, we may instead be earnestly debating just where KD ranks all-time.
If, however unjustly, The Strip will haunt LeBon for the foreseeable future, the Durant three that put the Warriors up once and for all could play just as important a role in shaping our views going forward. Sharp, matter-of-fact, unflappable, eerie, and absolutely pitch-perfect, it was quintessential Kevin Durant. It reminded us that, as stacked as the Warriors are, ultimately it’s KD who makes them terrifying beyond belief. And to the extent that it closed the book on this series, this shot might prove to be the defining moment of Durant’s career. He has benefitted tremendously from playing alongside Curry, Thompson, and Green. But the Warriors wanted him because they needed a player who could do that. And they didn’t just get a wing who could reliably create for himself, they got Kevin Durant, who may be better at doing that than… well, anyone ever. It may not command as much next-day attention as LeBron’s lowlights but it also speaks volumes. And when all’s said and done, it may be what proves most enduring. — Nathaniel Friedman
Behold the Absurdity
There were two plays by Steph Curry that was perfect evidence on how silly he makes the game of basketball. One of them wasn’t him managing to make a dizzying layup with his left hand under two defenders while being fouled. And then layup on the floor and flexing as if he was Draymond Green. No, that was incredible but not truly as absurd as the two.
The first was him getting the ball on a 3-on-1 fastbreak and stopping before the three point line to shoot. Of course it went it.
The second was another fastbreak situation. This time he had Kevin Durant running into the paint unopposed and still, he chose to shoot from the three.
The problem with these two plays is that they were great decisions, because he’s Steph Curry. On the first he had two other players with him and a guaranteed two points. The second was to be the same outcome because Durant is Shelob from Lord of the Rings and it’s impossible to stop his super long arms at the rim.
Yet this is the world we now live in. The world that Curry has created. Where abandoning traditional reasoning is genius. Not in the sense that he’s innovating a new way to score, but that’s turned the hardest shot in the game into what accounts to a layup for him, to the point that a shot that 99% of the players in the league would get an earful from their coach for taking, is accepted from him with glee. Not reluctance or indifference, but with a positive shake of the head and a laugh at the fact that he even has the confidence to make that decision.
It doesn’t make sense. It should, but goodness, the concept of it is laughable. He’s turning down the sure two points to take a harder shot, and somehow that harder shot is as easy for him as just going unopposed to the rim. This is the type of thing that could send a man thinking about it to Arkham Asylum. If Curry had suggested doing something like this in the ’80s and ’90s, they would have chased him away with knives and pitchforks. Had he done it earlier, there’s a good chance that he would have been tried as a witch. There’s little reason to think he’s not one in this age.
It has to be incredibly deflating as an opponent to run back in transition in order to clog the paint, only to have vanilla wafer boy stop, smirk and let the ball fly from behind the arc. Watching that ball travel and sink through the net has to be as heartbreaking as Romeo waking up to see his Juliet lifeless. What’s the point of going on? How do you defend that?
The worst is that if you do try to defend it, he could always make the pass for the easy two points. But even worse, is that he could just pass it off to Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant who are just as likely to pull up from the three in transition as well. It’s just not fair. — Zito Madu
It Was Terrifying Anyway
For all that can rightly be said about how cruelly and methodically these Super Warriors choked the life out of the Cavs and during Game 3’s frantic final moments, don’t forget for a second that for a six-minute stretch in the third quarter, Kyrie Irving transmogrified into a sneering, shape-shifting master contortionist that the Warriors couldn’t have stopped if Steve Kerr had sent out his entire roster to form a fucking wall around the basket.
Irving came up empty on his three three-point attempts in the frame, but his wizardry inside the arc and from the free throw line still netted him 16, and honestly, it felt more like a spiritual 40. Scoring is one thing, but when a player does so basically without missing—and when the shot attempts are as bonkers as the ones that Kyrie, a man who was very much feeling himself, so nonchalantly put up—the inevitability of every possession starts to inspire a sort of existential dread in the defenders before the ball even crosses half court.
On the offensive end, the team weathering the onslaught starts to get tight, too. We have to score here, guys, because you know that dude is going to go get two more as soon as this possession is over. The crowd gets louder, the court feels smaller, and panic sets in. At one point, around the time that Irving’s layup over Shaun Livingston left a mystified Mark Jackson genuinely imploring his broadcast partners to explain how that shot had gone in, I was fully convinced that no matter who or what Golden State threw at him, Kyrie was going to make an open 15-footer on every Cavs possession for the rest of the game and/or eternity. Peak Kyrie Irving forces other teams play afraid. I still kind of can’t believe it wasn’t enough.
Never Give Up, Never Surrender
He said he was hacked, and he promptly deleted it. Although that protestation long ago became the Internet’s favorite excuse on which to rely after any ill-advised social media activity, it’s also true that a quick scan of the ol’ timeline confirms that J.R. Smith has between posting more lately about golf than he has about basketball. Maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe someone really did get ahold of the perfect person’s account at the perfect moment and sent a perfect tweet. I don’t know. But honestly, I want him to be lying, because I want the confidence it presumably took to send this thought out into the world to motivate me for the rest of my life. — Jay Willis