Two games into these NBA Finals of this year of our lord, 2017, and most of the familiar faces are the same, but the game itself, its tone and long-built drama, are from another time, three years past.
In the first two games of last year’s finals, the Cavs lost by 15 and then 33 for an average margin of defeat a cringe-inducing 24-points. A year later, they’ve lost by 19 and 22, or 20.5-points-per-game. Yet somehow, with the presence of seven-foot giant basketball scorer machine man, Kevin Durant, it all feels different. Feel is one of those real stinking human traits that is often debunked by science and data. But it does, it feels different. It’s born out in the data too where the Warriors are over seven points-per-100-possessions better than last year’s playoffs while holding opponents to five points-per-100 less than last season. They’re healthy, they’re better, and there’s Durant.
But it’s still more about the feel for me; the data just conveniently backs that up I guess. Things felt different right at the start of game one during the pre-game inspection of game balls. Stephen Curry and LeBron James stood across from each other, pounding and slapping and squeezing the prospective game ball to test its readiness and durability. Their Hall-of-Fame hands and fingertips likely more qualified than any system or gauge to get a sense of whether or not the ball felt right. Then there was a dap or a nod or something, something agreeable without any mutual dislike or disdain. Not that those things are necessary for competitive basketball, but for all the buildup and the sub-tweet sniping between these teams, I hoped for a hint of the tense edge, but it was absent.
Then there was a brief exchange between Bron and Draymond Green in game one when their bodies tangled, and opportunity arose for conflict. Instead of sneering or pushing or shit talking, there were pats. “We’re good.” We’re friends. I don’t write this and I don’t over-examine the pre-game ball check to advocate for something other than sportsmanship. Rather, a healthy dislike can often create an edge. If you’re pulling on a steel mask of impenetrability and your opponent goes in for the hug, which you reject, suddenly there’s a wedge and disagreement. One man says, “it’s just a game, let’s compete.” The other says, “I’m not here for games.” These are the most minute of psychological edges, but possible edges nonetheless. (Or, possibly petty displays of machismo.)
After game one’s 22-point defeat, Bron’s podium tone was something that had the appearance of honesty. For a man who’s been sitting in front of camera lenses, cell phones, and microphones for the past 14 years, he has the ability to turn on a poker face, to deliver messages, and be deliberate in his word choice, and while some of that was at play after game one, it appeared to be genuine and thoughtful.
When asked if “there was one thing that stands out tonight,” without thinking, without blinking, with even a matter-of-fact expression and tone, he said, “KD.”
This was one small piece of a seven-minute podium appearance. It’s simple, two letters, one man, but in all its simplicity, I can’t help but wonder if losing to KD is somehow more than losing to Steph. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that it’s just easier to accept defeat when the deck is stacked so high against you – and the rest of your league-mates.
Game two, while a completely different complexion with Golden State committing 20 turnovers and Klay Thompson finally finding his rhythm, ended in a 19-point Warriors victory. The details were different, but the outcome was largely the same.
The Cavs cut the lead to four points with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, only to see that four-point deficit mushroom to 14 at the end of the quarter, and 22 midway into the final period. Somewhere in this blitzkrieg, Bron, whose face bore the appearance of fatigue late in the third, suddenly looked like it was all sinking in; that while he may be the best player on the planet, capable of putting forth bruising, forceful efforts enhanced by that beautiful basketball mind, could not beat this version of Golden State. There was too much firepower and his own teammates weren’t capable of making plays with the frequency required to win.
I’ve seen this face from LeBron James before. Back in 2014 when the Spurs met Bron’s Heat in the finals and played what David Thorpe has referred to as the greatest basketball he’s ever seen. Back then, there were moments where it was obvious that Bron was on one level and his teammates another. He shot 57% from the field, 52% from three, 79% from the line with a true shooting of 68% while putting up 28-8-4. His running mate, Dwyane Wade, had never looked older as he shot 44-33-69 with 15-4-2. The Spurs, in all their socialistic team play, were collectively on another plane. Bron knew this and as Wade and the rest of his teammates were torched, the grim awareness was drawn nakedly across his face, visible for the whole world to see. Fast forward to 2017 and through two games, James is averaging 28-13-11 with 63% TS and that ice-cold realization that defeat is inevitable is back again.
Standing shirtless and conducting an interview in the locker room after game two, Bron’s tone wasn’t one of defeat. He answered the questions as they were asked (even if the focus has been his impatient, frustrated answer to a single question) and provided his own team-centric analysis. He took accountability and didn’t point any fingers. But in the midst of it, the KD theme popped up again as he reiterated, “They’re a different team… you guys asked me ‘what was the difference’ and I told you so, they’re a different team.”
A few days ago, Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curryappeared on ESPN’s The Basketball Analogy podcast with Kevin Arnovitz. One of the topics they touched on was how race and class both impact how Curry is viewed in the league. At around the 15:40 mark, Arnovitz raises the issue which Thompson immediately seizes.
Arnovitz: “Is he culturally different from the rest of the league?”
Thompson: “That was the most fun part to write about; those cultural implications … especially for the current player and previous generation, their paradigm is based on the ruggedness of blacktop, and playing with hardened type (of) hood people and that’s how you gain that credibility … Steph doesn’t get the inherent credibility of being a tough guy.”
Arnovitz: “More than toughness … I don’t want to say resentment, but, look, we gravitate towards people, and we endow people with respect, who can relate to us; who we’ve shared that experience with. Is he seen at a distance from the rest of the NBA?”
Thompson: “I think only because he rose to a certain level and become part of an exclusive club … the issue with Steph is that he has risen to a level and he doesn’t share in their similar story and background … When he’s been put in that class … because now he’s up there with LeBron and them and there’s that question, ‘did you earn this?’”
Arnovitz: “An NBA veteran suggested to me that his skin tone had something to do with it.”
Thompson: “Yes. I agree one thousand percent. Color is a longstanding thing in the black community, this is not something new … The embrace, the rampant and widespread embrace of Steph Curry is partially attributed to the fact that he’s light-skinned which means that he’s more digestible to the white media and white masses.”
If we accept Thompson’s idea that class and skin color are, in some part at least, at play in how Cleveland, and LeBron specifically, compete against Golden State, then the presence of KD as the centralized figure within the Warriors’ dominance begins to take on a different appearance. Going back to last year’s finals, there was a visible tension between Bron and Curry and emanated primarily from James. The same tension is nowhere to be found between James and KD. Yeah, Bron and KD are friends, but to take it back to Thompson’s point; they share similar single-parent and cultural backgrounds. Bron’s comments on KD in these finals deviate from anything he’s said about Curry. With Durant, James has gone out of his way in post-game interviews to pinpoint him as the key differentiator despite what has been elite play from Curry. He’s averaging 30-8-10.5 with five threes made-per-game and 66% TS. Comparatively, he averaged 22-5-4 in last year’s finals on 58% TS. Curry is clearly a different player from the ’16 finals.
But, maybe it’s just more palatable to lose to KD. Maybe KD, in looking the part of what we’ve come to expect from our superstars, is less threatening and challenging than Curry. Wrapped up in all of this are subconscious allusions to masculinity and losing to a darker, taller, more traditional star is just easier to accept than losing to a shorter, scrawnier, lighter-skinned non-traditional star. This isn’t limited to James though. In his interview with Arnovitz, Thompson mentions that there’s a notion that players can stop Curry whenever they want; a sentiment echoed notably by TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal who have long advocated for a more physical approach to Curry. As Thompson says during his comments on skin color, the perspective of many darker players is that “he’s not built like us.”
None of the above is to imply that the Cavs have mailed in this series or that James has acquiesced to Golden State’s dominance. And after last year’s finals, it would be strange to write-off the Cavs when facing a 2-0 deficit. It’s also not to discount the absolutely torrid play of Durant as something that’s happening due to him looking the part. The Warriors are, by any measure, one of the most dominant teams in NBA history; a fact that’s made possible by the overwhelming skills of Durant, Klay, Steph, and Draymond. Much of my approach here has been to probe at what I noticed early on in this series as somewhat of a thawing and I believe that varying degrees of all of the above (collection of overwhelming basketball ability, color, class, culture, relationships, perceptions) are at play in these finals. Even in spectacular defeat, the nakedness of vulnerability, that moment late in the fourth quarter when LeBron looked like he wanted to skip the bench and walk straight back to the locker room, will always be a bridge to something we can feel.
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