In the fervor of the moment, three different players have been anointed best player in the world over these playoffs. It’s a fascination we collectively, even the smartest, most well-informed of us, can’t possibly avoid. I’m speaking about San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, during the first round of the playoffs, couldn’t help it and said, “Kawhi Leonard, is in my opinion, the best player in the league right now.” Paul Pierce, from maybe a more provocative motivation, said Kevin Durant, “may be the best player in the world today.” And of course, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan discussion rages on out of boredom, fear, loyalty, and even rational thought.
As it has always been, this is a fluid conversation; one that will be answered today only to be debunked tomorrow. There’s a king of the mountain component to the conversation where the last man atop the hill, at the end of the season, assuming he’s in the conversation and proves himself, can seize the title – at least for the summer.
During the playoffs last year, after the hand wringing about whether James or the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry was the best, Bron demonstratively grabbed the title. Violently, sneeringly, shit talkingly. It was definitive to the point that he rode it into the 2016-17 season and all the way through to the finals where, in the dead week leading up to tip-off, the MJ/Bron debate peaked.
Now though, the Jordan/Bron debate is shelved, and quicker than a KD dunk smash, Pierce’s volley into the national TV consciousness that KD just might be the best player in the world is the topic du jour.
What actually is doesn’t even matter as much as what someone says is. If we’ve learned anything from the spectacle of Donald Trump’s ugly ascension to President of the US, it’s that reality is malleable and just because someone says something, that’s enough to make it worthy of discussion. I’m not here though, to debate who is the best basketball player on the planet.
Regardless of who you think it is, these playoffs, and the finals in particular, have become the tunnel through which the KD bullet train speeds towards inevitability in the form of a finals MVP and a first career title.
Despite amazing performances from Curry and desperate all out efforts from James, it’s KD who’s seized the media’s imagination in saving his best for last. At no point throughout his first season with the Warriors had KD scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games and yet in these three finals, he’s gone for 38-33-31 including a game-stealing three in game three.
Unencumbered from the historic model of a single star carrying an out-sized responsibility for production, the beauty of Durant’s game has flourished. He’s not forced to hunt shots or isolate. Rather, he’s liberated to exploit mismatches and fluidly find opportunities within a balanced offensive flow. Playing aside another superstar in Curry has created a parting of the defensive seas whereby KD has encountered soft paths of undefended space free for his long-striding forays into one-handed dunks. In game one of the series, seven of his 14 made shots were dunks.
Life isn’t easy just because Cleveland’s defense is poor and they lack a rim defender. Life is easy because the Warriors pack the court with deadly attacking players. KD’s first dunk of the series was a lob made possible by three primary strengths:
KD’s own range which requires that Bron play him tight
Steph’s range which forces the defense to attempt to anticipate a downscreen from Curry onto KD’s man
Draymond Green’s recognition and passing ability which pull the beautiful read together
Bonus: Bron gets roasted on this back cut
His next bucket came off a Curry screen, the following two off Curry passes and strong Durant drives against Bron. And the fast break dunk after that was probably the most clear example of the Cavs caught somewhere between miscommunication and questionable defensive strategy and, again, the presence of Curry acting as a magnet attracting both Bron and Kyrie Irving towards him while KD flies downhill for his fourth dunk of the first half.
That’s five buckets, all assisted directly or indirectly, by Curry. This is luxury, for the rich and famous. This is the rich getting richer, the basketball equivalent of a tax break for the ultra-wealthy. KD didn’t need the game to be easier, but in its ease, we’ve been able to witness a full range of his game that’s rarely uncovered in this league due to circumstance, team construction, and all the other wonky shit that holds back NBA players and teams. The ideal scenario for any of us is the opportunity to achieve our potential, whatever that may be, and playing for the Warriors has allowed Durant to ascend in ways that most players don’t experience.
We know KD can do it on his own. He won his first scoring title at 21, his first MVP at 24. His finals performances have been less a surprise and a more a Cinderella-in-the-glass slipper moment whereby the most perfect player possible for the Warriors team schemes has slipped into the most perfect offense for his skills.
As Tristan Thompson has struggled through the series and the Cavs have no rim protector on the roster, Durant is often the tallest and longest player on the court. When the Warriors stretch the floor with their shooters, Durant as a ball handler is able to attack with multiple options. He shot four of eight from three in game two and the threat of that jumper keeps the defense perpetually off-balance. Defenders can’t give him space, but if you crowd him he can beat even elite defenders off the dribble and the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with elite defenders. When he puts the ball on the floor, he beats opponents with varying attacks. There’s the slaloming dunk shots, the one-legged off-balance kisses off the glass, and the pull-up jumpers. He’s too long for most any NBA defender, but particularly for a Cavs defense that lacks length.
If game one was a chance for KD and Golden State to show just how easy it can be, for KD at least, game two came with slightly increased degrees of difficulty as he had a stretch of play where he shot 14-straight jumpers from all over the court. Pull-up jumpers, step back threes, one-legged horse shots, fadeaways … it didn’t matter. He had a true shooting of 71% in game two. And when he wasn’t carving up Cleveland’s defenders from the perimeter, he joined Curry on the same backdoor cut off screen motion that he opened the series with. Again, Green with the pass, Curry with the screen attempt, and KD with the cut:
For the finals in the restricted area, Durant is shooting 16-21. He’s at 11-21 from three. I can only imagine Daryl Morey of MoreyBall fame watching this games salivating, fantasizing at the obscene efficiency and concocting crazy schemes to acquire the man. My focus here hasn’t even been his defense (two blocks and over a steal-per-game), rebounding (10-per-game), or passing (six assists-per-game). Despite his ability to both assimilate into the fun-loving Golden State infrastructure while still standing out with his precedent-setting combination of length, size, and skill; despite the fluidity of the socialist democratic team approach of these Warriors, Durant has been a one-man avalanche living in a new world with cool new friends, but doing the same old things and suddenly, somehow viewed differently because of it.
Jordan was a me-first ball hog before he won his rings. LeBron a choker who had to team up with other superstars to win (this narrative still pervades). Curry a gimmicky player who couldn’t possibly have survived the rough and rugged NBA of the 80s. The long list of denigrations and narratives are pre-packaged, ready to be consumed and spewed out at anyone who has the audacity to try and be the best. (How dare you?) But KD was always this guy, his head has always been shaped to wear this metaphorical crown. Between the boos and the cheers, between KD and Russ blowing a 3-1 lead last year and being on the verge of a playoff-sweep this year. Between it all, KD the player has remained steadfastly deadly; a Frankenstein amalgam of Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowtizki. That he is or isn’t the best doesn’t matter, for a moment of some immeasurable transience in the summer of 2017, the crown is his.
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.