One timeout was all that separated the Cleveland Cavaliers from potentially, vitally making this a series. We were so close. We were as close to Heaven as we’ll ever be. But JR Smith had other ideas.
Discovered in the Nile riverbank city of Beni Mazar in Egypt in the 1970s, the Gospel of Judas has long been a divisive document among religious scholars. Because it is sympathetic to the most infamous turncoat in history, its place in the Christian canon is dubious at best. Judas himself is, well, necessary for the progression of the whole kit and caboodle. Without him selling out for thirty pieces of silver, how does humanity get saved? Short of hitting the reset button and preventing Adam and Eve from diving haphazardly into that apple, we were all doomed anyway.
In the Hamptons over the weekend, representatives of several NBA teams did their best to entertain the most compelling free agent in years. Somewhat improbably, the Sanhedrin of the Golden State Warriors was able to pry Durant away from the organization that drafted him. Perhaps it was their startup culture surrounded by startup cultures. The way they perpetually frame themselves as underdogs, despite having just set the league record for regular season wins, meshes perfectly with Durant’s “I’m always second” brand. Their thirty pieces of silver, of course, includes a few glimmers of gold, the prize that has always eluded him.
Filed under “nothing we don’t already know,” playing with emotions is tricky. At a turn, it looks like Russell Westbrook punching through a brick wall of defenders at light speed, a grass-fed Novak Djokovic urging the crowd to get behind him or Mark Messier shouldering the weight of a cursed franchise, as well as his own guarantee. It looks like Chris Paul scoring 61 points for his grandfather, or Brett Favre throwing for four touchdowns on Monday Night Football. It also looks like Russian hooligans bringing their country’s soccer team to the edge of disqualification at Euro 2016 over fits of violence with other fans and the police.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, we saw two facets of this imponderably massive spectrum. Draymond Green’s inevitable suspension for extracurricular activity gave rise to stellar performances from the four biggest stars in Oracle Arena, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson dared each other into the best game of the series thus far. Whether this acts as fuel to Cleveland’s fire or simply delays the inevitable made it an altogether more compelling spectacle.
“This isn’t looking good.” One of the people I was watching with was referring to a spilled glass of red wine on a hotel bed in Chelsea, but he may as well have been talking about the shot Steph Curry had just made with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter to put the Golden State Warriors up 90-79 on the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time, it felt like the final nail in the coffin, and ultimately, it was. In between, the Thunder bothered to make it interesting, drawing the 11-point deficit to four before finally succumbing to the Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™.
Game 7 was a perfect microcosm of the series as a whole: frustrated at a lack of belief in their team, Oklahoma City shot out to a surprising, sizable lead on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before Golden State roared back, jumping ahead on (what else?) a Curry three-pointer midway through the third quarter and never looking back. For all their efforts, the inevitable remained the inevitable, and now the Thunder face a summer of potentially franchise-altering uncertainty. Meanwhile, the team by the Bay, gold embodied, continues basking in its own sunlight, on the way to another NBA Finals.
Inevitability in sports is simply an extension of the existing tension between favorites and underdogs. What seems inevitable at any given time in any given sports is that which the rest of the sport attempts to topple. A certain pursuit of destruction of the status quo keeps the standard-bearers honest and the rest earnest. What is remains; what will be, will be.
For so many reasons, both external and internal, the Golden State Warriors have seized the NBA’s current moment. What LeBron James is to the Eastern Conference, the Warriors have become to the entire league, the defining signpost any opponent must pass on the way to a championship. Once a seemingly burgeoning dynasty, however, the Thunder isn’t here for the noise. Now, after a franchise-altering trade and a series upset of the NBA’s most consistent team, nothing is inevitable in Oklahoma City.
“I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.” – Steph Curry, October 2015
So often, when assessing the circumstances surrounding a season and its participants, onlookers make the critical error without the proper framing. This is true of culture – Lemonade as the greatest work of artistic liberation this year, this decade or this century, let alone this week – but is dominant in sports. Conversations abound concerning Karl-Anthony Towns’ place in the all-time NBA player hierarchy with, now, nearly as much frequency as LeBron James’, if you look in the right places.
Rare is the situation that doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to have a definitive historical identity waiting in the wings. This season, the NBA gave us two, possibly three, teams whose historical contexts seem almost preordained. Rarer still is the fact that each team faces unique circumstances which are fascinating in a vacuum but even more so when contrasted with one another.
Every year during the NFL season, the remaining members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins gather to engage in the most obvious display of schadenfreude possible between ostensible peers in the hushed community of professional athletes. On the occasion of the last remaining undefeated team losing its first game of the season, Mercury Morris and company sacrifice a few bottles of Cristal to the sports deities in exchange for their annual moment of relevance, leaving the rest of us to go on mowing our lawns and picking up our children from not-American football practice° while pondering whether the ’85 Bears could’ve beaten the Panthers from this past season.
Watching history be made doesn’t usually feel so… humdrum. For the Golden State Warriors, making history has become as routine as showing up for the morning shootaround. Win #72, against one of the only teams who plausibly stand a chance in any single game, let alone in a seven-game series, felt almost mundane in its execution, and yet it may be the most important victory thus far, Crying MJs be damned.