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.
“One man. One bus. Three hundred and sixty miles of simulated post-apocalyptic desert, and the endless struggle between man and nature personified.”
So begins the description of the iTunes version of Desert Bus, a minigame which originated on Sega and the PC within the world of Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors and which has been hailed by some, including The New Yorker, as “the very worst video game ever created.” It is a testament to futility, yet one which allows for the possibility, however minimal and cockamamie, of victory. Drive the distance from Tucson to Las Vegas, in painstaking real time and with the bus constantly swerving just so to the right, and be rewarded with a single, solitary point. The game cannot be paused.
The metaphor you likely saw coming: LeBron James is the driver of this bus. Each game of these Finals is likely to be his own, personal trek to Las Vegas on behalf of a nation that unwittingly bought a ticket. We’re all aboard for the rubber match of a rivalry that is set to define this revolutionary half-decade of NBA basketball, a handful of years which will determine the course of the league, and its game, for a long while. But first, of course, must come the unmanageable task of the series itself.
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.
Finally, the series we all assumed would happen for much of the season has arrived. In what many will call “a rematch,” NBA Finals begins tonight, with the defending champion (and Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™) Golden State Warriors once again welcoming the Cleveland Cavaliers to Oracle Arena. Calling it “a rematch” is technically correct insofar as the same two franchises representing the same two cities as last year return; however, what makes the Finals so apparently compelling is how much the circumstances surrounding these teams have changed since June 2015.
For all intents and purposes, the Cavs arrive in Oakland a different team entirely from the one that pushed last year’s Warriors to six games, though the chip on their shoulder carries more mass than that of the nearly 400,000 Cleveland residents combined. Golden State, meanwhile, has merely greased the wheels of its finely-tuned apparatus, defying every expectation except their own.
Respect in sports is personal, as subjective a concept as can be. People respect seeming effortlessness, as in the case of Steph Curry’s cocksure 35-foot bombs under duress. Those same people may value in the same measure the distinct work ethic required to reach Curry’s dominance in the first place. Earning respect takes a variety of forms – achieving an objective preeminence helps, but so does fighting on behalf of a teammate and playing through the end of a long-dead season with as much tenacity as at the start.
Two separate, but thus far equal, entities continue to struggle with earning the respect of fans and casual observers. For the Charlotte Hornets, an identity crisis has stifled interest in a relatively small – but growing – basketball market, whose most notable notoriety this month comes on the heels of legislation rather than the home team’s magnificently disciplined run to and through the playoffs. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, another issue of identity has chased the team for two seasons. In both cases, fairness never bothers to pick up the phone.
The 2014-’15 NBA season is now over, having come in like a lion and gone out like the exploding sun’s inevitable consumption of the Earth. The best team from the regular season capped off its run with a championship, and the best player in the world sulked away with a 2-3 record in the NBA Finals after posting one of the greatest individual series ever. LeBron James is the seminal figure in the movement which fell him in these Finals, and Golden State’s enthusiastic adoption of flexibility proved too much for Cleveland’s limited, defense-heavy rotation.
Notice the stark contrast between reactions to Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. On Wednesday and Thursday, we were talking about the legacy of LeBron James, the misfiring Warriors lineup and what Matthew Dellavedova meant to both. The Delly IV Game became fodder for pundits and fans alike, and a formerly innocuous backup became instantly polarizing due to what he was doing to the league’s beloved MVP and the offense which revolves around him.
Now, we’re discussing the all-around resurgence of Golden State, LeBron’s fatigue and the crucial lie Steve Kerr told concerning the best LeBron-stopper the Warriors have. Today, we pay respect to Andre Iguodala.
This is a safe space. Here, you can feel free to admit that you had no idea how we got here, to a 2-1 Cavaliers lead through three games of the NBA Finals. You probably thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kevin Love became Kelly Olynyk’s personal Stretch Armstrong action figure. And you definitely thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured kneecap in Game 1. Sure, they had LeBron, but at 30 and in his fifth straight Finals, how much damage could he possibly inflict on his own? People that now say they knew the Cavs would be up 2-1 under these circumstances are liars. It’s alright, you can admit you were wrong. We all were.
Cleveland sports fans have suffered for 51 years. It is well-documented, even on this site, and the many near-misses over the years have done nothing to alleviate the anguish. Cubs fans feel sorry for Cleveland faithful, because at least they have the Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls in the Windy City. Cleveland’s best claim to a winner lay two and a half hours southwest in Columbus, where THE Ohio State University has returned to national prominence courtesy of its football team.
Desperation in the Bay Area does not nearly reach Cleveland’s feverish pitch, thanks in part to the San Francisco 49ers, the defending World Series Champion Giants and a perennially competitive A’s team. The Golden State Warriors, however, have not won a title since Rick Barry was tossing underhanded free throws while averaging thirty points a game in 1975.