By Nathan C. Vance
Game 3 of the NBA Finals was epic. It was a roller coaster, a prize fight, and a marathon all rolled into one. It was an historically great basketball game; one of the very few to be found in these NBA playoffs. The game featured three of the five best players in the world and seven of the best twenty, all playing at a high level. It was a game filled with heroic performances by the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers and career-defining moments for members of the Golden State Warriors. It was physical. It was fast-paced. The players on both sides played with an edge. It was the very best that the NBA had to offer. And it hurt.
I’ve never shied away from my love of the Cavs, and without a miracle or four, last night felt like the end of a season that had been filled with hope. The Cavs were playing at home. They were sharper than they had been in games one and two, especially their execution on offense. Their defensive effort was much higher last night than it had been since, well, their game seven victory over the Golden State Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals. And their two best players gave performances that will be remembered for a very long time. Kyrie Irving reminded the entire world that he is unstoppable at the rim. LeBron James reminded the world that his best is still the best. And yet, it wasn’t enough.
Why? There are many basketball explanations for Golden State’s incredible come-from-behind victory. For starters, Cleveland was a minus 12 in the two minutes that LeBron James rested on the bench. That’s an almost unfathomable number. A second explanation is that the Cavs closed two quarters with poor execution and mental mistakes. The first quarter ended with Golden State on a 10-0 run, and of course, the fourth quarter ended with Golden State on an 11-0 run. In four crucial minutes, the Cavs were outscored 21-0. You cannot win at any level closing quarters like that. And most importantly, LeBron James’ superhuman powers found their limit late in the contest. He was visibly exhausted and did not have the energy to finish.
Who could blame him? LeBron James is an older player in basketball terms. Chris Broussard noted before the playoffs began that he is the only player in history to be considered the best in the world while in their 14th season. Among those 14 seasons, LeBron has been to the finals eight times. He has also played in World Championships and in the Olympics. Point being, he has played far more basketball games and far more minutes than any other contributor in this current Finals series. Many of the all-time greats never made it to their 14th season. That list includes names like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell. The NBA has never seen anything like LeBron James.
Outside of Kevin Love, LeBron had absolutely no help from his teammates in games one or two. To put into perspective how abysmal his teammates were in those two contests, LeBron James averaged nearly thirty-points and a triple-double while his team lost by an average of 20 points per game. He was one assist shy of a triple-double in game three as well. All of this production has come against a team playing with at least four future hall of fame players, and it could easily be argued that they have five. LeBron’s defensive matchup, Kevin Durant, also happens to be among the top three players in the world. Paul Pierce has gone as far as calling him the very best. Regardless of exactly where he falls in the pecking order, there is no denying that Durant is, at the very least, elite.
So, late in the fourth quarter of what was an incredible game of basketball, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, LeBron James did the unthinkable. Like Atlas before him, he shrugged. It should come as no surprise. LeBron, despite years of evidence to the contrary, is only human after all, and the human body can only bear so much. He gave everything he had and, against the most talented team of our generation, it wasn’t quite enough.
So what comes next?
Well, among Cavs nation there is the hope for a miracle. In spite of striking out, mighty Casey will get to play again on Friday, and when LeBron is on the court, the Cavs always have a puncher’s chance to win. Though the Cavs played better in game three, they were far from perfect, and had they been perfect in game three, this series would be 2-1 rather than 3-0. If the Cavs were to win Friday, the memory of last year’s finals could creep into the minds of the Golden State Warriors Players. Maybe, just maybe, a Cavs win in game four would cause the Golden State players to press. Maybe the Cavs could turn one win into two and the series could get interesting. There is even the slightest chance that, powered by LeBron James, this Cavs team could become the first in history to win a championship after starting a series down 3-0. That would be a true Hollywood tale. Today, it feels more like fiction than fact.
NBA officials are surely hoping that the Cavs can at least win a game or two to extend these Finals as every game means millions of dollars in TV revenue. But there is something more at stake. If the Cavs get swept, then a new reality sets in. The NBA regular season, which already feels like an elongated pre-season, suddenly has zero value, and the playoffs, which have been ugly at best, become just as insignificant. With a sweep of the super-team Cavs, these Warriors will have completely marginalized the rest of the NBA. They will be poised for a multi-year, bad for business, dynasty of dominance. That is, unless drastic changes are made league wide.
Cleveland is the most obvious threat to Golden State’s throne but they need a makeover if they plan to compete in the finals again. The Cleveland bench is old and lacks athleticism. The mid-season addition of Deron Williams felt like a move that might balance the scales between Cleveland and Golden State, but Williams has been an awkward fit, and has proven to be ineffective at best in an up-tempo battle against the high-octane Warriors. The Cavs most obvious starting point in the off-season should be an upgrade over Williams. But that is only the beginning. A personal favorite, Tristan Thompson, has looked lost in these Finals. Maybe a trip to a sports psychologist could right his ship, but there have been rumblings of Thompson being included as bait for a bigger fish. In dream world, that big fish would be superstar wing Paul George. If Cleveland General Manager, David Griffith, could land George, then he deserves the keys to the state of Ohio. More likely, the Cavs will have to settle for an influx of inexpensive wings in their quest to combat the incredible Golden State Warriors. In my opinion, their chances appear bleak, but Griffith has proved to be a magician in the past. I’m betting that the NBA is hoping that he has some very big tricks up his sleeve.
The Houston Rockets are comfortable playing the style of basketball that has turned the Golden State Warriors into a juggernaut. It could even be argued that the Rockets coach, Mike D’antoni, perfected this style of play several years ago when coaching Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a part of that organization and it appears he took good notes during his time in the desert. The Rockets are very good, and with some tinkering, could be great. The Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, is one of the smartest minds in the sport. If there is a deal that could push his team over the top, he’s proven more than capable of finding it.
The San Antonio Spurs are the New England Patriots of the NBA. They find ways to reshuffle and rebuild even when it looks like their path is blocked. There are many secrets to their success, but the most obvious is that they have an absolute genius head coach. Greg Popovich is as good a coach as there is in sports. He knows every button to push to get the very best out of his roster. What’s scary is the rumor that he might be adding all-star guard Chris Paul to that roster. In combination with Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul would make the Spurs really, really scary. Would he be the piece to push them over the top? It’s unclear, but adding a future Hall-of-Famer never hurts.
The Boston Celtics are good. They are really good. They have a really good roster. They have an even better head coach. They have the number one pick. They have two all-stars. They have a good mix of veterans and youth. They were also pummeled in four of the five games that they met the Cleveland Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. If I were them, I would be interested in two players: Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They have the firepower to acquire both. The trades could get complicated, but a combination of Isaiah Thomas, the number one pick, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and others would probably land them both. If Brad Stevens were gifted a starting five of Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Paul George, Jaylon Brown, and Al Horford, I would make them the new favorite to win the Eastern Conference and a real threat to challenge the Warriors. Danny Ainge has made miracles happen before…I’m betting he can do it again.
There are other teams to consider too. The Washington Wizards are young and athletic. The Utah Jazz are also very young and are excellent defensively, though they were swept by the Warriors in the 2017 NBA Playoffs. Maybe one of these teams could land a golden ticket and dramatically change the power structure of the NBA. Free agency is always unpredictable and like Durant signing in Golden State last year, we’ve seen crazy things happen before.
So what exactly happens when Atlas shrugs? No one can be sure, but the ramifications are likely to be far reaching. I don’t know what teams will do, or where players will go, but I’m willing to bet that things are about to get very interesting.