The Warriors, The Cavaliers And A Single Defining Moment

When I think of the 2015 NBA Finals, there is a single defining moment, a lasting image that my mind refuses to shake. LeBron James is backing down Andre Iguodala on the left wing. As James scans the floor, his left shoulder makes contact with Iguodala’s torso, right above that iconic “The City” logo on the left side of his yellow jersey. We, as viewers, can’t see who is at the top of the key, but in the background you can see that Draymond Green spots what might be an open player and begins to make a B-line as James’ dribble comes off the floor and his body moves forward. At the same time, Stephen Curry’s body, previously completely hidden behind the struggle for position and space between James and Iguodala, pops out to sneak over to James, whose right hand is still bringing the dribble up toward his shoulder and back is nearly parallel to the left sideline.

As Curry emerges, his eyes widen as he realizes that James isn’t aware of his presence. Right as the ball reaches the peak of its parabolic journey from floor to hand to floor again, Curry pokes the ball away and starts a fast break toward the Cavaliers' hoop. Iguodala, whose arms had been in the air, ostensibly working to not pick up a foul, comes down in a fit of relief. Green, who was once on the verge of migrating from the paint to the perimeter, suddenly pulls up to watch as his leader heads the other way for what would become an easy two points.

The camera cuts away to another angle before Curry scores — and the score isn’t even what was compelling about this series of events. It was James’ face after Curry stripped the ball that would capture the zeitgeist of not only last year’s NBA Finals series, but the existential dread vouchsafed upon the rest of the league in the ensuing season. James' face was one of frustration, disbelief and a general sense of futility that one doesn’t often see from the most dynamic player on the planet. But such was the case in a single play that essentially captured what it’s like for teams tasked with stopping these Warriors in this particular mini-era of excellence. This isn’t the first team that offered the rest of the NBA such a feeling of hopelessness; this is just the most unique way in which a team has become so dominant.

As much as the evidence suggests — a season-long rampage through the whole league and two very convincing wins against Cleveland — I don’t sense that the Cavaliers have the same sense of nothingness that slithered out of my television set on Christmas Day and again on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, about a month later. Instead, there is a fleeting sense of optimism that feels like it might be short-lived and everlasting at the same time. The Warriors’ mini-era of excellence has run alongside James’ return to Cleveland, and at this moment, the Cavaliers are playing their best basketball.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers received the kind contributions from role players that add to a title-run plot to make the libretto more fascinating. Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson, should the Cavs take care of business, enter a lounge shared by the Steve Kerrs, Sean Elliotts, Robert Horrys and Derek Fishers of NBA lore — the big shots made by the non-big-shot makers. These are the guys off the bench who took just a single step beyond what they were asked in the moments their teams needed them. James’ hero’s journey is the story line that matters most, but no journey is complete without supernatural aid, and this is the element he didn’t receive last season with so much of the team playing out of its natural rotation.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are also new to the dynamic created last June. Irving will serve as a unique challenge for Curry, who hasn’t squared up with another point guard with more finesse as a ball handler and his equal around the rim. Irving is one of the game’s true gems and has learned how to navigate the narrow line of running a James-led offense while getting his own. For the better part of the first year, their co-existence was an ideological tug-of-war: James pulling for opportunities to create with the ball in his hands with Irving yanking back to keep control of what was once his alone. Their partnership has developed into a healthier give-and-take due in large part to Tyronn Lue taking over David Blatt’s head coaching duties. Much was written about the shift in organizational culture when the change happened, and a large part of that change led to Love getting more touches in places that put him in a position to succeed. If James and Irving are the batteries that keep the Cavs' vehicle charged, Love’s success is the alternator. He's an overlooked part of the mechanics that keeps things moving, but without his contributions, it’ll be nearly impossible to get things started against such a talented Warriors team.


I recently reread Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” — a wonderfully written memoir about a philosophical relationship between the physicality of the world and how that relationship affects our relationship to others. Solnit wrote about how small we can feel in the unfamiliar air of the wilderness tens of thousands of feet above sea level while on a climb up Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States.

“Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest,” Solnit began. “But as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown."

This particular passage got me thinking about this Warriors’ season and how the sui generis of Curry’s shot selection forced us to familiarize ourselves with the unknown, how his extended range enlarged the floor and made behemoths of men feel smaller. Per Danny Chau’s fantastic feature on the league’s MVP, Curry nearly tripled the number of attempts from 30+ feet from the previous season. And because he shot these at such a phenomenal clip, the rest of the Warriors were purportedly liberated by the increased surface area they had to work with. Defending high pick-and-roll sets against these Warriors essentially meant taking two — and sometimes three — defenders away from the rest of the action. Defending five-on-five is difficult enough against a superb offense under normal circumstances, but because of Curry’s ability to create space that hadn’t existed on a regular basis before, the Warriors were able to create situations in which defenses had to defend three-on-three in space that is designed for five men to clog.

With this space, Draymond Green became a remixed version of what Boris Diaw was for the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less Suns. Green doesn’t have the vision Diaw had, but his awareness of what everyone on both sides of the ball is doing rendered him one of the best decision-makers of the 2015-16 season, which was also aided by his improved shooting from distance. Green’s shooting became just another weapon beyond the arch that is led by Curry and Klay Thompson — the latter of whom is having one of the greatest three-point shooting postseasons in the league’s history.

With Curry sidelined with a couple of injuries since the playoffs started nearly two months ago, it’s been Thompson who carried the brunt of the offense with his Brother of Splashes sidelined. Even with Curry back in the fold, it was Thompson’s shooting that got the Warriors through a win-or-go-home game on the road, and in that Game 7, Thompson was instrumental in the Warriors' berth into these Finals. Other elements make up the chemistry of this team, the makeup each role-playing ion is missing an electron in his game, but they all remain positive charges for a team that broke the NBA’s regular-season record.

When you take a look at the underbelly of the series narrative, the two most interesting themes aren’t as wholly positive as you’d expect from two phenomenal basketball teams. For the Warriors, it’s validation. Validating a postseason run in which they met opponents with injured athletes. Validating a playing style that has landed them in consecutive Finals appearances. Validating a 73-win season by finishing it off with winning the final game of the season. Validating a Coach of the Year award for a guy who was sidelined with a back injury for the better part of the first half of the season. For everything that these Warriors have accomplished, there is a laundry list of detractors who, for some godforsaken reason, feel like this team is likely a lucky outlier that defied all odds instead of shifting the odds for every other team in the league.

For the Cavaliers, it’s about vindication. Vindication for the league’s four-time MVP, who decided to head back to the city that drafted him in 2003. Vindication for a franchise that traded away one of the league’s brightest young stars for a veteran it thought would help the team in a more immediate sense. Vindication for a Cavs team that was two wins away from a title despite the fact that its second and third options were sidelined with injuries. Vindication for a team that fired its coach in the middle of the season — not necessarily because of its win/loss column — but because his coaching style and league experience didn’t fit with the culture of a roster of guys built to win in the now instead of growing with a guy who was still ostensibly learning on the job.

Validation and vindication, this is what the Warriors and Cavaliers are playing for. The Larry O’Brien has been rendered a secondary reward for finishing the season atop all peers. More than any other sport, legacy for the game’s great players and teams has an omnipresence akin to the gray skies of the Pacific Northwest or winter’s imminence in Westeros. Legacy just hangs over every game in every arena, judging every shot, pass and rebound, cataloging it all and slotting these players in teams between other players and teams. With James and Curry both attempting to win in ways we’ve never seen and the Warriors and Cavaliers trying to accomplish what is yet to be done, legacy will smile down upon the team that either validates a style of play or vindicates a series of decisions.

What will be this year’s lasting image, that indelible defining moment? This season, as it currently stands, is defined by Curry’s excellence, and James’ sixth consecutive Finals appearance is intrinsic to how we’ll define a whole era of hoops. Both men are surrounded by otherworldly talent and role players who don’t play outside of their essential duties. This is one of the more difficult Finals series to predict when considering all available variables that led us back to the same place we were last season. We’re only guaranteed four more NBA games, and things max out at seven. A single moment will shine through the monsoon of competition, and a champion will be crowned because of it.

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