The Golden State Warriors just made the NBA Finals without losing, becoming the first team to start the playoffs with 12 consecutive wins. And they’re not just winning, most games aren’t close — they have 10 double-digit wins and an average margin of victory of 16.3 points. They’ve been tested exactly once — the game in which they trailed by 25 and in which Kawhi Leonard got injured, making the rest of the conference finals a formality. They’re one game away from tying the NBA record for consecutive postseason wins, a record set by the Lakers in 1989 and … tied by the Cavaliers in 2017.
The Cavaliers’ streak came to an end in their Game 3 Eastern Conference finals loss to the Celtics, a defeat that was, according to Las Vegas, the biggest single-game upset in postseason history. Before the loss, LeBron James tied records for most consecutive 30-point playoff games (set by Michael Jordan) and most consecutive 25-point games while shooting 50 percent from the field (set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). To some, LeBron’s poor Game 3 performance served as evidence he’s not as good as Michael Jordan — Michael Jordan, presumably, would’ve broken Michael Jordan’s record while setting the consecutive wins record Michael Jordan’s teams didn’t set. The Cavs also set the record for largest halftime lead by going up 41 points on the Celtics in Game 2 — because they are not clutch, they failed to win the game by 82. We should be congratulating the Pacers, who got swept by Cleveland, but didn’t lose any games by double digits.
Of the 66 teams to make the Finals since the NBA moved to a 16-team format in 1984, 40 lost at least four games en route to the Finals. Only two teams have ever swept the pre-Finals run-up (the 1988–89 and 2000–01 Lakers, but they needed only 11 wins to do so and promptly lost Game 1 of the Finals). Only five have ever made the Finals with one loss. Never have two teams with such dominant postseasons faced off in the Finals.
(Technically, the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks swept their way to the Finals in 1957. Boston won Game 7 of the Finals in double overtime despite Hall of Famers Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy going a combined 5-for-40 from the field, thanks to a combined 55 rebounds by Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn.
This isn’t relevant to the article so much as a reminder that in 1957 the NBA was mainly just random basketball hurling.)
We have two teams that you can genuinely argue are having the best postseason of all time, and they are having it simultaneously, and they are going to play each other. But some parts of greatness aren’t so great.
Boston’s rally and victory in Game 3 was a reminder that close basketball is actually enjoyable, and that we haven’t had much of it with the Cavs and Warriors. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by their excellence, but I’m a weirdo who likes watching the UConn women’s basketball team jack up 3s to turn 50-point fourth-quarter leads into 60-point fourth-quarter leads. I got to cover the Olympics in Rio, and the most amazing thing I saw wasn’t a close race, but watching Katie Ledecky make the second-through-eighth-best swimmers in the world look like doggy paddlers. But even in her longest races, Ledecky was in and out of the pool in about eight minutes. They didn’t make her re-swim against her closest competition over and over again for six weeks. I might be a sociopathic blowout aficionado, but having now watched Dahntay Jones create a turnover by pulling the chair on Jordan Mickey in a conference finals game, I can confirm it is not as thrilling as watching Ledecky swim.
It’s a bummer. Over the year, we dreamed so many basketball dreams, imagining the possibilities of various teams contending for the title. There was Russell Westbrook posting triple-doubles on everybody who wronged him, which in his mind was everybody. There were the Rockets, who hooked an IV of 3s into their arm and let it fuel one of the best records in the NBA. A child in ill-fitting adult clothing put up a bunch of 20-point fourth quarters for the Celtics, and actually vaulted them to a better record than the defending champions. Kawhi Leonard reshaped the Spurs in his magnificent image.
I wanted these teams to matter, but in the end, they didn’t. All dreams were for naught, as was any speculation that the Cavs defense wasn’t good enough, or that Kevin Durant wouldn’t mesh with his new team. These two teams aren’t just grinding their opponents to ashes; they’re shattering our belief that any other outcome was possible. The last holdout of doubters are those who believe the Spurs’ enormous first-half lead in Game 1 against Golden State before Leonard’s injury could have been sustained for seven more halves, but rations are running low on their island.
Why didn’t we just bang on the door of the league office in September and demand a sim to June, or ask them to let the Cavs and Warriors play a best-of-101-game series?
What’s more, this seems repeatable. Barring drama, the Warriors will sign Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant to new contracts this offseason, although they may need to shed a player like Andre Iguodala in order to do so. And LeBron James seems to actually be getting better at basketball in his 14th NBA season. Brad Stevens certainly thinks so.
Fatalism says everything is predetermined and we can do nothing to change it; nihilism says nothing in life has any meaning. I don’t know which one NBA teams should align with more — perhaps both? — but that I’m thinking about brushing up on Nietzsche to advise NBA teams is not a good thing. My colleague Kevin O’Connor likes to examine whether teams should try to improve their core or rip it up and start over. I look at this NBA and wonder — can anybody change anything about the power structure in this league? Does anything that anybody does matter? NBA teams have two options: They can be like the Jazz, who just fought super hard to win a seven-game series over the Clippers before getting blasted to oblivion by the Warriors, or they can be like the Clippers, who merely lost to a team that lost to the Warriors. We knew that nobody was close to the Cavs and Warriors; this postseason has taught us that nobody was close to being close. Is this the beginning of a distressing new era when 28 of 30 teams are doomed from Day 1?
It might be distressing, but it isn’t necessarily new. This is a league whose history is defined by dynasties. The outlier is not the Golden State–Cleveland era we’re living in, but rather the past few years, which have seen relative parity. This decade has had six champions in its first seven years — more than in the entire 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s.
The Celtics won nine times in the 1960s, six of them against the Lakers. Boston and the Lakers played in the Finals a combined 13 times in the 1980s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls are the best thing ever to happen to the NBA, and the main reason they didn’t win eight titles in eight years is because Jordan quit to play baseball for a bit. (LEBRON COULD NEVER GET 88 HITS IN DOUBLE-A, shout the Jordanheads.) But we look back on these periods fondly. We don’t deride them for lack of competition — we celebrate them as times when legends walked among mortals.
If you’d like, you can acknowledge the greatness of the present. Last year the team with the most wins in NBA history, whose best player rewrote basketball records like Babe Ruth rewrote baseball ones, became the first team to lose the NBA Finals after holding a 3–1 lead, and they lost it in a tight Game 7 while the best player on the opposing team became the first player to lead an entire playoff series in every major statistical category. All of the things in that sentence are unbelievable, and they are all true. We watched them! Now we will likely get to see those two teams play again in a rubber match, which would make them the first teams to play each other in three consecutive Finals.
It’s possible that in 30 years, you’ll reminisce on these days, after putting in 13 hours building a pier for President Kushner’s mega-yacht on the Louisville coast, and in between bites of your Victory Gelatin, you’ll think, Man, the 2017 playoffs were super boring. But that’s not how we typically view NBA history. I think we’re more likely to focus on the incredible thing we’re witnessing.
Every NBA season is about whittling 30 to 16 to eight to four to two to one. Cleveland and Golden State have done that whittling with dynamite, but that shouldn’t be a demerit against the league. And it certainly shouldn’t be a demerit against the Cavaliers and Warriors, who are doing all the things your favorite dynastic teams from decades ago did, with a splash more dominance.
Two stars are about to collide. Astronomers have to wait 10,000 years to see a stellar collision — we’re seeing our third in as many years.
Now, if the Finals are a sweep? Blow the whole damn league up.