Golden State did miss in the fourth quarter of Game 5. Seven times on 20 shot attempts, exactly. If a play-by-play account didn’t exist, my memory might argue otherwise. It seemed like every trip ended in a Kevin Durant pull-up, or an improbable deep shot from Steph Curry, or Andre Iguodala making a detached defender pay.
The fourth quarter was, for the final time in the series, ultimate confirmation that not even LeBron James could stop a team like this. The loss is sobering for Cleveland, though maybe without the intense severity of shortcomings past. As The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla (member of the Cavs faithful) wrote, "The city is no longer a national avatar of sadness, a sentient lowlight reel of the Shot, the Fumble, The Decision, the José Mesa, etc. We are merely pedestrian losers."
Cleveland will still feel it, if only how cities accustomed to some winning do. Maybe the wineries of Ohio (I’ve Googled; they do exist) will be frequented more often by a 6-foot-8 amateur sommelier; maybe the city won’t see J.R. Smith don his all-natural celebration attire this summer; maybe they will never see Kevin Love again.
The ripple effect will touch the rest of the league as well. There are free-agency decisions to be made in the East, group texts suggesting new superteams in the West, and the subject lines of debate shows to be written in production meetings. (Um, so, what about LeBron’s legacy? Send me a check anytime, First Take.) How will this wrinkle change paths in the league?
The quandary for CP3’s free agency remains: take a pay cut to join a team with real championship hopes, or take all the money the Clips can offer to stay in an orbit of postseason mediocrity. The Finals result makes the former tempting, as Durant went to a slightly rearranged championship team and won in his first year. The Warriors’ situation is enviable, but also unrealistic to re-create in San Antonio or elsewhere. Even on a superteam, Durant got a salary bump, raking in $26.5 million this year, which the organization could afford thanks to contracts like Steph Curry’s. Now expired, Steph’s four-year deal doled out a combined $10 million less than KD’s two-year deal. There isn’t another team underpaying a superstar so drastically, which means the financial stars that aligned to bring Durant to Oakland are unlikely to align for Paul the same way. Unlike KD, he’ll have to take a pay cut to form his superteam.
Both sides are worth considering: Maybe all Paul needs to win with the Spurs is a year or two, and then he can seek a longer maximum contract — though signing even a one-year deal would render him ineligible, at 32 years old with a May birthday, for the five-year maximum next summer.
And then there’s the other perspective, one that leaves Paul watching the fourth quarter of Game 5 in his basement, thinking, alongside the rest of the world, that there’s no competing against these guys. Us believing that to be true turns into debates on league disparity. Him believing that to be true turns into a $200 million–plus max contract with the Clippers.
Seven years after the Harvard Business Review aggregated several studies suggesting that past memories help us to imagine future happenings, Giannis Antetokounmpo proved it to be true. With every special block or finish or pass this season, the LeBron comparisons felt more real; soon could Giannis win an MVP shifted to when. Having an on-court transformation that’s comparable to the career arc of the greatest on-court presence of this generation (or one of the greatest, depending on your age and/or Kobe affiliation) is special. But after Giannis’s postseason and LeBron’s Finals performance, it’s clear there’s one lesson the former should take pains to learn: DON’T SHOOT FREE THROWS LIKE A CENTER WHO CAN PALM THREE BASKETBALLS AT ONCE.
Oh, the charity stripe, the free throw line, the uncontested shot of opportunity that LeBron drew at a postseason clip nearly double all other Cavaliers, but, even after 14 seasons of practice, still made at the fourth-worst rate. Sixty-five percent against the Warriors, and 70 percent in the playoffs overall: In LeBron’s series against the Raptors, the TNT crew wondered whether teams ever considered Hack-a-Shaq-ing him. But he never shot below 50 percent from the line against the Raptors — a mark he dipped to twice against the Pacers — and the humiliation was never attempted.
Back up a series for Toronto, and it actually could’ve happened with Giannis. He shot 54.3 percent from the stripe, dramatically worse than his already-pedestrian regular-season accuracy of 77 percent. For the duration of the season and playoffs, Giannis averaged the most free throws for Milwaukee, attempting 7.7 per game, and totaled 389 more tries than the next most frequent shooter, Greg Monroe. Excepting Michael Beasley, who took and missed four free throws, Giannis had the worst free throw percentage on the Bucks roster in the postseason.
LeBron finished Game 5 making 1-of-4 from the line, and every miss came when the Cavs were within either five or six points. Work on it this offseason, Antetokounmpo — Hack-a-Gian just sounds wrong.
Looking forward, Boston has the luxury of choice: build young, with the first overall pick, or trade assets to secure a star, rather than a rookie, for the roster. Deciding between building for the future and assembling now comes down to a question about the best way to deal with one major, balding roadblock: to build for life in the league after LeBron, or throw all resources at the chance to compete with him right away?
Losing to the Warriors doesn’t diminish his reign over the East, or hint at a decline, or prove anything other than that it’s possible to beat LBJ (who, with a 3–5 record in the Finals, has already shown that, despite his hold over the league, he is not invincible). What it did show, especially in the press conference afterward when the phrase "me personally" escaped his mouth at least four times, was frustration with the lack of a solid surrounding cast. Even though he’s shown no signs of slowing down, LeBron is 32, and on a fast-beeping timer to find a Warriors-proof combination. Think Chopped in the final two minutes of the dessert round, and his soufflé didn’t rise.
If Cleveland restructures its roster by trading Kevin Love, the return isn’t a guarantee. This was his best year with the Cavs, and there will be a 19-point-per-game hole to fill on offense without him. Any major revamp to tailor the roster to fix the team’s fit issues could take time to mesh correctly, or even just have the same hard time Cleveland did this year trying to compete with Golden State.
Catching the Cavs in an adjustment year could work in Boston + Paul George’s or Boston + Jimmy Butler’s favor, but even then, that’s just the conference. There’s another team on the other side of the aisle that Vegas also suggests waiting out, one still dealing with a champagne hangover.
Stephen A. Smith
For six straight NBA Finals, Stephen A. Smith had predicted a winner and flopped. He doubted the Warriors, then he believed, but no matter what, he was wrong on national television. But you already know this, good people of the NBA blogging community and subreddit and Twittersphere, and have crowned the jinx the titular "Stephen A. Smith Curse." Before these Finals, it made its way back to Smith, who addressed it on the radio.
"Every time I picked LeBron, he loses. Every time I picked against him, he wins!"
Smith picked against him, and correctly so. The Warriors’ victory was the beginning of the KD era, the solidification of the Golden State era, and the ending, sadly, to the first time we have ever checked a prediction just to purposely gamble against it — our most treasured era of all.