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A Finals in Search of Drama

This much-hyped third meeting of the Cavaliers and Warriors has so far lacked the spontaneous joy and weird moments of realness of the first two matchups

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Two games into the NBA Finals, LeBron James’s best dunk wasn’t his banger on JaVale McGee, or even his drive over Andre Iguodala. It was his needlessly vicious tomahawk rip over a reporter who wandered into the metaphorical lane of his locker room post–Game 2 press conference. Watch your heads.

Let’s acknowledge that reporting from a sporting event, from a locker room in particular, is weird. It’s not overly difficult, though — we aren’t talking about life and death here, just guys bouncing a rubber ball and running around. And talking to them in their underwear right after they get done running around with the rubber ball is an important part of the sporting experience. It’s a strange ritual of humiliation for all those involved.

At the All-Star Game in New Orleans this past February, while waiting in a scrum in the crumbling bowels of the Smoothie King to talk to DeAndre Jordan, an Italian cameraman used the top of my head as a tripod. In any other social setting, I’d be well within my rights to Draymond the dude’s groin. Instead, I waited my turn, and with as much dignity as I could muster, asked Jordan a couple of questions about the dunk contest. He was fully clothed at the time.

In the case of LeBron and the smart guy, we’re talking about the Finals. Tensions are high. The pressure is palpable. You’re competing for soundbites with journalists from around the world. This guy likely needed a quote; you know, something to prove yes, I was there, and LeBron bequeathed unto me his wisdom on ball bouncing. So he composed a query in the "could you talk about …" family. And LeBron yammed on him as a father yams on one of his children.

"Are you a smart guy?"

The moment was telling because the quest for drama in a thus far dramaless series has led us to this — scratching for entertaining displays of annoyance, celebrity hecklers, and memes. If there’s a silver lining to the Warriors ongoing bulldozing of the playoff field, it’s that it’s occurring at a time when we have the technology to make the most of it.

The NBA experience is built on legendary rivalries between forces of relatively equal dominance. It’s impossible to picture what the shape of the league would be without the forging fires of Wilt vs. Russell or Magic vs. Bird. The hegemony of the Jordan Bulls was never seriously tested. But, like an action movie franchise where the victorious denouement is a guaranteed part of the draw, there was no shortage of frisky opponents willing to test Mike’s mettle. And, anyway, back in those days, an overmatched squad could always grab a dude around the neck and Stone Cold Stun him into the court. Kevin McHale horse-collaring Kurt Rambis is, by any measure, the most famous play of the 1984 Finals. Sure, such brutality was technically frowned upon, but with a wink, nod, and a noted lack of ejections or suspensions.

I’m not one to pine for ye olde days. The rule changes of the aughts banished the goonery of the ’90s and unlocked a level of technical and tactical mastery that is, in my opinion, the very best version of the game. The downside: There is now no effective check on superior talent, save a relatively similar level of talent. LeBron James is the greatest, most versatile basketball player on the planet, but he’s bringing an Iman Shumpert to a Steph Curry fight.

Golden State replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant who, at this moment, is wedding deep shooting, off-the-bounce devastation, and wingspan into a package that looks every inch the ultimate evolution of the NBA big man. He is scoring at will, head-up, on LeBron James. The only dude playing in the Finals who could possibly hold down KD is Warriors’ starting forward Draymond Green. Add them to Curry in full sous chef mode and an offensively revitalized Klay Thompson and there is no possible antagonist for this team. Under these circumstances, with the Cavaliers — and indeed the entire league — seemingly overmatched, turning Rihanna into Golden State’s rival is less a display of mass delusion than a rational reaction.

The well-worn truism that a series doesn’t start until a team loses on its home court is still accurate. But it needs updating. In the social media era, a series doesn’t really start until the home team loses and an off-court event hijacks the narrative. A press conference freak-out. A locker room blow-up. Something. Last Finals, it was Ayesha Curry tweeting that Game 6 was rigged. In the first round of this postseason, it was David Fizdale’s double-A-side "Can’t Rook Us" b/w "Take That for Data," and Thunder coach Billy Donovan lamenting "Can’t play Kanter" to assistant skipper Mo Cheeks. The weakness of Warriors-Cavaliers can be measured by the fact that the most interesting thing about the matchup has been the memes.

Rihanna is legitimately a better foil for the Warriors than the Cavaliers are.

Golden State is an overpowering force. Every measurement — offensive rating, defensive rating, net rating, shooting percentage, pace, and so on — tells you, loudly, that the Warriors will win. But with Durant and Curry as the top-line stars, and the general Silicon Valley villain vibe that the team, through no real fault of its own, can’t help but put out, what the Warriors lack is a feeling of cool which Rihanna effortlessly provides.

It’s been a down Finals, both in execution and experience, if not in ratings — thankfully for the league, those are up. Some of the dourness of the Finals is generated by extenuating circumstances. The world, generally, is falling apart with a worrying alacrity. The role of sport in the social firmament is to act as a mental vacation from the real world. But with the level of competition not up to its traditional transportational task, these Finals have been notably somber. From Steve Kerr dragging his nicked spinal column to the coach’s chair after a long time away, to Draymond acridly insisting that he’s not emotionally disturbed, to the racist vandalism of LeBron’s Los Angeles home. It’s enough to make you pine for the simple days of Riley Curry taking over news conferences.

That’s the downside of trilogies. If the energy of the final act can’t deliver the closure, what’s left is the exhaustion.