Nearly a full year after Kyrie Irving nailed the step-back shot over Stephen Curry and LeBron James leapt, then wept at the accomplishment of ending Cleveland’s championship drought, we’re back where we started. In fact, right back where the entire basketball world expected to be when the 2016-17 season tipped off on Oct. 25.
Cavaliers-Warriors III. The one that settles it all.
Uh, until next year?
In a boxing context, this would be the Thrilla in Manila, where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier pummeled each other to the brink and Ali would later say it was the closest thing he’d ever felt to dying. The end of the trilogy.
But no matter how many haymaker 3s Curry and Kevin Durant can bury for Golden State or the dozens of body blows that are landed by James and Irving for Cleveland, who’s going to say we can’t write it onto the calendar for June 2018 -- Cavaliers-Warriors IV. Then V, VI and VII.
Who’s going to stop them? The Celtics, Rockets, Raptors, Spurs, Wizards, Clippers or Jazz? Please.
The Warriors just floated through the Western Conference like a kite on a breeze to a perfect 12-0 record. The Cavaliers had that inexplicable Game 3 hiccup against Boston and were still 12-1 in the Eastern Conference.
In a plumbing context, the pipes are clogged.
“This is the greatest talent differential, to me, in NBA history."
There has never been 1-2 dominance like this in the history of the NBA. It will be the first time ever that the same two teams have met in The Finals three years in a row.
The Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry ushered in the modern era of the NBA with their clashes in the 1980s with what seemed to be their annual coast-to-coast showdowns in The Finals. But the truth is, the Celtics and Lakers only went head-to-head with the title on the line three times through the entire decade. There were Sixers and Rockets and Pistons that poked their heads into the picture.
When Michael Jordan took the league into the stratosphere in the 1990s with a matching set of “three-peats,” his Bulls beat back five different challengers from the West, running a gauntlet of Hall of Famers that included Magic, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, John Stockton and Karl Malone. In the East, he went through Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, all in their prime.
“I think greatness is good for the league,” said former coach Jeff Van Gundy. “But what’s better for the league is greatness to be challenged. I don’t think we’re getting that now for Cleveland and Golden State. The only roadblock they have to winning a championship is each other.”
It’s not a talent gap, it’s a canyon. Toronto is coming off the best four-year run in franchise history and has to consider blowing things up to start all over because they haven’t drawn closer to the Cavs and, in fact, were dismissively swept this season.
“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would have won,” said Raptors' DeMar DeRozan.
But until cloning is perfected, we’re left to ponder when will there be somebody to step in and stop James from extending his streak of reaching The Finals from the current seven in a row?
James has owned the Eastern Conference over the past decade, eliminating at one point every team from the playoffs except Cleveland, Miami and Orlando.
“I can only speak to my own experience back in those days when there were some great teams and great players that did not win championships because of one man,” said former point guard Mark Jackson, whose 17-year NBA career spanned the Jordan Era. Jackson’s Knicks and Pacers teams were eliminated four times by Jordan’s Bulls in the playoffs.
“I think there are some great teams today, but I don’t know that there are as many today as back then,” he said. “When you think about Stockton and Malone not winning a championship, think about Seattle not winning a championship. Even that Dallas team going back to Rolando Blackmon, Mark Aguirre, Derek Harper and Sam Perkins. That was a great team. In the East we’re talking about Patrick, Barkley, Indiana, some great Miami Heat teams, Milwaukee with Alvin Robertson. Man, there were some loaded teams that couldn’t get over the hump. And the hump was Michael Jordan.
“But the thing is, we believed it. You always believed it, every year. We were close enough to get him. There were situations with a tipped ball here, a loose ball there, maybe. But in the end, it’s a credit to his greatness.
“Do these other teams today really believe they can beat the Cavs and Warriors? I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
So the regular season can be about Russell Westbrook and James Harden dueling for triple-doubles, Gregg Popovich ranting at sideline reporters, Blake Griffin trying not to get hurt and Charles, Kenny, Shaq and Ernie keeping all of us quite highly entertained. But it’s like taking a spin class and pedaling to nowhere until Golden State-Cleveland take us for a ride in June.
“Look, Jordan still won all those years,” Van Gundy said. “But it wasn’t like he wasn’t pushed. It wasn’t like this, a mowing down. Everybody expects in the early rounds, 1-8 matchup to be easy. But not 1-2 or in Cleveland’s case 2-1. To beat another team on their home floor by 46 after being up 25 the game before. Are you kidding? Where is this going to end?”
Prognosticators and simple human biology would seem to say that James has to slow down eventually. But he’s 32, finishing up his 14th pro season and spitting out opponents like the back end of a wood chipper. Irving is 25. Kevin Love is 28. Who can you say is going to take them down in 2017-18?
That Warriors’ side of the bracket is even more lopsided with Curry 29, Durant 28, Green 27, Thompson 27.
“This is the greatest talent differential, to me, in NBA history. That’s where I think I just wished there was a little more challenging them, especially the Warriors,” Van Gundy said. “Because while we have the huge gap between the top two teams and the rest of the league, there is even a big gap between one and two, from Golden State to Cleveland. Think about it. If not for Draymond Green’s punch on LeBron, I don’t think anybody doubts they win in five last year and are going for three in a row -- now with Kevin Durant. It’s ridiculous.
“The first two years, they were down in a series or two. But this is different. This team is so much better, more talented, than the 73-win team because of Durant. Are you telling me there’s a way to beat them four times if they’re healthy? I don’t see it.”
Give Boston anybody you want with the No. 1 pick in the Draft and even say Gordon Hayward chooses to join the Celtics in free agency. Does that put them past the Cavaliers? The Wizards can’t get past the second round. The Bucks and Sixers have young talent, but are years away. The Pacers and Pistons have regressed. The Bulls are stuck in the mud.
The Jazz have made impressive strides in the West, but now must fight to hold onto Hayward and still have lots of ground to cover to catch the Warriors. The Memphis core is aging, young rosters in Denver and Phoenix are greener than St. Paddy’s Day beer, Houston and OKC are carnival sideshows with bells and whistles. The Lakers can’t see respectability with a telescope. The Pelicans are confused. The Spurs are a tweaked Kawhi Leonard ankle away from not even being able to compete. And do you really want to bank on the Clippers?
“We all know reality says that one day James won’t be able to do the things he does,” Van Gundy said. “But we’re going to have to see that happen before we start believing it. As a coach, he makes you re-think that a team ‘can turn it on’ and ‘turn it off.’ We’re seeing that this year. So Cleveland keeps doing what they’re doing.
“Then, what if I said the Warriors are gonna go seven or eight straight years to The Finals? This will be three. Those four core guys are all in their 20s. Is that good for the game?”
It is in June. Until somebody can come along and flush the pipes.
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