Thursday, June 8, 2017

Warriors - Cavaliers Game Three: The Greatest Ever Falls To The Greatest Ever

He Lost Sometimes, Too
I watched the entire Michael Jordan Era, and spent much of that time, well, not rooting for the man. While still respecting his incredible talent and results, because it's possible, honest, to hold these two views at the same time.

Why wasn't I fully on board the MJ Train? Well, when he was facing teams I really didn't like -- Boston, Detroit, New York -- I rooted for him, though not with my whole heart. When he didn't face a team I disliked, I didn't. There was such a scorched earth competitive nature to him, bordering on ugliness; he'd pule for every call, antagonize every road fan base, and all the while, the media and league was entirely in the bag for him. He was amazing, legendary, revolutionary, but as I wasn't a Bulls fan, he wasn't nearly as much fun as you might think. Rooting for Michael Jordan was, all too often, rooting for a bully.

There's also this; the essence of Michael Jordan was one on one, isolation basketball. Catch the ball on the wing, work the defender to death, score off the jumper or from a drive to the rack, get lots of foul calls other players didn't get. He was a good and willing passer, of course, and scored in all manners of ways, but the defining moments of his career are spent destroying players in one on one matchups. He beat any number of teams (the Gary Payton Sonics, the Chuck Barkley Suns, the Clyde Drexler Blazers) that had more balanced scoring and better passing, and were just more fun to watch. Pretty basketball lost to not as pretty basketball, and while that's an amazing thing to say about the game's premier flyer, it is what it is. The eye likes passing, and five men acting as one.

Which brings me to tonight's decisive game, viewed in the theater at my gym from a treadmill. By the fourth quarter, the Cavs held a six point lead late, had held that lead throughout most of the second half (their first lead in the second half in the series), and were getting calls and bounces and all kinds of scoring from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who more or less owned the Warriors on drives to the hoop for 40-odd minutes. It looked like a Cavs win, a series, two days of talk about how great James is, how Kevin Durant had failed to show up on the road, and so on.

And then the Warriors went on an 11-0 run to end the game, with Durant sticking a pull-up three to give the team the lead, Andre Iguodala making a steal with 10 seconds left that ended the Cavs last chance and reminded the world that defense is a big damned part of the reason why this might be the best team ever, and Stephen Curry icing it at the line.

As always, there's more to the game than that. Klay Thompson's renaissance continued and blossomed, Draymond Green played forever with five fouls without losing his mind over a double standard of physicality that made the game seem like a WWE match, Curry continues to collect rebounds instead of glares at the referee after uncalled fouls, and HC Steve Kerr used his timeouts brilliantly to make sure his team never lost touch. The Warriors got minutes and defensive closeouts all over the roster, but let's just get back to that closing run, because it's everything, really.

James has faded in the second half of all of these games, and for easy and good reason; he never leaves the floor, he's 32, and he's playing in his seventh straight Finals, which means the playoff minutes added to the regular season ones makes him more like 35. This was disguised by his exceptional passing and Irving's genius, but the club needed him to carry them late, and his legs were gone. The same was true for Irving, who had to make over a tiresome collection of arms and length on all of his shots. You can only go so long and so far before fatigue and age make losers of us all, and while Durant was fresh as a daisy late, and Curry is no worse than the third best player on the planet right now, James and Irving were spent. You can put that on them if you like, or HC Tyronn Lue, but expecting people to be superhuman isn't just unfair, it diminishes the opponent.

The Cavs aren't going to win this series, and that is shouldn't be used as a mark on James as a player. He's the best I've ever seen, the most well-rounded, and his three championships and seven trips to the Finals should speak for themselves. He's never lost to a lesser team, never failed to show up in a Finals, and done it all while wet nursing coaches and putting up with poor bench play. He's been no worse than the second best player on the floor for all of these games, and if Cleveland didn't have him, games would be 40+ point blowouts. We are idiots when we change our opinion of his life based on single games, and even single series.

And we are also idiots if we think a team that's 15-0 in a postseason, and now owns the longest winning streak in U.S. history regardless of sport, is anything but the best team ever.

Also the prettiest.

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