Reluctantly, the reasons why the Warriors are going to lose Game 7 boil down to one thing: calculated human error.
I can hardly believe there’s a game seven this N.B.A. Finals. The Warriors are the better team, period. Cleveland, in spite of playing mostly lackluster ball all year, finished a respectable 57-25, which is more commentary of the state of the Eastern Conference than their overall prowess. At times this year, LeBron James looked old and defeated and that he would be willing to accept a long-term contract from any team willing to fly him out of Northern Ohio business class and trailer his Kia.
By Game 4 of this finals, both teams resembled summer squads doing walk throughs in the Vegas or Hawaii leagues thinking more about the action off the floor. The Cavs had submitted.
But then something funny happened. James, in a green suit straight out of Used Cars, started double dog daring the league in the Game 4 presser to look again at the skirmish between he and Draymond Green during the third quarter. The league obliged and took a no-call on the play and turned it into a flagrant foul for Green — ostensibly putting the Warriors’ forward over the limit for this playoffs and resulting in a one-game suspension.
Game 5 the Warriors were without the services of Green and they lost starting center Andrew Bogut for the season with bone bruises to the knee incurred when the Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith crashed into Bogut’s shin in the first half. What’s worse is the Australian will also be out of the Olympics set to tip off in seven weeks. Game 6, the Warriors got Green back but last years’ finals MVP and one of the only men who can shut down James, Andre Iguodala, came up lame in the second half with an injured back.
The Warriors have played more games than any other team this season. The Western Conference finals against OKC went to seven after they fell behind 1-3. Now they’re on the other side of the looking glass, trying to eek out one more win after dropping two straight. Trying to keep coach Steve Kerr’s streak of having not lost three in a row — ever — as a head coach in the N.B.A.; and most-importantly, hoping to establish themselves as the greatest team of all time after having finished with the league’s best regular-season record helmed by the first-ever unanimous choice for MVP in Steph Curry.
The Warriors when rested and healthy and rolling are a team unparalleled. Nobody is better in transition; they run the floor like they’re on a people mover at the airport. Nobody is better at executing the triangle offense; they’re a bunch of savants solving Rubik’s Cubes blindfolded and setting the 3D square down before the competition has started turning the puzzle. And when they’re really focused, no team is better as set defenders; moving as a fearsome gelatinous single unit, rarely backdoored and switching off screens like swipe lefts.
When all the above falls into place, the shots also begin to fall for the Warriors, lots of them. And lots from mid range and beyond. For the Warriors, scoring has been less of a problem than it was for Vinnie Barbarino. It was just a natural byproduct of them doing them.
But something has changed. Or maybe it has just gone back to the way it was.
Though James is getting all the love from the East Coast medias, mostly because he’s scored 40-plus in each of the last two games, found his jumper and been dominant down low, the reality is the refs have been calling the game in James’s favor all playoffs as if it’s a weekday mid-November matchup at the Q against the Bucks.
There have been rumblings of the league favoring James before, the most recent from the Detroit Pistons’ head coach Stan Van Gundy who unleashed after his team’s Game 1 playoff loss against the Cavs. “A couple calls have upset our guys,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve got to understand, LeBron’s LeBron. They’re not going to call offensive fouls on him. He gets to do whatever he wants. They’ve got to understand that.”
Frustrated, the Pistons’ 20-year-old point guard Reggie Jackson earned a technical foul late in that game. A technical that, like many of the calls that have gone Cleveland’s way before and since, was unmerited.
Fast forward to the waning minutes of Game 6 when Curry, who was called for his sixth and final foul — to be ejected for earning the max infractions for the first time since 2013 — hucked his most indelible accessory, his mouthpiece. No sooner than this happened and the tweets and the headlines blew up that he threw it at a fan. No. He threw it in disgust. A fan happened to be in the way.
So it goes in the twilight of this season. James can’t be called for offensive fouls, because frankly, it’s no fun to stop the game every possession.
Any team that’s going to win the championship is going to need a little help. The Warriors, tired, bruised and beaten especially. But the refs and the league will not change the course of their narrative — especially to suit a West Coast franchise. Once James got an opening and obliged with a spark, the decision had been made and the Warriors would be denied even if at one point they were destined.
Because sometimes, even destiny doesn’t get the call.