“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. Simple.” — LeBron James after Cleveland’s 104-91 loss to Golden State to go down 3-2 in the 2015 NBA Finals
When LeBron James deadpans he’s the best player in the world while wearing a leather Cavaliers hat that looks like it should’ve been on Michael Bivins’ head circa 1992—doing it as his team gets brought to the brink of elimination—you know he knows something you don’t.
I’ll say what he didn’t right now: This series is going seven.
Golden State doesn’t want that to happen. They can’t let it happen. Game seven means it’s a one-game series. And that means every errant foul, every cramp, every millimeter off and that’s your trophy in the arms of another.
But it would only be fitting, because it’s been that close thus far.
Game one, Cleveland looked gassed and confused by the fresh legs of the Warriors second team in OT. The Cavs were held to a single basket in the bonus round’s five minutes; a garbage time layup from LeBron.
Game two, it was the Warriors who were dormant in the extra time as head coach Steve Kerr made a tactical error and stuck with his sluggish and pressing first unit. Cleveland silenced the janudiced Warrior faithful and stole one at Oracle.
Game three went to Cleveland as the jet-lagged Warriors couldn’t shake off the Southwest terminal TCBY and Pizza Hut Express hangover. The Cavs suddenly found themselves up 2-1 with a bigger head of steam than a Tex Avery wolf-in-zoot-suit when a pin-up girl passes by.
Since its game-three nadir, the Warriors went small and have had more successful pick and rolls the last eight quarters than a first-grader with a cold. Golden State now finds themselves on the brink of flat-billed white hats and an oversized T-shirt-wearing confetti shower celebration.
But the Andre (the bubbly, not the Warrior who makes fun of LeBron) isn’t on ice just yet.
Draymond Green, the emotive Warriors’ power forward who is one of three on the team tasked with defending the Best in the World (sometimes all at once), had this to say of LeBron after game five: “You’re not going to shut him down. But if you continue to make him work hard for each and every bucket that he gets, it takes a toll on his body. He does a lot for this ballclub, on top of he’s not a guy who takes the defensive end of the court off. You can go throw a triple‑team at him, and he’ll probably still get 40, but as long as you make him work for those 40, then you’ve got to be satisfied with what you do. He took 34 shots and got 40…If he’s hitting shots, he’s hitting shots. You’ve got to live with it and continue to make him take tough ones.”
So, there it is. The formula…for both teams.
Green’s acquiescence (and that was after a win) underscores the fact that there has never been a moment like this in professional basketball final with two very linear, very disparate story lines told at once: The first being the 2015 Warriors are likely the best and deepest team in league history and the second is the greatest player in history is simultaneously willing his team to hang in (ostensibly making his team the greatest).
Here are the 2015 Warriors’ contemporaries:
The ’65 Boston Celtics: Just as deep as the Warriors but nothing to defend the three ball and two generations away from Curry’s ball-on-string tricks.
The ’87 Los Angeles Lakers: Could match Curry & co. in flow and hustle and Magic, Worthy and Kareem in their prime a formidable task to defend; but no answer for the Warriors’ depth or physicality.
The ’97 Chicago Bulls: Probably most similar to the Cavs with MJ as his generation’s Best in the World and the only team in the last two decades (besides Cleveland) that could take the 2015 Warriors to the brink. In spite of MJs smothering defense, the Bulls couldn’t have matched the Warriors movement in space (especially the restricted area) and I doubt Rodman and Pippen could’ve kept up in transition.
The ‘15 Cavaliers: LeBron James is more dominant than Christian Grey after a hard day in the helicopter. That James’s All Star power forward and point guard are watching in big-and-tall suits from the second row just adds to the legend.
The only other time the greatest player of his era crossed paths with the greatest team of its era was during the 1991 NBA Finals. Even then, it wasn’t a fair comparison to this finals as one dynasty was on the decline as another was on the rise. 1991 marked the final year of the Lakers’ Showtime era congruous with the beginning Bulls’ rise. Jordan made Magic look flatter than U2’s recent album sales. The guard changed as the Bulls went on to make the series a bigger non-event than lunch at Panera Bread and took the crown 4-1. Magic was forced to retire in the wake of his HIV diagnosis less than a year later.
Seventy seasons have come and gone since the NBA was founded and finally the league has its The Best Player in the World vs. The Best Team in the World—live in concert, in their prime—for a pair of sold-out shows. Game 6 will tip off in Cleveland Tuesday night to an estimated 25 million watching from home. Add another 20 to that if it goes to seven in Oakland.
The center of the basketball universe runs through a pair of cities heretofore better known as your next layover stop. It’s not the way it was supposed to be on paper.