For the most part, Game 1 was called like a pre-hand-check-era tilt. And the performances to ensue spoke volumes.
I stayed up too late Thursday night enjoying what was likely my double-digit viewing of Bird and Magic: A Courtship of Rivals on HBO. It was one of those I-was-about-to-go-to-bed-doing-one-last-flip-through-and-it-was-just-starting moments.
I’m regretting the decision this morning but in the moment, watching Bird and Magic, bitter rivals, frenemies, best of friends and the uppercase Greatest Emeritus as they continue to age, was exactly the chaser I needed to put the 2017 NBA Finals Game 1 in perspective.
This is what I took away: LeBron James is the best player in NBA history, period. Nobody has ever been bigger, stronger, more commanding and more willful. He refuses to go quietly, ever. Possessions that do not directly involve him still draw defenders like moths to Buffalo Bill’s basement. Truly, in those rare moments when he is sitting, Cleveland morphs from the King Jameses into the Sacramento Kings.
So, he’s going to get calls, he’s going to get away with elbows, arm hooks and jersey grabs. I nearly spit-taked my Jolt Cola when he actually got called for a charge in the third quarter as KD squared up and took the lowered shoulder—no small entreaty. Even for a seven-footer, it must be something to behold seeing that kind of human force coming at you with all its inertia and well-sculpted chinstrap—akin to peak Mike Tyson right after the first round bell rings. Durant must have felt like a human red cape.
…If revisiting Larry and Magic’s rivalry this time showed me anything it’s that in their prime the pair was the most physical, most obtuse …and dirtiest athletes around. They scraped and scratched and poked and untucked and basically became miserable people on the court in order to make their opponents miserable too.
This isn’t just nostalgia talking. During the heart of the NBA’s mournful iso evolution (think Kobe/Shaq Lakers) the league modified its rules about what constituted contact and a foul. Commonly referred to as the dawn of the hand-check era, the change resulted in the legalization of zone defenses which did portend to make the game faster, less inhibited but also took that signature physicality away.
The rule officially states: In the backcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders. In the frontcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders except below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may only use his forearm. In the post, neither the offensive player nor the defender is allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position. Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player. Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.
When the refs adhere to these rules, the opposite of the desired effect is accomplished: The game slows down and not in a good way.
It was like that for most of the first quarter. The Warriors were jittery and cold, the refs inconsistent and Cleveland seemed to be finding its way despite the pedantic pace. Cut to midway through the second quarter and the Warriors, led by Steph Curry, began to get the space to create and find their rhythm.
Suddenly, there was a signature 13-point outburst in under two minutes. When the Warriors get into that zone it’s like trying to jump onto a magic carnival carousel that spirits its riders back in time. It’s an unstoppable, pass-happy, shoot when you get a look or just part the seas of defenders and slam it home—an inescapable calliope that leaves those from the floor to the third deck frozen in awe, hypnotized by its alluring sound.
Mercifully for the Cavs, halftime came—but the improvisational skills of the best team in NBA history picked back up in the third. With 1:52 left in the quarter, Curry, who scored 14 points during that period, pulled up at the top of the key and sank his sixth three-pointer of the night, resulting in a jubilant impersonation of a giant high-stepping back on defense. Time froze and the image instantly became one of the greats of his career.
Many purists argue that the Magic/Bird era (which basically breathed life into the moribund league) and the ensuing Jordan/Bulls dynasty to follow would not have been possible with the hand check rules in place. I happen to agree.
The NBA game, more than any other in professional sport, is dictated by the refs. They control the tempo and it is their discretion on how the rules should be interpreted. They also have to do it on the fly. The game moves so fast on the floor, every play—each toe on the line, hand in the wrong spot, shoulder dipped two degrees too low—could be hyper-analyzed. Games, if they were to be called correctly, would rival cricket in length.
So it is up to the refs to decide early and stay consistent which rules they’re going to be sticklers on and how much they’re going to let the teams play physical, grinding, brutal, Magic/Bird basketball …leaving the outcome to the today’s scions on the court.
For the most part they did that Thursday, and the results were clear.