NBA finals: Same, same but different

Wins. Losses. Fast breaks. Turnovers. Clutch shots. Sloppy play. Transition defence. Missed shots. Steals. Easy buckets. Ball movement. Iso-ball. Stats. Comparisons. Hot takes, hot takes and hot takes.

To say that the 2017/18 NBA season has been characterised by unpredictability and unforeseeable trajectory shifts would be quite an understatement. It tipped off with league-rocking player trades, shocking injuries and much talk of “win now” mentalities from coaches and general managers from the bottom of the totem pole right to the crème de la crème.

Early on, a number of teams typically seen as “middle of the road” or “inexperienced” showed in their win-loss columns they were dissatisfied with being dismissed as just having potential. Ready to prove their worth, young teams like the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz showed great confidence in their abilities to dethrone the already established All Star-laden teams from their top spots.

As the season progressed, for the first time in a while, it appeared this year’s championship rings would end up with whoever dared to reach for them. Yes, potentially a new era of team rivalries, matchups and overall competition. Perhaps no burgundy court or sold-out fans in distinctive bright yellow T-shirts this year.

Of course, that’s exactly what this installment of the NBA finals is going to be. And it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call it a miracle.

Not that talent is lacking in either the Cleveland Cavaliers’ or the Golden State Warriors’ rosters but both teams have had their share of personal battles this season that have rattled, or at very least shaken, their identities. Possibly enough to make this season career-defining for many players who will be competing in the finals.

‘Sleepwalking through the season’
The Warriors squad returned from the off-season with largely the same face and as such had minimal new chemistry issues to sift through or playing structures to configure. They were always going to stick to their mandate of defence fuelling offence and going off at the three-point arc — a strategy that has served them well enough to make them a (multiple) record-breaking NBA team for the past few years.

That’s precisely where the root of their problems sat; being so much more formidable and full of talent than their opponents that it seemed the regular season was slightly boring and not challenging enough to wake them from their winner’s slumber. This lack of effort was deemed a “slow start” at first but very vividly developed into a mental hurdle and perhaps winner’s fatigue, with star players such as Kevin Durant making repeated references to how hard it is to win a championship. Head coach Steve Kerr often expressed his concerns about sounding like a stuck record to his players and even had them coach themselves in a game in an effort to get them to engage more. Still, they managed to remain an above 50-win team (almost hitting 60) in the regular season because of the sheer magnitude of their talent.

Almost like clockwork, momentum picked up in the post-season as if they’d been waiting for everyone else to step their game up and force them to be more locked in. They went 12-5 in wins-to-losses and scored 109.1 average points per game.

Unfortunately, and naturally, it wouldn’t be a Warriors season without a little bit of injury trouble from supernatural shooter Stephen Curry and so sprained and rolled ankles as well as a medial collateral ligament sprain played their parts and undeniably affected his team.

‘But it’s LeBron, though’
Across the country in Ohio, the Cavs were having other issues. A laundry list of problems, pick one and they had it. Players, coaching, all the above. It appeared they just couldn’t get it together and there was widespread criticism of the team but more specifically of the often Michael Jordan-compared LeBron James who has borne the brunt of every blowout loss and been praised for every win.

There were failed trade decisions, a lack of player compatibility, awful defence and an overall inability of James’s teammates to find ways to win games without him. And carry them on his back he did. All through the regular season James rarely faltered, balling out big on the stats sheet and being the undeniable extra edge over their opponents even at the Cavs’ worst moments.

Throughout the season the general, very unsubtle, public choice for MVP was the Houston Rockets’ James Harden. James performed at such a high level in post-season that tones changed surrounding the conversation. It’s worth noting that this season he is first in the league for average points per game (34.0), third for assists per game (8.8) and first in player efficiency rating (33.1). It would not be outlandish to give him the bulk of the credit for the Cavs’ 12-6 post-season win-loss column and 101.2 average points per game. In the 2016-17 season they had a 13-5 and 116.2.

So what’s the deal?
It’s a historic moment that fans are about to witness. Four straight finals series with the same two teams. This is both teams’ fourth finals appearance. Which means both fall second only to the 1957 to 1966 Celtics who hold the record of 10 straight finals appearances (of which they won nine). The 2011-2014 Miami Heat, 1984-87 Celtics and 1982-85 Los Angeles Lakers all went to four consecutive finals. However, they didn’t face the same team every single time. This matchup is special. This is the next chapter of the Dubs-Cavs rivalry but it is the matchup of a legendary four-player All-Star team against the man who now has the fourth most career finals appearances in NBA history (nine, after only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 10, Sam Jones with 11 and Bill Russell with 12) that is going to make this final series worth watching.

The Warriors have taken a 1-0 lead after a 124-114 overtime victory on Thursday night.

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Refiloe Seiboko
Refiloe Seiboko
Subeditor at Mail & Guardian

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