The Warriors as modern art
This entire NBA season has been modern art. That, I think, is why people have such different and ferocious views about it. Modern art is meant to evoke strong feelings, even if those feelings are sometimes best articulated with: “Come on, that’s not ART. How can you call that art?”
The Golden State Warriors are that most modern work of art.
Let’s stop with the suspended disbelief; we all knew the Warriors were going to the win NBA title this year. We knew it the way we know that James Bond will win, that Batman will not be killed, that Meryl Streep will get the Oscar nomination, that Republicans will vote one way and Democrats another. We like to play around with such certainties because we enjoy drama and like surprises, especially in our sports. But we knew. The Golden State Warriors were the best team on planet earth last year. They breezed to an NBA record 73 wins, they made a record 150 more three-pointers than any team ever, they scored more points than any team since the league got serious about defense.
Then in the NBA Finals, they were beaten by exhaustion, a fit of arrogance and, most of all, the sheer will of the world’s greatest basketball player, LeBron James.
That’s when they added the perhaps the world’s second-greatest player, Kevin Durant.
Yes, of course, we knew they would win it all. The various “Will Steph Curry and KD gel?” and “Does Klay Thompson feel left out?” and “Will Draymond Green’s rage bring down the Warriors” and “Don’t discount Houston!” and “San Antonio could be their kryptonite” and “Never underestimate the greatness of LeBron” stories were dutifully written because otherwise there would have been nothing to write other than hosannas and paeans. But these stories, like the millions of trade rumor stories for trades that never happen and constant predictions that politicians will do something unexpected, were smoke … empty, vaporous and they disappeared without a trace.
And we knew it. Of course, we knew it. Things could have happened, sure, injuries or some other Rube Goldberg series of mishaps. In the Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat," Mr. Burns puts together an all-star company softball team with Major League stars at every position to win a million dollar bet. The day before the game, he considers his chances.
“There's no way I can lose this bet," slayedhe says. "Unless, of course, my nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes and are unable to play tomorrow. But that will never happen. Three misfortunes, that's possible. Seven misfortunes, there's an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that!"
So it was with the 2016-17 Warriors. Three misfortunes, that’s possible. Seven misfortunes, there’s an outside chance. They had a few bumps along the way; KD himself suffered a knee injury, leaving Golden State looking vulnerable. There were occasional signs of distress.
Then the games started to matter and, well, the Warriors have lost one time since mid-March, one time. Even that was the pointless penultimate game of the regular season when they sleepwalked through the last six minutes of a game against Utah with all of their starters on the bench.
They are 15-0 in the playoffs, of course, and have won by an average of 16 points per game. True, San Antonio had the horrible break of losing Kawhi Leonard, so that series would have likely been much more competitive. Still, the Warriors breezed there and beat Cleveland by 22 and 19 in the first two games.
Then came Wednesday.
It’s rare that you can tell the story of a game through the simple plus/minus statistic, but …
Kyrie Irving, 44:23 minutes, minus-9
Kevin Love, 37:16, minus-11
Tristan Thompson, 23:05, minus-6
LeBron James, 45:37, plus-7
The Warriors won by five, and it’s hard to even see how this math works. Somehow, some way, in the two minutes and 23 seconds that LeBron James was not on the floor, Golden State scored TWELVE MORE POINTS than the Cavaliers.
Over a full 48 minutes, this suggests the Warriors would beat a LeBron-less Cavaliers by 225 points.
This was one of the stranger games I can remember in this way: In the fourth quarter, it seemed like Cleveland made about 593 “OK, that’s the ballgame” shots. I kept looking over at the score expecting it show the Cavaliers up by 11 or nine or 15 or something kind of safe. And each time it seemed like the Warriors were always six points closer than I expected.
When J.R. Smith made a three-pointer off a glorious pass from James with 3:09 left, it seemed like finally the Cavalier had slain the dragon. The scoreboard showed, though, that Cleveland led by just six, 113-107. That was a huge disappointment, it sure seemed like more. The Cavaliers did not score again. Kevin Love missed a bunny. Kyrie Irving, who could make a driving layup in a war zone, missed a driving layup. James missed a fadeaway. And then came a bunch of missed three-pointers and the inevitable Kevin Durant shot through the heart.
We knew this. We knew it the day that Kevin Durant joined up with the greatest team in the league. Superteams are as old as the NBA. It’s laughable to hear people talk about how LeBron James started this whole thing when he took his talents to South Beach. Yes, maybe James had transferred some of the superteam power to the players themselves, but this has always happened.
In 1956, the Boston Celtics had Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, both future Hall of Famers. Then, in rapid order, Red Auerbach traded for Bill Russell (the greatest team player of them all), brought back Frank Ramsey, bought Clyde Lovellette, drafted Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and John Havlicek. All of them, every one, are Hall of Famers. That’s how you win eight championships in a row.
The Lakers were never able to overcome those Celtics, despite having a couple of the best players ever in Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and so they started building superteams, bringing in Wilt Chamberlain, trading for Kareem, somehow loading up on other teams’ first overall picks so they could get Magic Johnson and James Worthy, putting together Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Yes, the quest for the superteam is as old as sports, certainly as old as the NBA, but it felt different when LeBron himself did it, and very different when an in-his-prime Kevin Durant joined what was already a superteam. He still takes a beating for it, even though this too is an old story with great players often hooking up with great teams in order to win a championship (see: Barkley, Charles; Malone, Karl; Malone, Moses; Nash, Steve, etc).
But no matter how anyone felt about Durant’s personal decision, we all knew what it meant. All of which brings us back to modern art. The Warriors play basketball like no team we have ever seen. We can argue for the legacy of Jordan Bulls or Magic’s Lakers or the best of the Tim Duncan Spurs or any other team, but we cannot deny that this team is fundamentally different from those teams. No team has ever blended three-point shooting with breathtaking passes with pounding defense with jaw-dropping plays like this team.
And where does that leave us? The season has been a snooze when it comes to drama. There was never really a point where the inevitable ending was even threatened. The playoffs have been ludicrously one-sided. The Cavaliers lost one game before the Finals when they took their eye off the ball for few minutes against Boston. Golden State lost none. And Golden State has now taken this Cleveland series away too.
And yet there’s this: We are watching basketball played at such great heights. The Warriors are so laughably good that five or six times a game you just shake your head and marvel. It is like watching the Globetrotters — no, it is like watching the Globetrotters as we imagined them as children, when we believed them to be the best team in the world, when we thought they could run that weave and do all those behind-the-back tricks against any team, even Bird’s Celtics or Kareem’s Lakers or the Doctor’s Sixers.
Is that kind of modern art enough for us? The ratings say so: These are the highest in 20 years, since Jordan played. On Wednesday, Michelle Beadle asked NBA commissioner Adam Silver about the lack of parity in the NBA, and he had a thoroughly prepared answer about how it’s too early to talk about that and how it disrespects great players around the league to say they have no chance and all that other public relations stuff.
But I couldn’t help but think he should have said: “Have you ever seen basketball played like this before? Did you see that Steph Curry shot? Did you watch as even LeBron James flailed against the awesomeness of Kevin Durant? Did you see Klay Thompson take over? I mean, seriously: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”