It was the third quarter, and the Warriors, already ahead on the scoreboard and up 3-0 in the series, were doing their third-quarter thing. That is to say, they’d decided to apply the 12 minutes of focused full-bore effort it takes to render them effectively invincible. A game they’d led steadily pretty much from the jump was turning into a blowout.
Since they added Kevin Durant to the best team in the sport two summers ago, no opposing team has come close to figuring out how to withstand these Warriors in those instances when they rouse themselves to bear down with all their terrifying and world-historic firepower. A dismal truth they’ve made undeniable over the course of these playoffs—and really, over the course of the past two full seasons—is that the rest of the NBA’s ceiling is “troubling the Warriors enough to merit their full attention for more than 45 seconds at a time.” So the Cavaliers, with the championship already effectively out of reach, made the only sane adjustment: They checked right the hell out. They pulled their own plug. And it was great. I mean, as basketball it sucked! But also it was great.
Three years ago, in the aftermath of Golden State’s defeat of a prior iteration of LeBron James’s Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals, our own (but back then Vice Sports’s) David Roth wrote about LeBron James and the dignity of labor, in a Vice Sports article titled, uh, “LeBron James and the Dignity of Labor.” I will not do his nuanced and thoughtful work the disservice of even attempting a full summary of it, but a thing he observed very well and perceptively was LeBron’s defiance, the reckoning with his greatness that he forced even in hopeless circumstances that could have humiliated a lesser competitor. In the aftermath of these farcical 2018 Finals I would like to observe the dignity of shrugging.
An NBA season is lots of different things: Serialized TV entertainment, for one, and a whole lot of discrete individual 2.5-hour TV entertainments, for another, and a chapter in the hopefully years- or even decades-long stories of individual player careers and grand franchise-building projects; for at least a few miserable teams it’s a long embarrassing prelude to the draft lottery. And so on. It’s also, and most relevantly to the month of June, the process by which the sport finds and crowns its champion.
But if it sometimes hasn’t seemed obvious over the past two years—maybe you talked yourself into the Rockets there for a second, before the Warriors wiped them off the face of the earth—there’s really no denying it now: The only active variable in that last process, these days, the only thing that matters at all, really, is the Golden State Warriors’ interest level. The thing that gives the rest of the NBA whatever chance you can convince yourself it has is the possibility that the Warriors might eventually get too bored to bother. (Recognizing this, the Rockets built an entire system of play out of the belief that they could bore the Warriors into essentially abandoning the sport altogether, and made it seem plausible for almost two whole weeks.) A problem with that is that it’s boring. Another problem is that it’s demeaning to everybody else in the sport, including, most unjustly, the greatest player who ever played it.
This probably has no on-court basketball solution; if it could be solved, it wouldn’t exist, since it’s entirely the product of the Warriors being so much better than everybody else that they literally have lost interest in winning, except when by the semi-intentional application of their worst habits and most slovenly efforts they can trick themselves into (falsely) feeling threatened, or at least insulted. Some combination of the passage of time and the impositions of the salary cap will conspire to fix things, eventually. In the meantime, the Cavs managed some kind of victory last night, when they saw the derecho coming, saw Lucy preparing to yank the football away, and shrugged, and stepped off to the side, and said, Eh, do what you want, I’m gonna have a cigarette.
Trying to beat the Warriors is not functionally distinguishable from nagging them so they’ll remember to kick your ass. For a delightfully flatfooted quarter, the Cavaliers discovered the self-respect to do neither of those. They stood around. They stood aside. They looked inside themselves and found the wisdom not to postpone their vacations just to fly to Oakland and get eliminated in front of 15,000 shrieking Travis Kalanicks and Elizabeth Holmeses.
For once, for once, somebody had the good sense to be as bored of the Golden State Warriors as the Golden State Warriors are of the sport they’ve whipped into stasis. I couldn’t have been prouder of them. In their honor I turned the game off with more than a quarter left to go, read Anthony Bourdain tributes, and went to bed.