These here NBA Playoffs have been terminally boring. They have been so dull and charmless and forgettable that the one night of actual exciting basketball fans have enjoyed somehow still featured two teams taking 3-0 leads in second-round series. Even Rockets-Warriors, this season’s most anticipated series and de facto Finals, has not lived up to the expectations that it would be some sort of freewheeling offensive orgy and has instead turned into an actuarial monument to isolation basketball and arid math. There has been a grand total of one close game in the entire conference finals round. It’s all bad!
Last night’s Game 5 snoozer was a remarkable nadir. A LeBron James Game 5 should be the absolute peak of any NBA Playoffs experience, but instead of LeBron locking the Celtics in a big 19th-century iron trunk and throwing them into the ocean, he played Mostly Okay while none of his teammates did anything besides miss shots and flail around a bunch. The Celtics led for basically the entire game and took a theoretically pivotal 96-83 win despite shooting just 36.5 percent. I suppose we need some tape to eat, so here is what happened last night, approximately 75 times.
At this point, the Celtics reaching the brink of the Finals with a ragtag bunch of bench players, young dudes, and grumpy old Al Horford should be and actually really is the coolest story of the postseason, though that doesn’t do much to make the basketball more entertaining. Their success is exciting, unless you’ve been soured by the deafening “We can smell it!” chants, and yet they’d be a lot more fun if they had Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and could score in cooler ways. As for the Cavs, James’s play this postseason has been beyond reproach. But the creeping inconsistency he’s shown—perhaps because he has finally found the outer boundary of how many minutes of basketball a human can play in a season—coupled with the sheer incompetence of basically every single one of his teammates has made the Cavs seem liable to give up at any moment. Kyle Korver has regularly been their second best player, and the team’s non-James, non-Kevin Love starters made a combined two shots in a combined 82 minutes last night. Neither of these teams are, holistically speaking, good.
More concerning is that Boston’s three wins have come by a total of 51 points, while Cleveland’s two have come by 39; for a series that’s technically close, it hasn’t actually really been very close. The Western Conference Finals have played out largely the same way, and qualms about brain worms and the limits of iso-ball aside, it is not fun to watch a basketball game where the outcome is more or less determined in the first half.
This is a problem, just as it’s a problem that the entire playoffs have been similarly featureless and lopsided. Steve Kerr thinks the league-wide reliance on the three-pointer leads to more volatile outcomes and a larger chance of divergent scores, and that seems broadly correct. When the Cavs shoot well from three, they win. When they don’t, they lose and look terrible in the process. They are not a good enough team to win unless they hit threes or LeBron turns into the Hulk, which he’s had to do so many times already throughout the playoffs that it’s at least reasonable to wonder whether he’s not finally all Hulk-ed out.
All of which is to say, the Warriors and Rockets need to put on a show tonight, because the Finals will almost certainly not be worth a shit.