The old-timey wisdom goes: Basketball is a matchup sport. I think I’ve heard Kenny Smith or various other Kenny Smiths say some version of this more than 200 times in my life. That is, basketball outcomes are not determined neatly along gradients of pure talent and/or skill, but rather by how varying skill-sets fit with and match against each other: Player X might be more talented or more skilled than Player Y in an abstract, absolute sense, but Player Y has the shooting range to pull Player X away from the hoop on defense, and that will create driving lanes for Player Z, negating Player X’s value as a rim-protector. That sort of thing.
That’s why they play the games, goes a very closely related sports mantra, accompanying every upset or unexpected outcome: The team that is better on paper, in absolute terms, might not always win, if the match ups are a weird fit or if a particular guy gets in foul trouble or suddenly can’t make a free-throw to save his damn life. They play the games, in short, because basketball is a matchup sport, and shit happens.
The thing is, for all that that sounds very nice, it does actually depend on that talent gradient staying within a familiar range of slopes. Player X, after all, creates some matchup problems of his own, and if he’s just that much better than Player Y, all the pick-and-pop jumpers in the world won’t make up for the fact that the latter guy is getting his nuts ground into paste in every other facet of the game. Put enough Player Xs on the same team, the gradient gets too steep, and there’s no such thing as a bad matchup anymore.
At that point, you’re basically watching math. Shit happens, sure, but how much shit has to happen before two will be more than five? How many nights in a row would you tune in to find out if two is more than five? How charismatic and flamboyant a performer would a mathematician have to be before you’d spend two weeks watching her demonstrate, over and over again, the relationship between those two numbers?
I turned last night’s Game 2 of the Finals off before the end of the third quarter. It was boring. I might not be the only person who thinks so: A source at ESPN tells me readership for their Game 2 reaction post is down considerably from Game 1's, despite similar front-page placement. People are checking out, and I think I know why: An absurd amount of shit has to happen to produce any kind of unexpected outcome, any actual drama, anything anybody could not learn by looking at a list of the participating players, in a game involving these Golden State Warriors. Basically, last night’s game lost like 90 percent of its dramatic potential when none of the Warriors were struck by a meteor on their way to the arena. There’s really nothing new to say.
If you want a measure of the Warriors’ greatness, it’s this: They produce a certainty so cold and unmistakable that even Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are not charismatic enough to dress up its presentation for more than a few minutes. You are watching math. The only thing the Warriors can do that is more than passingly interesting, at this point, is lose—except, I’m not sure they plausibly can lose. They have lost one game since March 14th; nearly two months have elapsed since the Jazz beat them in the meaningless second-to-last game on their schedule. Since mid-March, they have won by 20 or more points twice as often as they have won by single digits. Do you need to watch more than a few minutes of their game, to confirm what you already know? How much time do you spend, each morning, verifying that the laws of physics did not switch off overnight?
You can make any number of smart arguments for why you think this perspective, this boredom, is sports philistinism, or sports snobbery, or entitlement, or why those who checked out early last night must never have been true basketball lovers in the first place. But the thing is, if you’re not a Golden State Warriors fan—or, hell, even if you are one—and you claim that the blowout part of last night’s game held your attention as closely as the first half did, you’re lying. The Warriors are the best team ever because they can render even LeBron James and a Cavs squad that rampaged through the East bracket as helpless as the folding chair Yi Jianlian once memorably dominated in a workout, and that is astonishing ... but also, watching a folding chair get worked over is boring as hell. No sequence of creative, selfless passing or ruthless shooting or swarming defense can be beautiful enough to make the domination of a folding chair an entertaining spectacle for longer than it takes to confirm that, no, the folding chair will not be springing a surprise upset today.
Last year, at broadly this same point—the Golden State Warriors up 2-0 over the Cleveland Cavaliers after two largely uncompetitive games in Oakland—I wrote a blog titled “The Finals Are Butt And I’m So Mad At The Cavs.” The gist of it was: LeBron James had surrounded himself with unworthy jamokes who could not put up enough of a fight to deliver a compelling series against a historically great opponent. We all know what happened next: The Cavs blew the Warriors’ doors off in Game 3, then won three of the remaining four games in the series, staging the biggest and most thrilling comeback in Finals history. What I’d written off as a shit series wound up being the best series the NBA has ever had.
So probably I should know better than to write this Finals off just because, once again, the Warriors are up 2-0 after two largely uncompetitive games in Oakland. After all, what happened last June did not seem as though it could possibly happen, right up until the final buzzer in Game 7 confirmed that it had happened. The very same people who made it happen are here, again; maybe they will make it happen, again. If they do, it will be, even more than last year’s version, the biggest upset the Finals have ever seen, and I will be very happy to have witnessed it.
I don’t think it’s going to happen; increasingly, I don’t believe it can. I don’t think you do, either. Last night, I needed only around two and a half quarters of basketball to confirm the math, and left feeling like even that was too much, like it was a measure of how much faith I have in LeBron James, like if he had not made all of us a little bit insane last summer, I probably would’ve just scanned the rosters and injury reports earlier in the afternoon and then found something else to do.
If that is a kind of testament to LeBron’s greatness—that he will prop up for whole quarters the insane belief that the chair might pull off the upset—then it is the worst and most tragic kind. More to the point, it’s wearing off. Game 3 feels like a chore. The Golden State Warriors have reached rare air indeed: They’re too good to watch.