Finals Countdown

By Josh Eberley #41

Supposedly fractured, taken for dead, and vastly overmatched coming into the Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers were 12.5-point underdogs who played like there was no pressure. Perhaps, Golden State’s greatness had been overstated. Maybe, LeBron James’ grip could clamp even the slipperiest of serpents.

Despite the pregame pessimism, there they were: down one, 4.7 seconds on the clock. George Hill at the line for two, an 80 percent free throw shooter who went 11-of-12 from the line in two elimination games vs. Boston in the previous series. Hill sinks the first—a collective breath of relief is released in Ohio as the score is knotted. Before the referee bounces the ball back to hands, you can sense the increasing weight on Hill’s sinewy shoulders. The second shot is up—front rim is a cruel fate to fall to. Strike one.

The rebound takes a fortuitous bounce! J.R. Smith recovers the miss just feet away from the rim. Amazing luck, no one likes to shoot more than Swish. Wait, he crosses the key, he’s heading to the perimeter, surely, he must see James completely alone at the top of the arc? With less than a second remaining, Smith slips out of hypersleep and passes to Hill in the corner who is blocked on the release. Strike two.

As the chaos ensued, life drained from the wine-and-gold constituents and Lake Erie began to freeze over. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue confirms a remaining timeout and James dips his head into the towel that unfortunately is not sopping wet with Michael’s secret stuff anymore. The will and drive of James has been thwarted by the men in his own colors. The end is nigh. James knows it before overtime begins. Strike three.

The championship mountain gets steeper the closer teams get to the summit. At the end of regulation in Game 1, James’ quest has become Sisyphean. Make no mistake, as time expired the boulder rolled back down the hill.

A Game 1 win might’ve changed the course of history, but laboring through the fourth edition of Cavaliers and Warriors with abated levels of suspense and mystery, it’s hard not to ponder the position of this Finals in the echelons of NBA lore years from now.

This is the 19th Finals of the millennia and the predictability has made me nostalgic. Let’s look back at every Finals from 2000 to 2017 and weigh them quite subjectively about how likely they are to withstand the test of time by evaluating both the result and the dominating narrative at the time.

18. 2007 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-0

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: Only the second sweep of the decade, James carries his team to the Finals in what should be his senior year of college, only to get absolutely smacked by a superior and deeper unit. LeBron took a team that had the following players who were playing major minutes: Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic.  Sound familiar? Daniel “Boobie” Gibson got just roasted by Tony Parker who won the Finals MVP award and led both teams in scoring. The Spurs were a sophisticatedly stable if not suave team. Both Parker and Manu Ginóbili had become stars in their own right and the trio they formed with Tim Duncan was far too much for the Cavaliers to overcome.

The narrative: Twenty-two-year-old phenom LeBron James led a less than stellar squad to the Finals and it was not good for the game. Fans didn’t tune in, it was the least watched Finals series on record (dating back to 1976).

Liz Robbins of the NY Times wrote:

“The Spurs capped an almost expected sweep of the overwhelmed first-timers, giving San Antonio its fourth NBA championship in nine years. Except, there was no confetti. The air was empty, fittingly marking the anticlimactic end of the 2007 Finals.”

17. 2003 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over New Jersey Nets, 4-2

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Result: Tim Duncan turns in one of the best total playoff runs ever. David Robinson was literally riding out his last days in the League. Tony Parker (second year) and Manu Ginobili (rookie) were crawling through NBA infancy. Duncan’s Finals was bloody incredible and behind his stardom the Spurs won their second ring. Duncan’s series-clinching Game 6 is one of the best two-way Finals games of all-time: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the floor.

The Narrative: The Spurs are boring. Unfair but not totally untrue. From 1976 to 2007, only the 2007 Finals were worse received by viewers. Duncan’s all-time closeout game was the 12th worst rated Finals game since 1981. It appears, elite level basketball has always had its cynics.

Sam Eifling of SLATE wrote:

“Dennis Rodman was the player you loved to hate. Michael Jordan was the player you hated to love. Duncan is the player you’re mildly disappointed to find you don’t care about much either way.”

Whether you cared for Duncan or not, he went on to become one of the greatest to ever play and 2003 was him at the peak of his powers. He would play 13 more seasons and win three more titles, but the 2003 would be the one he singlehandedly won.

16. 2002 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over New Jersey, Nets 4-0

Noren Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images
Fernando Medina/ NBAE/ Getty Images

The result: The Los Angeles Lakers spanked the New Jersey Nets, a revitalized outfit (thanks to peak Jason Kidd) that signified the high point (even to this day) for the franchise. Four games, no overtime periods and O’Neal’s worst performance might’ve been the closeout game where he turned in an ordinary demi-god performance of 34 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks while shooting 60 percent from the floor.

The narrative: The Lakers hit on the threepeat and Shaquille O’Neal proved without a shadow of a doubt that he’s an all-time legend. Kobe Bryant had a very strong series averaging 26.8 PPG but again was the clear beta to O’Neal’s alpha. It was never close and any final scores that made it appear close was likely because the Lakers were bored. The Lakers had essentially wrapped up the threepeat when they took down a Sacramento Kings in a hard-fought and dramatic seven-game Conference Finals.

Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote:

“. . .Through Sunday, the NBA Finals had been more coronation than competition for O’Neal and his Lakers. He has conjured up comparisons to the recent master of the postseason while distinguishing himself from Michael Jordan in the following ways: His Airness never mooned fans from the team bus; nor did he offer his intestinal insights before an overflow press gathering.”

Yes, O’Neal actually mooned Sacramento Kings fans after Game 7 of the Conference Finals.

15. 2009 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Orlando Magic, 4-1

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: The crowning achievement of Dwight Howard’s career might’ve been preventing LeBron James and Kobe Bryant from ever meeting in the Finals. Remember Nike’s puppet campaign that had hyped the potential matchup? Boo. Unfortunately, the ticked-off Lakers had licked their wounds from the previous year losing to the Celtics on the same stage and came out hungry. Bryant had the best Finals of his career, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom flanked with him strong performances and it was more than enough to overpower Orlando.

The narrative: Bryant gets his first ring without Shaq (and ties his former teammate in championships after O’Neal won his fourth in Miami in 2006). Phil Jackson gets his 10th (passing Celtics legend Red Auerbach in coaching titles) and the Los Angeles Lakers return to prominence after a brief post-Shaq hiatus.

Michael Lee of the Washington Post wrote:

“Bryant averaged 32.4 points is the series and became the fourth player in NBA history to win a gold medal and an NBA Championship the same season, joining Manu Ginobili, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He also silenced criticism that he could not win a title without O’Neal.”

That list has now expanded to include LeBron James (2012), Kevin Durant (2016), Draymond Green (2016), and Klay Thompson (2016).

14. 2005 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Detroit Pistons, 4-3

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Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: The Pistons came in as the underdogs, thin and worn out as the defending champs but surprised the masses by pushing it to seven. They had stunned a Lakers team that was embroiled with in-fighting the previous year, but in the Spurs, Detroit was facing a precise group of professionals. Tim Duncan stood tall and Manu Ginobili was the second-best player in the series. Detroit couldn’t pull-off the Game 7 comeback at the then-SBC Center. Duncan won his third ring, his first without Robinson and his third (and final) Finals MVP.

The narrative: Detroit was experiencing the typical honeymoon swoon from the previous championship and head coach and serial nomad Larry Brown had caused a good shake of drama during the season by posturing for other positions despite being the coach of the reigning champs and was eventually  let go in the offseason. Robert Horry tied Michael Jordan with his sixth ring and delivered some delicious quotes in the process. However, Ginobili was the story. Ginóbili was in the spotlight in a major way and the basketball world took notice even if the casual fan didn’t. Duncan might have been the Finals MVP for his all-around play, but it was Ginobili that served as the catalyst, especially on offense. His 18.7 PPG was just a bucket below Duncan’s 20.6, but Ginobili seemed to make all the clutch buckets. Also that year saw Ginobili unlock the the combination of Olympic gold (Argentina knocked out USA in the semifinals) and NBA title, especially for an international player at that time.

13. 2017 Finals: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-1

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: It’s not a story many need help remembering. After the 73-win Warriors fell in the 2016 Finals, they hit the wire and acquired Kevin Durant. With two MVP winners in tow, they speed-walked their way to their second title in three years. Durant (35.2 PPG. 8.2 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1 SPG. .556/.474/.927 shooting) and James (33.6 PPG, 12 RPG, 10 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1 BPG, .564/.387/.649) both put up gaudy numbers but the better team prevailed with relative ease.

The narrative: Durant won his first championship and joined a very special and elite group of players to lead the League in scoring, win an MVP, Finals MVP and title in their career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal are the only others. And despite social media outcry and controversy over the journey, the pinnacle was consumed at an all-time rate.

Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes wrote:

“Sure, ABC would have loved an extra game or two in this series, but the first four games marked the highest ratings for an NBA series since Michael Jordan won his sixth and final title with the Chicago Bulls in 1998.”

The Warriors’ stacked deck was the theme all season but you can’t forget just how great LeBron was playing in that series. Much like the current one, he carried a Cavs team (a much better version of the 2018 one). In fact, it’s almost the same: The Cavs were down 0-3 before the Warriors made it a gentlemen’s sweep in Game 5.

12. 2000 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Indiana Pacers, 4-2

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: The first of the Bryant and O’Neal titles and the realization of what the Lakers had when Jerry West assembled the tandem in 1996. Bryant was puppy and not ready to contribute at a star level but it was OK because the Pacers—and any NBA team at the time—were ill-equipped to shut down The Diesel. O’Neal led all scorers in each and every of the six Finals games. The conquest was thorough as he averaged 38 PPG with a monstrous 16.7 RPG over the series.

The narrative: Lakers fans rioted in the streets, Bryant, Jackson, and O’Neal started a dynasty and Larry Bird left the bench, never to coach again. At the time, Bryant was already viewed as a future MVP, O’Neal was the best player in the world, Phil Jackson was regarded one of the greatest coaches and West the shrewdest team architect. The rift between the two stars did not yet exist. People expected repeated success for some time to come and the newly opened Staples Center to be filled with future banners. As an aside, CNN sports anchor Fred Hickman cost O’Neal the first ever unanimous MVP, but don’t feel too bad. O’Neal was no doubt satisfied by winning all three MVP awards that year. (All-Star, regular season and Finals.)

11. 2012 Finals: Miami Heat over Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-1

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: Although overshadowed by a spectacular Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, LeBron and his Heatles won their first championship together over the Oklahoma City Thunder. One of the greatest assemblages of talent that never won it all, OKC’s Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden punched the Heat in the nose in Game 1—feeding to the notion that LeBron’s move to Miami might be the most overhyped and biggest bust in sports—but the Heat gave no ground following the initial contest. James closed up shop in Game 5 with a 26-point, 11-rebound, and 13-assist triple-double with all four other Heat starters scoring in double figures

The narrative: Redemption had never been so sweet. The criticism had flooded the storm drains of South Beach and James was under assault after his squad failed to win the title in 2011—all was now forgiven. LeBron and the Heat had gotten the “not one…” part of their braggadocio out of the way. Most believed the Thunder and its embarrassment of riches (that roster would boast three—if Harden presumably wins this year—future MVPs) would be back and have future opportunities in the Finals, but in the moment James had slammed the doors on many pundits who had doubted him.

Howard Beck of the NY Times wrote:

“Once viewed as a 21st century Magic Johnson, James is defying one-dimensional comparisons. He is passing like Magic, soaring like Michael Jordan and pounding defenses like a power forward.”

You never forget your first and LeBron will remember the 2012 as the one where he finally earns the throne to match the crown that bestowed upon him as a high school phenom. It’s the one that made all the backlash—from leaving his hometown, the way he announced it on prime-time national TV, the assumption of multiple titles, the humbling loss to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals—worth enduring.

10. 2015 Finals: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The result: James went home after four years at “college” and found his way back to the Finals immediately, but with key injuries to teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he was unable to will the Cavaliers over the Warriors. Curry’s own mythos was born, Andre Iguodala heisted a Finals MVP off the back of his gritty defensive play and the Warriors drew first blood in what would become a four-part series.

The narrative: There were notes of, “what if Love and Irving were healthy?” But mostly, people celebrated the Warriors first title since 1975 and were now very aware of just how special this team might be. At the time, it was the most viewed series ever for ABC.

Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote:

“Stephen Curry has done nothing short of revolutionize what is possible in basketball. It is hard to believe that only three years ago his ankle problems were so bad, it was unclear if Curry could even hold down a steady NBA career.”

No one saw three more of these Finals to follow. As easy as it may be to say otherwise in hindsight, it’s no given, especially viewed through 2015 lenses. The Warriors may have cemented their June calendars for the foreseeable future when Kevin Durant signed on in 2016, but at the time, an injury or a Draymond Green trade could have easily derailed the whole dynasty. LeBron might be seen as a Finals lock now, but there were questions—even from himself—about getting the Cavs there.

Part 2: Ranking No. 9 through 1