I made a decision once the playoffs began to take a little break from this column. I know what you’re thinking: Who writes on basketball for an entire regular season and then takes a break when the playoffs start? Well … I do. It wasn’t a dramatic decision. I just wanted to step back, observe, and avoid—as strange as it may sound—the pitfalls of the playoffs. By “pitfalls” I mean the playoffs’ compulsion to repeat themselves and the accompanying impulse of the writer to search for particular significance in these repetitions. In other words, you’ve seen the Raptors–Cavs Eastern Conference Final before, countless times. The favorite wins the first two home games with relative ease; the underdog returns home to a raucous crowd and wins the next two games to even the series, stirring thoughts that the contest is evenly matched; and then, almost as if on cue, the underdog capitulates and vanishes.
We yearn when watching the playoffs to see the exception to the rule–last year’s Spurs-Clippers series comes to mind, and Michael Jordan’s performances–but if you watch basketball regularly, you’ve seen most of these playoff series in one form or another year after year. The regular season, with its seemingly endless unraveling, is like being in a house with many doors, all of which lead to other houses with many other doors. But the playoffs are like a single hallway with only one door at the end. The playoffs are teleological. The meaning they generate is on one hand quite simple: Which is the better team? On the other hand, it’s quite abstract: What do we do with the losing team?
The Cleveland Cavaliers are no doubt in a strange position. They are down 2-0 in these finals. Teams have been down 2-0 and come back to win the championship, and there’s no crime in losing two games on the road to a defending champion that has been practically untouchable on its home court. The free days between game 2 in Oakland and game 3 in Cleveland are cliché ready: the Warriors did their job winning at home, now it’s the Cavs turn to do the same; the Cavs haven’t yet fired on all cylinders, but when they do…; the finals don’t really begin until the home team loses a game. But like that moment in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when you realize that they’re actually doing the Death Star thing all over again without the slightest hint of irony, we know how these finals will end. Cleveland is an octave below Golden State, and there’s nothing they can do about it but take part in their own death march. Maybe they’ll win game 3. Maybe they’ll win game 4. Maybe they’ll win games 3 and 4. In other words, maybe they’ll be the Raptors. Whatever they are and will be, this series is over. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “If this be error and upon me proved / I never write nor no one ever hooped.”
The Cavs have the best player of his generation. They have turned the Eastern Conference into mincemeat. They are on the verge of becoming little more than a footnote. How did we get here?
Since LeBron James’s return to Cleveland, the Cavs have been far and away the class of the Eastern Conference. They’ve less suffered from their competitors than they did from having had to waste time with them. Playing in the finals has been another story. I’ve written here before about why the Cavs are in the position that they’re now in. Theirs is a roster designed to compete against the opposition they could imagine … this Warriors vintage was beyond their imagination. Those decisions and limits of the imagination are part of the past now, and there’s little to blame the Cavs for here: they’ve encountered in the Warriors a historically great team that is also historically unique. In fact, it’s history that’s delivering a haymaker to these Cavs, one of those slow-motion left crosses that turns the muscles in the face into unrecognizable flapping flesh, the fist lingering on the pain it’s causing. We’re watching a team transform—transmogrify, really—uncomfortably, before our eyes, from basketball juggernaut arrivistes to glorified jobbers, a small speed bump on the Warriors’ road to glory. As spring heads into summer, the Cavs are becoming more like the New Jersey Nets of the early 2000s—the NBA’s version of Monty Python’s Black Knight—than the champion Celtic and Heat teams they sought to emulate with their three ill-fitting star players. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for them. Perhaps these first two defeats were nothing but a scratch. But the Cavs’ immediate future involves trying to beat an all-time great opponent on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor in four out of the next five games. And the Cavs were constructed to best the wrong opponent: the past. There’s no defeating that.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published last year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.
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