By Jason Keidel
Perhaps you’ve heard the historical parallels, rare as they are.
We see comets more often than two pro sports teams meeting in the finals in three consecutive seasons. In baseball, the Yankees and (NY) Giants played each other from 1921 through ’23, back when you needed five wins to bag the Fall Classic. In football, two currently forlorn franchises — the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns — played for the NFL championship between 1952 and 1954. And in the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens squared off three straight years, 1954-1956, for the right to raise the Stanley Cup.
And now we have the hardwood version.
Perhaps you’ve heard the odds in this year’s NBA Finals. According to Vegas, the Warriors are -260, which means you must bet $260 to win $100. Some basketball power indexes give the Warriors at least a 90 percent chance to defeat the Cavaliers, and seize the rubber match of their gripping championship trilogy.
Those are some staggering odds, considering that Cleveland has the world’s best player, in LeBron James. Considering they are defending world champions. Considering they beat the Warriors in the same position 12 months ago. Golden State has the home-court advantage, but they had it in 2016, as well.
Cleveland’s head coach, Tyronn Lue, says they won’t use their underdog status as a motivational tonic for his team. Being in the NBA Finals brings more than enough heft.
This series means a lot to LeBron’s legacy, and to the Warriors’ yearlong crusade for this shot at redemption. But it may mean the most to the Warriors’ best player, who hasn’t played a single minute of the 12 NBA Finals games over the last two years.
Few free agent moves in history have spawned more rancor or reverence than Durant fleeing Oklahoma City for Oakland.
Even though the Warriors didn’t win the NBA Finals last year, it still felt like piling on, if not overkill, adding a Rolls Royce to a fleet of Bentleys. How does one really improve upon a 73-win team? Add an NBA MVP to a team that already has a two-time MVP.
It spoke to so many dynamics, but chief among them was the notion that Golden State doesn’t plan to play fair. Rather than take their licking, lick their wounds and beg for a rematch, they pulled the padding out of their gloves by adding a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, in his prime.
Then there’s Durant, who was already on a team that had the Warriors on the ropes, up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals, only to blow it. It wasn’t a matter of wounds or woeful play from the Warriors, either. The Thunder were running them out of the gym. So when Durant decided to join Golden State, there was a binary inference from fans. One was that he didn’t have the heart to stick it out long enough to stick it to the Warriors. The other is he doesn’t have the heart to win the traditional way… as a team, without pricey imports brought in to build a super team.
Oklahoma City was so agonizingly close to vanquishing the Warriors, it felt like Durant left the movie theater five minutes before finding out who the killer is. Maybe Russell Westbrook is that impossible to play with. Maybe Durant is simply writing the new NBA narrative of upward mobility, and it’s just taking us time to rewire our old-world sensibilities.
No matter, Durant better get it done over the next two weeks. This isn’t just another fortnight under the bright lights. This is legacy stuff, about whose grill goes up on the symbolic Mount Rushmore and who withers into a footnote.
Despite the fact that this is LeBron James’s seventh consecutive NBA Finals — a staggering achievement on its own — he’s still the stepchild in the GOAT debate, woefully behind that other No. 23. Why? Michael Jordan never lost an NBA Finals. He never even played seven games. Fair or not, LeBron is almost equally defined by the series he lost as the ones he won.
So if the best player on earth, with three rings on his sprawling hands, is subject to this kind of cynicism, imagine Durant’s critics if the Warriors lose this one. While they aren’t exactly the same club they were when the breezed to an all-time best 73-9 record, they added Kevin Durant, who negates any loss of size or depth. The Warriors are so good they spent this year largely on autopilot and won 67 games. Then they went 12-0 in these playoffs leading up to this clash of the titans.
Durant lost his shot at the King’s crown years ago, when his loaded Thunder roster got spanked by LeBron’s Miami Heat. While the world celebrated the holy hardwood trinity of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Thunder had three of the world’s five best players — Durant, Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook and Harden just jousted for this year’s league MVP.
Those memories will be largely annexed if Golden State wins and Durant dominates. If Golden State loses, Durant will be forced to bury his head in the PR sand for months. Even if they win and Durant is the third-best player on the team, he will be viewed as someone who took a shortcut, who piggybacked an already stacked roster and rode the shoulders of the real champions, in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
That’s not fair, Durant apologists would say. It’s a team game. Well, ask Thunder fans how fair his exodus to Oakland was. Then ask both in two weeks.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.