The “What Ifs” of The Trilogy

On June 1, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be in Oakland playing the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  Credit to the IT4-less Celtics for waking up Kyrie and LeBron after Game 2, but that series is over Thursday night in Boston.  The Trilogy awaits.

That leaves both organizations 6 long days to ponder and prepare for battle.  I assume Game 1 TV ratings will challenge the history books.  The anticipation is palpable.

So, how did we arrive at this seminal juncture?  What have been the pinnacle moments that have defined the journey to this point?  Looking back, various sequences over the past three seasons, both on and off the court, greatly altered the complexion of these two franchises’ respective ability to win multiple titles in the post-Heatles era.  Allow me to reminisce, illuminating the three most important moments to remember.

Game 1, 2015 NBA Finals: LeBron and Shumpert miss at the buzzer

In the closing seconds, with the game locked at 98, LeBron James held the ball at the top of the key.  During his last year in Miami, LeBron faced a similar situation at the same arena with the same defender in his path (Iguodala).  That night he buried a step-back working towards the left sideline.  Seemingly enchanted by the same opportunity presenting itself, LeBron hoisted a heavily contested jumper over Igoudala’s outstretched arms.  LeBron was having a terrific game, but that shot simply wasn’t a great look.  Iguodala was ready.  The shot bounced hard left off the iron towards the Warriors bench area where Iman Shumpert proceeded to heave a desperation flick as time expired.  From the press-box view seen on TV it looked promising, but it didn’t make it over the front of the rim…

Overtime.

2:40 later this happened…

Broken kneecap was the diagnosis.  Kyrie was done.

Kyrie joined Kevin Love, who was Olynyk-ed earlier in the playoffs, on the season ending injury list.

The Cavaliers went on to play miraculously inspired basketball over the next two games, winning both behind spirited performances by LeBron and Kyrie’s replacement, Matthew Dellavadova.  LeBron was just magical.

After the Cavaliers jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead in Game 4, Steve Kerr called timeout.  Draymond moved to center, Igoudala suddenly became Reggie Miller 2.0, and the Cavs simply ran out of gas.  The 67-win Warriors were crowned in 6.

No one knows how that series would have finished if LeBron or Shumpert drained their shots at the buzzer.  We do know that it would have been 1-0 Cleveland, and Kyrie Irving wouldn’t have had to be on crutches after.  Food for thought.

Over LeBron’s storied career, that ranks very high on my list of most significant missed shots.  It changed the series and potentially cost him a title.

Game 6, 2016 Western Conference Finals: Klay Thompson’s Greatest Performance

Thunder were up 94-87 with Steven Adams standing at the free throw line.  5:48 to go.

73-9 was staring elimination dead in the eye; utterly overwhelmed by the team speed, athleticism, and length that the Thunder were suffocating them with.

Klay Thompson single handedly kept the Warriors afloat.  Retracing Klay’s incredible 4th Quarter is stuff of legend.

  • 11:26 – Klay Thompson made 3 from 25ft
  • 9:54 – Klay Thompson made 3 from 25ft
  • 8:37 – Klay Thompson made 3 from 24ft
  • 4:57 – Klay Thompson made 3 from 28ft (the near half court logo snipe)
  • 1:35 – Klay Thompson made 3 from 25ft (the biggest shot of his career)

He stepped off the Chesapeake Arena court with 42 points on a playoff record 11 made 3-pointers, largely responsible for one of the most significant wins in recent NBA history.  It was the greatest performance of his life.  See for yourself…

 

What if Klay made, let’s hypothetically say, 8 threes instead of 11? 8-18 is still an honorable output. What if Durant went 13-31 instead of a putrid 10-31, and 1-8 from distance? What if KD didn’t shoot 1-8 with 2 turnovers in the final quarter? The Thunder shot 3-23 from 3 as a team.

The point is that for that individual game, at home, the Thunder were supposed to win. They were the better team throughout the series, matched up exceedingly well, and had 20,000 intoxicated Oklahomans behind them. They just didn’t.

This is an all-time “what if” moment because “The Sequel” doesn’t happen; Durant v. LeBron Part II does. The 3-1 comeback never happens. Cleveland might still be searching for their title. Durant to Golden State looks less and less conceivable, which causes the Warriors brass a pounding summer headache as they discern whether or not to match Dallas’ enormous Harrison Barnes offer sheet (4 years/94.5 Million). There wasn’t many options out there last summer outside Durant. Oh the ripple effects.

I remember being at La Cantina watching that game, and having an acute awareness that something really important was going on. Little did I know exactly how significant it ended up being.

Game 5, 2016 Finals: The Nut-Punch

Say what you want.

Draymond Green purposely swiped/waved at LeBron’s groin area. He also purposely scissor kicked Steven Adams in the same area a few weeks prior. Was he unfairly instigated to do so by LeBron? Probably yes. Did Green completely lose his composure and commit an infraction that in todays’ NBA undoubtedly warrants a flagrant foul? Yes to that as well.

If Green responded in one of the 8 million different possible ways to that weird LeBron scuffle at the top of the key in Cleveland, I’ll admit it, the Warriors probably repeat. The suspension, amplified by Klay’s childish comments questioning LeBron’s manhood before Game 5, revived Cleveland’s mentality and strengthened their will.

With Draymond gone, Andrew Bogut hurt his knee in his absence, shifting the series dramatically. This forced Festus Ezeli into the center spot for the final two games, where he was easily the worst player on the court. LeBron ended up torching Ezeli in back-to-back possessions during the final moments of Game 7 with the Warriors on the brink.

The nut-punch likely cost the Warriors the title, but also laid the foundation for the narrative that they needed Durant’s services to beat Cleveland. It’s amazing how one split-second arm motion can alter the equation completely.

Moral of the story: Just don’t throw your forearm at a dudes balls with millions of people watching. It goes against the rules in basketball and in life.

 

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