Why you should care
Because when faced with the inevitable, it’s fun to consider other realities.
After Golden State railroaded Cleveland on Thursday, it may seem like the outcome of this year’s NBA Finals was preordained. The tie-breaking, three-peat matchup was prepped ever since the buzzer rang on the Cavaliers’ history-making comeback and the Warriors responded to the arms race last year by signing bazooka gunner Kevin Durant — ensuring that they would be the far favorites today.
But perhaps a few small differences could have made waves. Even basketball has its Sliding Doors moments — a twist of fate that, if it were to take place, changes everything. Rather than rehash the doldrums of this doormat of an NBA season, let’s consider the what-ifs that could have ended what seemed like the inevitable.
A Former D-Leaguer Fulfills his Destiny
Lost in the brilliance of Cleveland’s record-tying march to 13 straight playoff wins (dating back to last season) was that they looked extremely vulnerable in their first games of the playoffs. The Cavaliers were almost exposed by the Pacers, led by Paul George, a professional pest to LeBron James. With 10 seconds to go, the Pacers inbounded just a point down. George got the ball, but after being double-teamed, had to defer to C.J. Miles — a former longtime D-leaguer, who nonetheless had earned the nickname “Cavs killer.” And so Miles, with four seconds left, took a jab step left, pulled right and floated — his 14-foot jumper clinking harmlessly off the hoop.
Afterward, George complained that Miles didn’t give him the ball back for a finale that would have put Indiana up 1-0 in the series. Five days later, they gave up a 26-point halftime lead at home, the worst collapse in playoff history. Had the ball bounced differently, Indiana might have led 2-1, and the Cavs could have crumbled.
OKC Kept Their Three MVPs
In 2012, the Thunder decided to deal away sharpshooting James “the Beard” Harden. They seemed compelled by the NBA salary cap, which hamstrung the small-market team’s ability to keep Harden alongside its other superstars, Durant and Russell Westbrook. It’s the most questioned what-if in recent NBA history, and that’s never been clearer than this season, after Westbrook and Harden dueled all year for basketball’s highest individual honor.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which Durant stays, rather than joining the Warriors. Sure, OKC couldn’t have known that the salary cap would boom with new television contracts soon after, making it easier to keep all three superstars. And yes, crafting a defensive philosophy out of three minus-defenders would have been tough. But in the NBA, as Golden State and Cleveland have proved, talent always wins out. And in this alternate universe, it could have been the blue and white lining up for their third straight trip to basketball’s holy land.
Blake Griffin Installs a Bionic Big Toe
In the Western Conference, up against the Utah Jazz, the LA Clippers felt the wrath of Lady Luck when Blake Griffin — the dunk master who coined the term “Lob City” — was felled by a layup. Landing awkwardly on his big toe, he was out for the rest of the playoffs. The three-headed attack led by Griffin, point guard Chris Paul and center DeAndre Jordan has long had the talent to challenge the Warriors, but now they may not even stay together after their first-round flameout. Which is why fans were quick to utter some creative ways for the star forward to tough it out.
if Blake Griffin was real he would cut that toe off and keep playing smh— 🕷 (@aceboogZZZ) April 22, 2017
Speaking of Misshapen Appendages …
Let us count the names of those that the Warriors did not have to face: San Antonio’s longtime point guard Tony Parker (ruptured quad) and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard (tweaked ankle). The latter was particularly devastating: The Spurs led that first game — at Golden State — by 22 points before losing Leonard to injury. Then consider the ledger of the lost out East: Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (balky ankle) and Chicago’s Rajon Rondo (broken hand). Before Rondo went out, the Bulls looked like they could pull off an upset against the East’s top-seeded Celtics. The Cavs benefited too, when Boston later lost star guard Isaiah Thomas after he re-aggravated a hip injury.
The Wizards Get Some Magic
Flashy speedster John Wall had just finished his most impressive regular season, finishing second in both assists and steals. If the Bulls had shocked the Celtics, the Wizards would have been waiting — and, perhaps, would have won. Instead, Washington lost a tough Game 7 in Boston, after which shooting guard Bradley Beal boasted, “Cleveland didn’t want to see us.” It seems absurd, but Beal may have a point. When the two teams met in March, the Wizards won by 12 points. The game before, they were leading until a LeBron 3-pointer forced overtime after banking in off the backboard. Sure, way back in November, they lost by double digits, but on paper their offensive punch matches up better against Cleveland than Boston (especially sans Thomas).
Perhaps Washington could have supplanted King James if they had made a magical run at the conference finals. At the very least, Cleveland would have had to sweat — something the defending champs didn’t do against the scrambling Celtics. And while we’re conjecturing, could that have convinced Durant to opt out of his Warriors contract and return to his hometown in the district?
Now, that would have been a fairy-tale ending.