Phil Jackson Isn’t Leaving the Knicks in Dire Straits

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Phil Jackson is goink, goink, gone as President of the New York Knicks.

The news was passed down early yesterday morning, as Jackson and owner James Dolan began to have major philosophical differences about the future of the franchise. This frustration is reported to have revolved around a potential buyout of Carmelo Anthony, an avenue that would have entailed the Knicks paying him a large sum of money, potentially up to $54 million, to play elsewhere. While Anthony wanted out of New York, Jackson wanted to get something back for his services. With this, the tumultuous, turbulent, three-year tenure of Jackson’s rule over the Knicks came to an end yesterday.

The reaction to this news? Predictable:


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Needless to say, Knick fans are pretty stoked about the team getting out of Jackson’s grasp. At this point, though, it’s probably a good idea to take a look back at Jackson’s time with the Knicks and just what exactly went so wrong for him and the team over these past three years. It’s also important to look at where the Knicks are now as opposed to where they were when Jackson took over as the team’s lead executive.

On March 18, 2014, the Knicks hired Jackson as their team president. The team was 28-40 at the time and in no position to make a run towards the playoffs. In fact, Phil’s first move as the lead executive, as certain individuals will happily remind you, was to sign Lamar Odom, who, at the time, was in the midst of an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. As a metaphor, it wasn’t the best start to the Jackson era in New York.

After the season, Jackson fired head coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with the recently-retired Derek Fisher. While the hiring was met with optimism, the Knicks previously had their heart set on Steve Kerr, who instead took a job with the Golden State Warriors. The team reportedly low-balled Kerr by offering him $13 million for three years; the Warriors offered to pay Kerr $5 million per year for five years, an offer he happily accepted. Three years and two Golden State championships later, it’s clear that the disenfranchisement of Kerr set a negative tone for Phil Jackson’s tenure as president of the Knicks.

Perhaps more telling, though, were the assistant coaches hired by Jackson to help the inexperienced Fisher. Among others, Jackson hired Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis to spots on Fisher’s bench. Why was this significant? Well, both men were former assistant coaches under Jackson in his time with the Bulls and Lakers; they would help implement Jackson’s favored Triangle offense, an offensive system he used in both of his previous coaching stints to help him win eleven championships. The Knicks, however, did not have Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and it showed, as the team went 17-65 for the 2014-15 season, Jackson’s first full campaign as leader of the Knicks’ front office.

The seminal move of that season was the team’s trade of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a three-team trade that also included Dion Waiters and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks acquired… Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and Lance Thomas. Smith and Shumpert became important pieces to the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals that season and both are still in Cleveland. Jackson had finally helped build a title contender. Unfortunately, that title contender played in Cleveland, serving as yet another metaphor for the hapless Knicks.

Jackson’s lasting legacy as an executive will be his selection of Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Porzingis has been excellent as a Knick and represents the team’s future as Carmelo Anthony begins to decline. Of course, in true Jacksonian fashion, he tried to trade the 21-year-old Porzingis before this year’s draft. When asked why he would even think about doing such a thing, the principal reason he cited was the Knicks’ future. The main reason for trading Porzingis would have been because he blew off last year’s end-of-season exit meetings because he, like everyone else, was and is frustrated with the Knicks’ dysfunction. While Phil cited the future to explain why the Knicks took calls about Porzingis’ availability, little did he know that trading the team’s best asset would have sabotaged the future Jackson said he was trying to protect.

This is also to say nothing of the relationship (or lack thereof) Jackson cultivated with Anthony. Among other insults, Jackson suggested that Anthony was a ball hog and didn’t necessarily care about winning. Jackson later went back to his Twitter with this truly bizarre clarification after subtweeting his star player:

One thing Jackson does understand about being an executive is the use of social media. As an influential leader in the 21st Century, Jackson understands that Twitter is a way to get your message out without going through the media. Unfortunately, his Twitter usage only created further problems for the Knicks, a team already torn apart by bad management and poor performance.

So where are the Knicks right now? After firing Fisher and bringing in new coach Jeff Hornacek before last season, the Knicks are at something of a crossroads. While Jackson and the Triangle are out, Hornacek and the remains of his staff and the team’s front office will have to fend for themselves with a roster somewhat in question; point guard Derrick Rose is a free agent and the team reportedly wants to try to trade Anthony, even though Jackson has left the front office.

Even though Phil Jackson proved to be a fairly awful executive (the Knicks were 80-171 under his leadership), he didn’t completely sabotage the team’s future. While there were times it looked like he would, Jackson still left the Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis and the opportunity to get something meaningful in exchange for Anthony’s services.

As for who will replace Jackson, that still remains to be seen. The top candidates to emerge for the position are former Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Raptors president Masai Ujiri. If the Knicks can lure Ujiri from Canada, the Raptors are likely to receive draft pick compensation in return. Of course, the success of Jackson’s replacement will depend on how willing owner James Dolan is to trust the new decision-maker(s). Dolan’s track record could use some improvement; since 2002, the Seattle SuperSonics have won more playoff games than the Knicks. Since 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics have been known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The task awaiting whoever takes over as the president of the Knicks is to rebuild the worst-run franchise in the NBA into a contender. Good luck.

But the new president of the team will have Porzingis, Anthony, and, most importantly, a bright future for a team that has not reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 2000. That’s a lot better than nothing.

A Few Forgotten Men: Reassigning Credit for the Dodgers’ Success

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Let’s go back to 1984. Before I tell you this story, let me assure you that I know where I’m going with this.

The music legend and founder of the Motown record label, Berry Gordy, has a 20-year-old son looking to break into the music industry. He has changed his name, with the help of his father’s company, to create his own image outside of his father’s shadow. The younger Gordy has a song that he believes can be a hit, but while he liked the tune, he wanted to bring in a more established singer to perform the song’s hook.

When that person came along, the song became internationally-renowned and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”, and the man singing the chorus was none other than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Keep in mind that Jackson released his “Thriller” album over 13 months before and was truly at the peak of his powers as a musician and performer. The chorus (“I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ meeeeeeeeeee”) is easily the most memorable part of the song, and Jackson’s role in the hit single is what allowed it to be released in the first place.

At the time, many simply assumed that “Somebody’s Watching Me” was Jackson’s song. And while MJ’s are some of the most famous backing vocals ever, he was not actually credited on the song itself. While his contribution to the song is minimal in time, it is what many remember about it, even if Rockwell performed most of the song. It would be Rockwell’s biggest and, for all intents and purposes, only hit. “Somebody’s Watching Me” has now been the anthem of everyday paranoia for over 33 years, but it likely never reaches the light of day without Jackson’s help.

So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well, it looks like a similar situation is brewing with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers lead the NL West by 2.5 games and are currently on a 10-game winning streak. Much of the hype surrounding the team’s hot start has revolved around star rookie outfielder Cody Bellinger, who leads the National League with 24 home runs despite having played just 57 of Los Angeles’ 77 games this season. Of course, a lot of the recent attention Bellinger has received concerns his oblivion towards the existence of Jerry Seinfeld, but we’ll let that go for now.

Many will presume that Bellinger has been the Dodgers’ best (and most important) player to this point in the season. After all, he has hit twelve home runs in his team’s last fifteen games, and the Dodgers are 14-1 in that span. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows that he has been far from the only key to the Dodgers’ success.

Consider this: for as good as Bellinger has been to this point in the season, he has only hit .282. In some ways, that makes his home run binge even more impressive, as the longball has accounted for over 40% of his hits this season. It is fair to ask yourself, however, if he can continue at his torrid pace for the rest of the season; while he leads the league in isolated power, a measure of a batter’s raw power, major league pitchers may be able to somewhat figure him out sooner or later. While they may not be able to stop him completely, they could attack him more intelligently as they get a feel for his strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s something else to think about: is Bellinger’s success a result of the hitters in front of him in the lineup?

Since third baseman Justin Turner returned from the disabled list on June 9, the Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts have employed a lineup with shortstop Corey Seager hitting second, Turner hitting third, and Bellinger cleaning up. Roberts had tried this lineup earlier in the season and has gone back to it since Turner’s return. In this version of the Dodgers’ lineup, the three hitters have formed something of a Mortal Kombat combination; in the sixteen games the three players have hit 2-3-4 in the starting lineup, the Dodgers are 13-3 and are averaging nearly seven runs per game.

Bellinger plays a role in that success, but so do Turner and Seager; the two infielders lead the team in WAR (wins above replacement). In fact, Turner has been so successful that he is hitting .393 on June 26. While it’s very unlikely that he hits .400 for the season, he’s been the Dodgers’ best hitter when he’s been in the lineup this season. Seager has also been outstanding this year, as he has an on-base percentage over .400. More importantly, Seager has only missed four games so far this year; while he’s listed as day-to-day with a hamstring injury, he is not expected to miss significant time. As both players lead the league at their positions in WAR, it’s become clear that the Dodgers easily have the best left side of the infield in baseball.

Another thing to address when looking at the Dodgers’ success is their pitching staff and, in particular, their starting rotation. While ace Clayton Kershaw has been outstanding as usual, the team has gotten pleasantly surprising performances this season from starters Alex Wood and Brandon McCarthy. Wood has been so spectacular, in fact, that he is second in the league in ERA among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season. While the offense has gotten all of the headlines, LA’s pitching staff has quietly held down the fort en route to the league’s lowest staff ERA.

The Dodgers are 51-26 and just one game behind the Houston Astros for the best record in baseball. While Bellinger has been amazing and will rightfully get most of the credit for the team’s success, other players, such as Turner and Seager, also deserve praise for the critical roles they’ve played in pushing the Dodgers to the front of the best division in baseball. The team does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon, and it appears as if their success in the first half of the season is no fluke.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may very well continue their first-half success on their way to bigger and better things. Their starting rotation could continue to perform like they have in the team’s first 77 games, and their offense may continue to perform, albeit probably not at their current pace.

And Cody Bellinger will continue to play a leading role, even if he was only asked to sing backing vocals for baseball’s best offense.

Some Thoughts on the NBA Draft

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Another NBA Draft has come and gone and, as usual, there are plenty of storylines to go around. Markelle Fultz was taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Lonzo Ball went second to the Lakers, the Timberwolves traded for Bulls superstar Jimmy Butler, and college freshmen (or the age equivalent of college freshmen) accounted for the first eleven picks in the draft.

Needless to say, there is plenty to talk about after last night’s NBA Draft. Here are some unsolicited thoughts on the last night’s draft and the events that surrounded it.

Ball Don’t Lie

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers traded away guard D’Angelo Russell and the unyielding contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for center Brook Lopez. Many believed the move was meant to make room for the team, led by new President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, to draft UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. Sure enough, that’s what the Lakers did with the second overall pick in last night’s draft.

Ball is the team’s point guard of the future and has the ability to make all of his teammates better. The Lakers aren’t going back to the glory years of “Showtime”, but the acquisition of Ball could be what helps them get back into playoff contention. And while the specter of Lonzo’s father, LaVar, hangs over the selection, Johnson and General Manager Sam Seaborn Rob Pelinka have decided that hitching the Lakers’ wagon to the UCLA guard is worth the risk. And personally, I must say that I agree. Ball was the best player available for the Lakers and he could start the team toward a return to prominence. Don’t let a crazy father stop you from thinking that.

The Timberwolves’ Future Is Now

Arguably the biggest move on draft night was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In return, Chicago acquired guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn from Minnesota; the Bulls also acquired the draft rights to Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in the draft. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, also received the rights to the 16th pick in the draft, Justin Patton of Creighton.

While LaVine is an exciting player who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on February 3. Dunn, on the other hand, averaged all of 3.8 points per game in his rookie season after being drafted last year to unseat Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s starting point guard. Rubio, though, had possibly the best year of his career last season, making the 23-year-old Dunn more than expendable this summer. Markkanen is an intriguing player who has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis as a sharpshooting seven-footer, but it’s very fair to wonder just how much more the Bulls could have gotten for Jimmy Butler, one of the best players in the game today.

Last season, Butler ranked fifth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and before you cast that aside, consider that he came in ahead of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry, among others, in that category. In the category of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Butler again was fifth in the league, ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. The T’Wolves, led by Butler’s former coach, Tom Thibodeau, are getting a legitimate and experienced superstar who is one of the best players in the league at both ends.

The Timberwolves were able to get that caliber of player without having to gut their assets to do so. And the Bulls gave up the face of their franchise without getting many good assets in return. The Timberwolves are the clear winner in this deal, and the acquisition of Butler could help the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The Knicks May Have Stumbled Into a Good Decision

I get it, the Knicks and good decisions go together like toothpaste and orange juice. But hear me out here.

While it’s not a long line of great players, the Knicks have had success in recent years with international players. This has entailed both drafting and signing foreign talent, including drafting Kristaps Porzingis, acquiring Willy Hernangómez in a draft night trade two years ago, and signing Lithuania’s Mindaugas Kuzminskas last summer. And, not to belabor the point, but all of those moves were made, with varying levels of success, by Phil Jackson. Thank me later.

Last night, the Knicks continued that trend, selecting France’s Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick. Whlie Ntilikina is raw, he won’t turn 19 until next month, and at 6’5″ he has elite length for a point guard. Most importantly from the Knicks perspective, he fits Jackson’s Triangle offense, a system that is very successful when it’s led by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the best out of any point guard in this year’s draft. While you may not agree with that, Ntilikina is a system pick and could prove to be successful. I would have taken NC State’s Dennis Smith, but I understand the Knicks’ reasoning.

And besides, the Knicks front office knows what it’s doing. Just ask them. And even as their owner played a blues concert with his band during a huge night for his organization, the Knicks may have done something right, even if they didn’t do it on purpose.

Speaking of Teams Accidentally Doing Good Things…

The Sacramento Kings have not had many things go right for them recently. The team’s last playoff appearance was in 2006 and the last eleven years have consisted of bad trades, multitudes of head coaches, and general dysfunction both on and off the floor. Last night, though, the Kings did good things with their first-round picks.

With the fifth pick, the Kings selected Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. Fox played the aforementioned Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament and absolutely dominated the matchup, scoring 39 points in a Kentucky victory. Fox is a dynamic playmaker with amazing speed and athleticism, and he looks to be Sacramento’s point guard of the future.

While the Kings possessed the tenth pick in the first round, they decided to flip that pick to the Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th overall picks. They would use those picks on North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Duke’s Harry Giles, respectively. Jackson is an intriguing player because of his length and his perimeter shooting, but I was most impressed with the selection of Giles. Giles is an energetic big man who would have been selected earlier in the draft if he had not suffered two ACL tears in the span of just four years. The Kings could be getting a steal with the Duke big man, as he is an excellent rebounder and finisher inside. If he can stay healthy, he’ll prove to be far more valuable than his 20th overall selection.

Hopefully for the Kings, Fox, Jackson, Giles, and others can help the organization move forward in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world.

Max Scherzer Hasn’t Yet Eclipsed Clayton Kershaw As Baseball’s Best Pitcher

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Recently, one of the main debates in the baseball landscape has been whether or not the Nationals’ Max Scherzer has overtaken the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the game. The two hurlers are likely the two best pitchers in baseball, but as usual, we must debate which one is better because we can’t appreciate a good thing when we see one. Anyway…

The trigger point for this discussion was an article printed in the Washington Post on Monday in which Neil Greenberg argued that Scherzer has overtaken Kershaw as the game’s best pitcher:

Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer has a long list of accolades. He’s the sixth pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National leagues. The 32-year-old father-to-be required the third fewest innings of any pitcher in history to record his 2,000th career strikeout. And he has two no-hitters plus a 20-strikeout game to his credit.

Now he can add one more superlative to his resume as the most likely to unseat Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in the baseball.

Later in the article, Greenberg argues that Scherzer is already the best pitcher in the sport. Greenberg’s opinion is no longer an uncommon one, either, but is Scherzer really the best pitcher in the game right now? Let’s take a closer look, and instead of solely looking at this year’s performance, we’ll compare the two pitchers over the first ten years of their careers.

To answer this question, I went to FanGraphs, quite possibly the best sports information website on the internet today. Instead of getting into advanced stats right away, I decided to compare the two pitchers based on more common statistics. The most accepted statistic to gauge a pitcher’s success is earned run average, and while Scherzer’s ERA is lower than Kershaw’s this season, their bodies of work show that this is a rare occurrence:

Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Much of the hype around Scherzer’s dominance has come in the wake of his last five starts. In those outings, Scherzer has pitched to a 0.89 ERA with at least ten strikeouts and seven innings pitched in every game. In his last five starts, Clayton Kershaw has pitched to a 3.98 ERA and has not gone deeper than seven innings into any of those outings. Before this five-start stretch, Kershaw’s ERA was 2.01 while Scherzer’s was 3.02. It’s entirely possible that this three-week period has been an aberration for both pitchers.

Now, let’s take a look at the all-important WHIP (walks and hits per inning) statistic. This stat is an indicator of how many baserunners a pitcher allows in each of his innings of work, and it usually is the best indicator of long-term success. With Kershaw and Scherzer, it tells a very similar story to their ERA comparison:

Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Let’s take this one step further. FIP is a pitching stat that aims to take defense out of the equation of a pitcher’s success (it literally stands for fielding independent pitching). This figure shows that Scherzer is currently having the better season. But, just like the other previously-displayed statistics, it also shows that this year could be an anomaly:

Source: FanGraphsClayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer

Now, it is impossible to believe that Kershaw is having the better season this year. However, you may ask yourself whether or not I would still take him as the best pitcher in baseball. The answer is that I would, and here’s why.

Both pitchers reached the big leagues in the same year (2008), making it very easy to directly compare their careers. Since they both arrived in the majors, there is a large sample size (ten years, to be exact) suggesting that Kershaw has been the better pitcher. If you go back and look at the graphs, the only time Scherzer has outperformed Kershaw before this year is their rookie season, when Scherzer was called up by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kershaw was also called up that season and he made 21 starts. Want to know how many starts Scherzer had that season? Seven.

And even if you want to consider 2008 a full “season” for both pitchers and end the 2017 season today (more power to you if you do), the fact of the matter is this: Max Scherzer, to this point in his career, is two for ten in terms of having a better overall season than Clayton Kershaw. And if you’re like me and you consider 2008 and this season to be incomplete bodies of work, you’ll see that Scherzer has never been more effective than Kershaw for a full year.

And that leads me to think that Kershaw is still a better pitcher. While many are infatuated with a five-start stretch, Kershaw has still been consistently better and the month of June may have been a blip on the radar. Take this into account, too: Kershaw is just 29 years old. Scherzer is 32. While it seems like both have been around for a very long time, Kershaw is still on the south side of 30.

And make no mistake: this is not meant to discredit the job Max Scherzer has done so far this season. He has quite possibly been the game’s best hurler this year, and he should be applauded for that.

And if you’re going to crown him the best pitcher in the game because of a five-start stretch, that’s your prerogative. When you do that, though, just know that I won’t be joining in on your fun.

NOTE: Today, Scherzer threw an eight-inning complete game in a 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins today. He had 11 strikeouts and did not allow an earned run in defeat. The information in the above graphs does not take Scherzer’s most recent start into consideration.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter VII: 3-1

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Welcome to Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter VII, we examine the 2016 NBA Finals, one in which the Warriors get off to a hot start before the Cavaliers take a run at the most improbable comeback in NBA Finals history. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

The 2016 NBA Finals tip off on June 2, 2016, and anticipation for the second Cavs-Warriors matchup is at a fever pitch. The television broadcaster for the Finals, ABC, is expecting a massive rating for the games. Ticket prices are, on average, selling for over $1,500. This series is a big deal, and much of the sports world is grinding to a halt to check it out.

While much of the anticipation for the series revolves around its two best players, LeBron James and Steph Curry, Game 1 belongs to both teams’ ancillary pieces. The Warriors take a 52-43 lead into the halftime break in spite of just 10 combined points from Curry and Klay Thompson. The Cavaliers come back strong and take the lead late in the third quarter. A James layup puts the Cavs up 68-67 with just over two minutes left in the third. Unfortunately for them, it’s the last lead they have in the game, as the Warriors go on a 15-0 run between the third and fourth quarters behind bench cogs Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP. Golden State pulls away in the fourth quarter en route to a 104-89 victory and a 1-0 Finals lead. Livingston leads the team with 20 points while Draymond Green gets 16 points and 11 rebounds. Curry scores just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, but even with the unanimous MVP struggling, the Warriors are able to handily fend off the Cavs. James goes for 23 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists, while Kyrie Irving leads all scorers with 26 points.

Many expect the Cavaliers to come back stronger in Game 2, but instead, their play goes in the opposite direction. Kevin Love suffers a concussion in the second quarter while fighting with Golden State’s Harrison Barnes for a rebound; Love stays in the game until experiencing dizziness early in the second half and going to the locker room. While the Cavaliers have the game within six points shortly after halftime, the Warriors again blow it open in the third quarter and open up a 20-point lead behind 28 points and five threes from Green. James and Irving shoot a combined 12-of-31 from the field and score just 29 points. Curry is better in this game, as he makes seven of 11 shots and scores 18 points. Most impressively, the Warriors are +25 with him on the floor. The fourth quarter is fully anticlimactic, so exciting that ABC’s announcers take to discussing important matters such as old Paul Simon concerts. Golden State wins 110-77 to pull within two victories of their second straight NBA championship.

Before Game 3, the main question for the Cavaliers, among many others, is the availability of Love. That question is answered shortly before tip-off, as he is ruled out with a concussion and will be replaced in the starting lineup by 35-year-old Richard Jefferson, who will start his first NBA Finals game since 2003. That does not address the matter of whether or not the Cavs’ performance will improve when the series gets back to Cleveland.

The answer to that question, though, is yes. The Cavaliers blow a close game open in the second half on their way to a 30-point victory and their first win of the series. James scores 32 points and Irving adds 30 as the Cavaliers pull away. On the other side, the Warriors, possibly the best three-point shooting team of all-time, shoot just 27% from downtown in the loss. There is only one day of rest between Games 3 and 4, the only occurrence in the series in which there are less than two days off. Now, the Cavaliers have a chance to tie the series at two games apiece on their home floor. And better yet, Kevin Love will be back in time for the game.

Game 4, to this point, is the best game of the series, and it’s also Curry’s best performance of the NBA Finals. Irving, though, is matching him, and the Warriors carry a slim 79-77 lead through three quarters of play. In the fourth, though, the show belongs to the MVP, as he scores 13 points in the quarter to finish with 38 for the game along with seven made threes. With 2:42 to go, however, the turning point of the NBA season occurs.

With the Warriors in possession of the ball and Curry pump-faking for a three, Draymond Green attempts to set a screen on LeBron James. James, after a brief period of hand-fighting, knocks Green to the ground. While James walks over Green a la Allen Iverson, Green, in attempting to get up, crashes into James’ midsection. The two spar, leading to a double foul and a jump ball. Green’s foul is ruled a common foul on the floor, but the league reserves the right to review the play at a later time. The play does not affect the Warriors, as they go on to win Game 4, 108-97.

Irving closes with 34 points and a 14-of-28 performance from the field. James finishes with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, but many are critical of his seemingly “passive” performance. Kevin Love scores 11 points off the bench, as Jefferson starts his second straight game but contributes minimally on the offensive end. In advance of Game 5, Golden State’s main concern is Green’s status; the NBA is reviewing his play at the end of Game 4 as a possible flagrant foul. Because he had already accumulated two flagrant foul points, any type of flagrant foul would warrant a one-game suspension under the league rules.

The league comes down with its ruling on Sunday, June 12, just one day before Game 5. Green’s foul against James is upgraded to a Flagrant 1, and Green is suspended for Game 5. He will not be allowed in the stadium for the game itself, but the league gives him the okay to appear in Oracle Arena in the case of a hypothetical championship trophy presentation. In an ironic twist, Green, quite possibly the series MVP for the Warriors, will be forced to watch Game 5 from O.Co Coliseum, the home of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics; the Coliseum is situated directly across the street from Oracle Arena, and Green can travel between both venues via an underground tunnel.

In Game 5, neither offense can be stopped in the first half. The game is tied at 61 after just 24 minutes of play, and Klay Thompson scores 26 points in a scorching-hot half of basketball. Iguodala starts for Golden State and, once again, defends James; LeBron scores 25 to lead the Cavaliers. The first half is easily the most exciting half of the series, and the Warriors’ offense doesn’t miss a beat without Green. The issue for them, though, is their defense, which allows the Cavaliers to shoot over 54% from the field in the first half.

However, the second half is very different than the first. Both teams collectively run out of gas offensively, and the Cavaliers turn to their two best players to push them over the edge. The second half is the James and Irving show, and their heroics are enough for the Cavaliers to pull away to a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 in Cleveland. Irving and James combine for 29 of the Cavaliers’ 51 points in the first half and 82 of the team’s 112 points for the game. It is the first time two players score 40 points in an NBA Finals game in the history of the league, and their superhuman effort extends the Cavs’ season for an extra three days. Thompson leads the Warriors with 37 points while Curry contributes 25. Golden State’s scapegoat is Harrison Barnes, who scores just five points on 2-of-14 shooting. Green will return to the Warriors for Game 6, but the Cavaliers have firmly established momentum by stealing Game 5.

Unlike Game 5, the start of Game 6 is a complete disaster for the Warriors. Cleveland opens on a 13-2 run and expands the lead to 22 points near the end of the first quarter. One of the best offensive teams in NBA history barely musters double-digit points and trails 31-11 after 12 minutes of play. Golden State is able to cut the lead to eight before Cleveland goes on a 13-5 run to close the half with a 16-point edge. 18 of Golden State’s 43 first-half points come from Curry, but the overall brilliance of James is hypnotizing the Warriors. Green is back, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as he scores just four points in the first half. While Golden State closes the game to seven points in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers are in complete command all night; the Warriors never lead for the entire game. In the fourth quarter, though, the face of the Warriors’ organization has a moment he would assuredly like to forget.

Steph Curry is playing with five fouls with 4:28 left in the game and the Warriors down 12. His team is still theoretically in a position to win the game, but Curry needs to be careful to not pick up a disqualifying sixth foul. After a missed free throw from Klay Thompson, Curry attempts to steal the basketball from James and is called for a reach-in foul, his sixth. In response to the call, Curry throws his mouthpiece into the crowd and strikes a fan, drawing two technical fouls and an ejection. The game is effectively over, and a deciding Game 7 will be held in Oakland on Sunday, June 19. Curry’s ejection is the first in an NBA Finals game since 1996 (SuperSonics forward Frank Brickowski). He closes with 30 points and Thompson finishes with 25.

However, the star of the series is LeBron James, who scores 41 points, dishes out 11 assists, and grabs eight rebounds in the Game 6 victory. He has basically toyed with the Warriors over the past two games, and the combination of he and Irving has proven lethal against Golden State’s defense. Draymond Green finishes Game 6 with just eight points to go along with ten rebounds and six assists. Once again, the Warriors’ biggest disappointment is Barnes, but he somehow compounds his Game 5 performance with a 0-point, 0-assist, two-rebound showing in Game 6. Andrew Bogut misses Game 6 after suffering a significant knee injury in Game 5. He will not play in Game 7, and his fill-in for Game 6 is none other than Andre Iguodala. Game 7 will be highly-anticipated, even more so than the rest of the series. And the two teams are evenly matched, too: through six games, both squads have scored exactly 610 points. Nonetheless, the closest contest was Game 4, an 11-point victory for the Warriors. Many will hope for a closer game than that to decide the 2015-16 NBA champion.

For Game 7, the Warriors make a critical lineup change: backup center Festus Ezeli is inserted into the starting lineup to replace Iguodala and, by extension, the injured Bogut. The first quarter is close but choppy, as one would expect in a nerve-wracking, winner-take-all Game 7. The Cavaliers have a 23-22 lead after one quarter behind six points from James. The second quarter, though, belongs to the Warriors, and, more specifically, Draymond Green.

After scoring seven points in the first quarter, Green really goes to the work in the second, scoring 15 points on four made three-pointers. Part of the intrigue of this performance is Green’s suspension in Game 5; many feel that he was the Warriors’ best player in the series before his forced exile. Game 7 is no different, and Green’s offensive outburst leads the Warriors to a 49-42 halftime lead.

Cleveland comes out firing to start the second half, as J.R. Smith scores eight points in the first three minutes to fuel a 12-5 run and force a Golden State timeout with the score tied at 54. The two teams go back and forth for the rest of the quarter, but the Warriors are able to retain a one-point lead after 36 minutes. The star of the third quarter is Irving, who leads all scorers with 12 points. The NBA is twelve minutes away from crowning its next champion.

The fourth quarter, just like much of the third, is a back-and-forth affair. the lead changes hands on three separate occasions before a Klay Thompson layup ties the game at 89 with 4:39 to play. Both teams then go scoreless for well over two minutes, and both offenses are completely stagnant. It is noted on the television broadcast that both teams, after a series full of twists and turns, appear to be on their last legs. That is, of course, until a Warriors fast break with just under two minutes to go.

After an Irving miss and an Iguodala rebound, the Warriors push on the fast break with Curry and Iguodala. The break appears to be a 2-on-1 against J.R. Smith when Curry gives the ball back to his teammate after a give-and-go. Iguodala double-clutches for the layup and appears to have a clear shot at the basket until James, defying all laws of gravity and energy, rises up and blocks his shot against the backboard. The play comes to be the defining moment of the 2016 NBA Finals and quite possibly the defining moment of James’ career.

After misses at both ends of the floor, the Cavaliers have possession with just under a minute left. They run a pick-and-roll to switch Curry onto Irving; Thompson has guarded Irving for most of the series and is a superior defender to his MVP teammate. Irving exploits the switch and rises up for a three, which he makes. Suddenly, the city of Cleveland is just 53 seconds away from its first professional sports championship since 1964.

The Warriors decline to use either of their two remaining timeouts and instead leave their next possession in the hands of Curry. Curry is guarded by the previously-injured Love on the next possession, and he too looks to take advantage of the mismatch. Love’s effort on the switch is championship-worthy and critical to the Cavs’ ultimate success, as he forces Curry to miss a difficult three-pointer. At the other end, Irving attempts to score quickly with just under 30 seconds left, misses, but gets his own rebound. The Cavaliers reset and Barnes fouls James; while the Warriors have a foul to give, the foul gives Cleveland an extra three seconds of possession. With that possession, James drives to the basket and, in attempting a soul-crushing, series-ending dunk, is fouled by Green, misses the dunk, and comes down awkwardly on his right wrist. While he is able to shoot the subsequent two free throws, he still needs to make one to put Cleveland ahead by two possessions. After missing the first free throw, James rattles home the second to put Cleveland up 93-89 with 10.6 seconds remaining. Golden State misses multiple shot attempts on their next possession and the Cavaliers are NBA champions.

James joins Jerry West and James Worthy as the only players to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals; unsurprisingly, he is named Finals MVP. Most importantly, though, he has followed through on his promise to bring an NBA championship to the city of Cleveland, the first in over 50 years. The 73-win Warriors miss out on the one thing they had always wanted: another championship. Many point to Green’s Game 5 suspension as the turning point of their title contention.

After Game 7, Green calls General Manager Bob Myers about the team’s plans for the summer. Later that night, he makes another phone call, and it’s to the top free agent in the summer of 2016:

Kevin Durant.

This series will continue later in the summer, and the final chapters will be put on hold in order to give ourselves some distance from the historical events of this past year.

There You Go Again, NCAA

Dave Reginek/Getty Images

As a rapper once said, “WOOP-WOOP! THAT’S THE SOUND OF THE NCAA!”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t exactly like that. Maybe I misheard it. But NCAA president Mark Emmert and his organization are back again, and at this point, they really do deserve entrance music for the work they do. My personal suggestion: the Jaws theme, but that’s neither here nor there.

You know very well about Emmert and the NCAA, but someone you may not be familiar with is Donald De La Haye.

Donald De La Haye is the kickoff specialist for Central Florida University (UCF, for short) and he is going into his sophomore year of college. He appeared in every game for the Knights last season and even racked up three tackles on special teams. That, though, is not what’s important about his story.

What is important is that De La Haye has a YouTube channel. His videos range from the humorous (a parody of quarterbacks in their everyday lives) to the useful (how to kick an onside). His videos are occasionally profane but otherwise harmless, and he’s obviously doing something right; because he has reached over 10,000 all-time views on his channel (2.7 million, to be exact), he can monetize off of it by putting ads at the beginning of his videos. I must admit that I did not know that until this story came out, but those rules are very significant in De La Haye’s case. He has truly turned his internet prowess into a business, and three of his videos have over 200,000 views. He is a marketing major, and his YouTube practices actually pertain to what he wants to do with his life, as his chances of making the NFL are slim to none.

But remember when I told you that he was able to make money off his channel? Well, the feds were watching, and they clearly didn’t approve of his YouTube hi-jinks.

Because of De La Haye’s profitability, UCF has decided to make him choose between football and YouTube. To be clear, that may not be exactly the case, but UCF, as a way of preempting the NCAA, has asked him to stop making money off of his videos. His reasoning for having a YouTube channel and trying to turn a profit on it is simple: his family moved from Costa Rica to Port St. Lucie, Florida, when he was a child, and even though he is getting a full scholarship to play at UCF, he still needs to help his family pay their bills. Terrible motives, right?

Of course, the NCAA has put the kibosh on that under their infamous “amateurism rules”. If De La Haye had not made money on his videos, he would be in the clear, but because he is profitable, the school had to tell him to stop. Side note: don’t be so quick to kill the UCF administrators for this. I’m sure some of them think this is ridiculous, too, and they know that everything is better if the NCAA is not involved.

Now, before you hit on the “yeah, but he’s getting a full ride to kick a football” argument, consider this: if it were anyone else, i.e. someone not on scholarship to play a sport, they would be able to cash in on their virality. Instead, because he’s on scholarship and an “amateur”, he can’t stand to profit. That’s nice; he’s actually being penalized for playing a sport.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is a story that really bothers me. Unfortunately, it kind of hits close to home, too.

I have a good friend from my high school named Miles Franklyn. He’s really good at soccer. So good, in fact, that he showed up twice on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays”…. in the span of a week. So good that he’s going to play at the collegiate level for Syracuse University next fall. And, quite possibly, so good that he’s going to have to shut down his YouTube channel.

Miles and a couple of his friends recently decided to start an enterprise called “11th Street Media”. 11th Street, as many of us commonly refer to it, takes a couple of different forms; there’s the popular YouTube channel, which has just over 10,000 lifetime views (HERE COMES THAT MUSIC AGAIN), as well as 11th Street Radio, which makes SoundCloud playlists for certain occasions, like this one they did for Valentine’s Day. The YouTube channel releases videos chronicling the daily lives of him and his friends, and they literally could not be more innocuous; even curse words are censored. Virtually everyone in the senior class was in one of the videos at some point or another. From personal experience, I also remember the 11th Street people selling shirts outside of school; how much money they made is none of my business, but several of my friends bought the shirts and were happy with them. Miles and his friends, simply put, are my type of people; they say they want to do something and then they actually go out and do it. A truly novel concept.

Now, go back over that last paragraph. Assuming Miles goes through with his commitment to play soccer at Syracuse, he’d have to give up the YouTube videos and the shirt-selling. And if he put he and his friends’ playlists for sale on iTunes or Spotify, they would be illegal, too. So here you have someone taking the initiative to make something that people like and turn a profit off of it (the nerve!), and the NCAA wants to put a stop to it. Literally anyone at Syracuse, or just about any other institution, who doesn’t play a sport can do that. But he can’t. And Donald De La Haye can’t, either.

This is not something that would ever happen in the real world. But here’s the thing: the NCAA isn’t anything like the real world because it isn’t operating in lockstep with reality. While there probably was a time when their antiquated amateurism model made sense, it doesn’t anymore. The NCAA, even though it’s still a not-for-profit organization despite making a hair under $1 billion in revenue last year, can no longer justify paying coaches exorbitant salaries without at least giving the players something.

And you would figure that because the players aren’t compensated, they would be able to take advantage of their popularity (or, in De La Haye’s case, create their own popularity). But that’s illegal, too, and at this point, it seems as though the NCAA is hell-bent on making sure its athletes don’t get a fair share of its burgeoning profits.

Some of the defenders of the NCAA and UCF in this matter will tell you that UCF is not a Power 5 school and does not see nearly the revenue that schools in the Division I major conferences do (and therefore, that somehow justifies what’s going on here). Let me remind you that UCF’s football coach, Scott Frost, is making $1.7 million per year through 2020. If UCF is losing money, maybe that’s why. I don’t know.

And, without the players, there literally would be no NCAA. It would be perfectly reasonable for the institution to make these counter-YouTube rulings if it was paying its players, but it is simply unreasonable to expect players to abide by amateurism rules when they’re not playing under contract. Any reasonable person would say that players should be able to make money off themselves even if they aren’t being directly compensated. These archaic rules, made at a time before paying coaches seven-figure salaries was a rule and not an exception, simply need to go.

Until they do, though, you probably won’t be seeing Daniel De La Haye, Miles Franklyn, and their YouTube videos anytime soon.

Don’t Blame Kevin Durant

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When I was younger, ESPN aired a show on its alternate networks called “The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame….”.

The show was an engaging and contrarian look at events in the history of sports, and it tried to take a different look at conventional wisdom in order to exonerate certain sports pariahs. The first episode in the series, which aired from 2005 to 2007, attempted to absolve Steve Bartman of the blame for the Chicago Cubs not advancing to the World Series in 2003. My personal favorite episode, though, is the one dedicated to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

Buckner, of course, booted a ground ball in the tenth inning that enabled the New York Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and force a Game 7. Many blame Buckner for the Red Sox losing the series, as his error is believed to be the reason why the Mets won the championship. However, the show goes into great detail about relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi’s implosion in the tenth inning of Game 6 as well as the truly inexplicable and baffling managerial decisions of John McNamara.

Many also forget that Buckner had been playing with multiple debilitating injuries and may not have even beat Mets speedster Mookie Wilson, the man who hit the ground ball, to first base anyway. Additionally, McNamara had defensive replacement and backup first baseman Dave Stapleton on the bench; the Red Sox turned to Stapleton in every one of their playoff victories to replace the hobbled Buckner and close out the game at first base. John McNamara, for reasons only known to John McNamara, left Buckner in for the tenth inning of the most important game of the season. Buckner shouldn’t have been in a position to botch the grounder in the first place.

Why am I bringing this up now? Today, the Golden State Warriors are NBA champions, at least partially because they signed the game’s second-best player, Kevin Durant, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer. The Warriors had made back-to-back NBA Finals without him and one could argue that they would have won it all this season even if they hadn’t acquired another superstar. But the addition of Durant basically made the Warriors’ second title in three years a fait accompli, and many were critical of his decision to leave the Thunder, who lost to the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals after leading them 3-1 in the series.

Joining the Warriors, of course, was likely the best professional decision Durant could have made. While the Thunder were also a championship contender, the Warriors already had three stars on the roster and the addition of Durant made their offense virtually unassailable. The professional and basketball implications of the decision, though, are not the only reason why KD jumped ship.

In late 2014, the NBA announced a new deal with its television partners, ESPN and Turner Sports. The nine-year, $24 billion extension would begin with the 2016-17 season and would affect what was at the time a $63 million salary cap. The NBA’s proposed remedy for this imposing spike was to have the cap artificially smoothed so that a dramatic increase would not occur from one year to the next. The Players’ Association, spearheaded by executive director Michele Roberts, vehemently rejected that idea. The reasoning makes sense on both sides; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wanted the cap to grow exponentially while Roberts wanted to maximize the profits for the players she is in charge of.

Because of the Players’ Association’s rejection of the proposal, the salary cap jumped from $70 million to just over $94 million from last year to this year. Durant, an impending free agent in the summer of 2016, now had more options to choose from; while eight teams were able to sign him before the cap spike, 28 teams were able to sign him after it. One of those teams was the Golden State Warriors, who happened to be coming off the best regular season in NBA history and were one game away from winning their second straight championship the year before.

Durant, of course, decided to sign with the Warriors, helping to form quite possibly the most talented team in the history of the NBA. His move to Golden State, for all intents and purposes, made the regular season academic. The Warriors were clearly the best team in the league, and even Durant’s six-week absence near the end of the regular season didn’t derail the team from winning 67 games and breezing through the Western Conference playoffs without a loss. The addition of Durant made what was already an outstanding team one of the best in the history of the NBA, and his presence made sure no one would seriously compete with the Warriors for the NBA championship.

So, Durant left the Thunder and won a championship in his first season with the Warriors. The team also has the potential to become a dynasty, provided that their stars stay with the organization. Seems like a good decision, right?

Well, according to the sports media world of lambasting people for doing the right thing, Durant is a snake who doesn’t value loyalty and sold his soul for a ring. The idea is that Durant somehow owes something to the Thunder for employing him for the first nine years of his career. Of course, that’s not the case, and the idea of being able to freely choose who you play for has gone back nearly 30 years. Tom Chambers, the 1987 All-Star Game MVP who later became the author of the single most underrated dunk in NBA history, was disgruntled with his organization, the Seattle SuperSonics, for building a frontcourt that wasn’t exactly centered around him. While there was free agency at the time, it was only restricted, and if a player was good, his team would almost always re-sign him. However, the Players’ Union was able to agree with the league that one could become an unrestricted free agent if he met certain conditions, and so Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent and later signed with the Phoenix Suns. He later became the Suns’ sixth man when they went to the NBA Finals in 1993. Oddly enough, no one was angry at him for making the move from Seattle to Phoenix.

Many were upset with Durant for making the NBA season less interesting, and you can bet his decision did just that. But you have to remember that he made his decision for himself and not for us, and if you were in his position, you’d probably do the exact same thing.

One of the most vocal critics of Durant has been ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith; Smith famously spouted off on Twitter, a medium often noted for its users’ contemplative reason and thought, merely minutes after Durant announced his decision on July 4 of last year. What’s interesting about this is that Smith himself once left the Philadelphia Inquirer to join ESPN, and did so for possibly the exact same reason Durant left the Thunder: the opportunity to advance himself professionally and financially. While sports is different from the real world, what Durant did is what people do in real jobs all the time: take a position at a more prestigious company to gain exposure and experience with the hopes of progressing onward in their professional lives.

But, instead of looking at it that way, many have derided Durant as a traitor and a villain. And it’s not just the sports world that feels this way, either. Last night, Jeopardy! savaged KD with this clue:

After a loss to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Finals, this Thunder stud didn’t beat ’em, he joined ’em

It’s clear that not many people are willing to defend Durant on this one. I can see the logic in being angry at his decision, but you have to remember just that: it’s his decision, not yours. If you were in his shoes (hopefully not the KD 9 Birds of Paradise), you’d probably do the same thing. And, after all, the move paid off, as Durant is an NBA champion today.

Kevin Durant’s move also should have never been possible. Had the NBA put its foot down and forced the players to accept a smoothed cap, the Warriors would not have had the cap space to reel in Durant. Instead, they, like just about every other team in the NBA, had the money to pull it off, and it did create an unfair advantage for the Warriors.

And that is not Kevin Durant’s fault. Like Bill Buckner, he should’ve never been in a position to do what he did in the first place.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter VI: Thunderstruck

Mark D. Smith/USA Today

Welcome to Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter VI, we examine the 2016 NBA Playoffs, one that sees the Cavaliers succeed with relative ease over the rest of the Eastern Conference while the Warriors, the greatest regular season team in the history of the NBA, face injury and adversity in the Western Conference Playoffs. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter VI of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

In the lead-up to the 2016 NBA Playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are favored to make it out of their respective conferences and meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals.

The Playoffs commence on Saturday, April 16, and the Warriors play in the second game of the day at 12:30 PM Pacific Time; they are on their home floor to host Game 1 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets. In spite of the star power on Houston’s roster, the Warriors are clearly the far superior team, as they jump out to a 33-15 lead after the first quarter. They are able to do this on the strength of 16 points from Steph Curry, the soon-to-be MVP of the league.

In the second quarter, though, Curry tweaks his ankle by stepping on a Rockets player. He stays in the game until early in the third quarter. When he leaves the game for good, the Warriors lead 65-39, and even though he only plays 19 minutes, he still leads all scorers with 24 points. Golden State goes on to win Game 1 by 26 points, but their main concern is the health of their best player.

The next day, the Cleveland Cavaliers open their Playoffs against the 44-38 Detroit Pistons. Detroit gives Cleveland slightly more than they had bargained for, as the Pistons lead by seven points with just under 11 minutes to go. And yet, the Cavaliers are able to come back and pull out a 106-101 victory to hold off the Pistons and avoid falling into a 1-0 deficit.

The Warriors’ next game is on Monday, April 18, and they make the precautionary move of sitting Curry in hopes of allowing his ankle to heal so he can play later in the series. The decision pays off, as the Warriors take Game 2 behind 34 points from Klay Thompson, 18 points from Andre Iguodala, and 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting from Curry’s replacement in the starting lineup, Shaun Livingston. The Cavaliers win their Game 2 two days later, and both teams have a 2-0 lead in their first-round series.

On Thursday, April 21, the still Curry-less Warriors and Rockets play Game 3. The Rockets lead for most of the game until an Ian Clark layup puts Golden State head 96-95 with 12 seconds left. On the other end, James Harden drills a turnaround jumper with just over three seconds left to put Houston back up one. The Warriors turn the ball over on the final possession of the game and Houston survives in Game 3. However, the Warriors are in good shape; Curry is set to return to the series in Game 4, which isn’t taking place until Sunday. The Rockets are barely able to win a game without him, so his return should give the Warriors a clear edge.

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are fully healthy and starting to run on all cylinders against Detroit. They are up five with 45 seconds left in Game 3 when Kyrie Irving hits this absurd corner three while falling out of bounds to sink Detroit and effectively put the Cavs up 3-0. Their Game 4 is also on Sunday.

In the Houston-Golden State series, Curry returns to action for a highly-anticipated Game 4. The soon-to-be-MVP, though, is less than 100%, and he only shoots 2-of-9 in the first half. On the last possession of that first half, with the score tied at 56, Curry tweaks his right knee over a wet spot on the floor and is forced to leave the game with an injury separate from the ankle sprain he suffered in Game 1. Instead of folding without their superstar, though, the Warriors outscore the Rockets by 27 in the second half to take a 3-1 series lead. That night, the Cavaliers close out the Pistons with a 100-98 victory; Irving leads all scorers with 31 points.

In Game 5, the Warriors absolutely bludgeon the Rockets. They outscore Houston 37-20 in the first quarter and don’t look back. Thompson leads the Warriors with 27 points and seven made three-pointers, and even reserve Brandon Rush gets in on the fun with 15 bench points. The Warriors beat the Rockets into submission and will face either the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers or the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the Playoffs.

On Friday, April 29, the Blazers defeat the Clippers on their home floor in Game 6 to win the series and set up a meeting with Golden State. For the second year in a row, the Warriors avoid playing the Clippers in the Playoffs, but L.A. would have been without their two best players, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, for the remainder of the postseason. Portland, however, is a young team whose core of Damian Lillard, C.J McCollum, and others has relatively little playoff experience.

And in their matchup against the Warriors, it shows. Golden State easily takes Game 1 behind 37 points and seven threes from Thompson; while the final score is 118-106, the figure is deceptive, as Portland scores nine of the final 11 points in the game. Portland takes an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter of Game 2, but a spirited team effort and lockdown defense propel Golden State to a 34-12 fourth quarter edge; the Warriors win the game 110-99. Portland has missed its best opportunity to draw even with the Warriors, and the news isn’t getting better for them, either; Curry is set to return to the Warriors in either of the next two games in Oregon.

Curry is not in the lineup for Game 3 of the series, and the Trail Blazers finally take advantage. Despite 72 points from Thompson and Draymond Green, Portland wins Game 3 behind 40 points from Lillard. The win marks just the second post-first-round single-game victory for Portland since 2000. However, a change of events is about to occur; Curry is activated for Game 4 and will come off the bench for the 73-win Warriors.

While Portland leads for most of Game 4, the Warriors tie the game on a Harrison Barnes three with 52 seconds to play. The game heads into overtime, and like he did so often in the regular season, Curry takes over. Despite having not played for over two weeks, Curry scores 17 of the Warriors’ 21 points in overtime to carry his squad to a 3-1 series lead. Ultimately, 27 of Curry’s 40 points come in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he notches a +21 in 36 minutes off the bench. He’s back, and so is the terrifying offensive attack of the Warriors.

Game 5 is another entertaining, high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. Fittingly, in the final minutes of the game, the outcome is in the hands of Curry, who was named the first-ever unanimous MVP in NBA history the day before. He shows the world why he won the award with 12 of the Warriors’ final 17 points, including a stepback, fadeaway three over Al-Farouq Aminu to put Golden State up five with just under 25 seconds left. Curry hits four more free throws to salt away the win for Golden State and put the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The next night, in the other Western Conference series, the Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the San Antonio Spurs to win their series in six games and set up a meeting with the Warriors. Golden State won all three meetings during the regular season and comes into the series as the clear favorite.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers easily dispatch the Atlanta Hawks in a four-game sweep. LeBron James averages 24 points, 8.5 rebounds, and just under eight assists over the course of the four games, and the outcome of the series is never in doubt. The closest contest comes in Game 4, one in which the Hawks have a chance to take the lead on the final possession. Unfortunately for them, point guard Dennis Schröder’s shot is blocked by James in the final seconds and the Cavaliers survive. They will play the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals and are very heavily favored.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors take a 60-47 lead into halftime. The Thunder, though, make up the deficit and tie the game on the first possession of the fourth quarter. They take the lead with ten and a half minutes to go in the game; the Warriors would never tie or take the lead after Dion Waiters’ lead-changing basket with 10:30 to go. Oklahoma City goes up five points with just over 30 seconds to go and wins Game 1 by a score of 108-102. Their offensive is spearheaded by 53 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the two best players on the team. The team also gets a pleasantly-surprising 16 points and +19 from New Zealand-born center Steven Adams. Curry, Thompson, and Green contribute 74 points, but the team that prides itself on its “Strength in Numbers” is outscored 21-16 in bench points.

In Game 2, the Warriors respond. They trail for all of 12 seconds in the second quarter en route to a 27-point victory. Curry scores 28 points and drills five threes in 29 minutes, and both teams empty the bench in the fourth quarter. The Warriors are back….. or so it seems.

Both teams have a full three days off before Game 3; because they both closed their second-round series promptly, the Western Conference Finals started two days early and the teams were given an extra two days off traveling to Oklahoma City. The time off should help both teams heal any injuries they might have and make the necessary X’s and O’s adjustments.

The game is tied at 40 with over eight minutes to go in the second quarter and looks to be an even contest after 16 minutes of play. The Thunder go on an 8-0 run in the next two minutes. On a Golden State offensive possession halfway through the second quarter, Draymond Green drives on Adams. He draws a shooting foul, but on his way down from his jump, he kicks Adams in the groin area. For his transgression, Green draws a flagrant 1 foul; he is not ejected but the Thunder faithful voice their displeasure with Green. This play comes to be the defining moment of the game; Oklahoma City goes on a 24-7 run after the kick and leads by 25 points at halftime. Things would get worse before they would get better for the Warriors, as the Thunder lead by as much as 41 before the end of the third quarter. Oklahoma City takes a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 taking place two days later.

Before Game 4, the league looks into potentially suspending Green for his shot heard ’round the world in the previous game. They decide against it; however, in an important clarification, the league upgrades Green’s foul to a Flagrant 2. If a player receives three flagrant foul points in the Playoffs, he is automatically suspended for one game. Green has two points and is therefore just one flagrant foul away from a one-game suspension.

In Game 4, though, he won’t have to worry about flagrant fouls because he and the Warriors are a collective no-show. The Thunder carry another huge lead (72-53) into halftime and win Game 4, 118-94. Oklahoma City’s dynamic duo of Westbrook and Durant is giving the Warriors fits, and Curry does not appear to be his usual self, having shot just under 42% in the first four games of the series. In the span of mere hours after Game 4, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Curry’s knee and ankle injuries have him playing at roughly 70 percent of his usual athletic capacity. The report also passes along a quote from Green, who states that the team’s 3-1 deficit is “stunning”. Panic mode seems to be in full effect. All of a sudden, the Golden State Warriors, the best regular season team in NBA history, are down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals and within one game of being eliminated from the NBA Playoffs.

While the Warriors have jaw-dropping and deep problems, the Cavaliers have concerns of the first-world variety. They dominate the Raptors in the first two games of their series; the most memorable moment in the first two games for Toronto comes late in the first half of Game 2. With Cleveland leading 50-46 late in the second quarter, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, after being substituted out of the game, decides to leave the bench and head into the locker room to “decompress”; the Cavaliers go on a 12-2 run during the great decompression to carry a 62-48 lead into the half. The Raptors would go on to lose the game 108-89.

The Raptors and Lowry would come back strong in Game 3. A stifling Toronto defense holds Kyrie Irving to 3-of-19 shooting in what later becomes a 99-84 victory for the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan leads the Toronto charge with 32 points and the much-maligned Lowry chips in another 20. The Raptors have a chance to tie the series at two in Game 4. In that game, the Raptors lead for virtually all of the first half and are assisted by an inspiring defensive and rebounding effort from backup center Bismack Biyombo. The Cavaliers come back to take the lead with a little more than eight minutes left, and the game experiences eight lead changes in just four minutes and 21 seconds. Toronto pulls through at the end of the game, and a DeRozan runner with 1:33 to play puts them up 103-99. After a Cleveland miss, an offensive rebound from Biyombo off a Lowry miss keeps the possession alive for the Raptors, and the latter hits a layup to put the team up six and tie the series at two. For as well as Cleveland played at home, they too may need to scratch and claw to go back to the NBA Finals.

Game 5 between the Cavs and Raptors takes place on Wednesday, May 25, and it’s not so much a game as it is a bloodbath. Cleveland dominates from start to finish and, at one point in the fourth quarter, leads by 43 points. James, Irving, and Kevin Love combine for 71 points as the Cavaliers pull to within one game of their second straight NBA Finals.

The next night, the Warriors host the Thunder trying to stave off elimination and force a Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday. They are able to do just that with a 120-111 win in which Curry scores 31 points and Thompson scores 27. Possibly the most significant and surprising contribution for the Warriors, though, is that of Marreese Speights, who scores 14 points in just eight minutes. The Warriors have forced Game 6, and their home fans are feeling so confident that they chant “see you Monday” in the game’s final stages. Monday, May 30, is the date for a potential Game 7. Golden State needs to win Game 6 first.

On Friday, the Cavaliers, as expected, take care of the Raptors behind 33 points and 11 rebounds from LeBron James. With the win, James becomes one of a handful of players in the history of the league to play in six straight NBA Finals. They are through to the NBA Finals, and will meet the winner of the Warriors-Thunder series.

Game 6 of that series takes place the day after the Cavaliers clinch their place in the Finals. And just like the first two games in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are off to a good start, jumping out to a 13-point lead with under five minutes to play in the first half. The highlight of the first half for the Thunder is an Adams dunk on Green, one that is seen as emblematic of revenge for Green’s kick to Adams’ groin in Game 3. The Warriors stage a minor comeback and shave the lead down to five points at the half.

The Warriors come out hot to start the second half, but the Thunder weather the storm and, after a Kevin Durant basket, lead 96-89 with 5:09 to go in regulation. Chesapeake Energy Arena is rocking, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are five minutes away from eliminating the 73-win Warriors and punching their ticket to the NBA Finals.

And then, in a bizarre and stunning turn of events, Durant disappears and Klay Thompson catches fire.

Before Durant’s basket, Thompson had scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. He had been hot all night, and was just one three-pointer shy of breaking the NBA record for most threes made in a playoff game. Thompson breaks that record with his tenth three of the game, a side-winding, 28-foot bomb that brings Golden State back within four points and kick-starts their comeback. Oklahoma City’s offense goes dormant, and a Curry three ties the game with just under three minutes to play. The game is still tied when Thompson drills a pull-up three with a minute and a half to go. The shot puts the Warriors up three, and they are ahead for good. Curry hits a runner with 14 seconds left and the Warriors go on to win, 108-101. Thompson finishes the game with 41 points, 19 of which come in the fourth quarter, and 11 made threes. Curry and Thompson are collectively known as the “Splash Brothers”, and they live up to the mantra in Game 6 with 17 three-pointers between them. The Thunder have blown their opportunity to close out Golden State at home, and the Oracle Arena crowd will see their team on Monday.

In that game, the Thunder again jump out to a double-digit lead late in the second quarter. And just like Game 6, the Warriors close that lead to single digits at the end of the quarter, as a Curry floater brings the lead down to six points at the half. The Warriors come out of the locker room hot, and a Curry three gives the Warriors the lead with 6:24 to go in the third quarter. It would be the final lead change of the game, as the Warriors are able to hold off several Oklahoma City surges to win the game, 96-88. For all of the reports of Curry’s demise, he sure looks like the unanimous MVP tonight; he throws in 36 points and a dagger three with 27 seconds left to push the Warriors to their second straight NBA Finals.

The Thunder were five minutes away from reaching the NBA Finals. Now, they’re eliminated. And in the season of Curry’s greatness, Thompson is the true hero in the Warriors’ conquering the odds and returning to the Finals for a rematch with the Cavaliers. And while he doesn’t yet know it, Klay Thompson, with his fourth-quarter heroics in Game 6, has irreparably changed the future of the NBA, for better or worse.

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter V: The Quest for 73

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Welcome to Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter V, we take a closer look at the 2015-16 NBA regular season, one in which the Warriors reach historic highs and the Cavaliers find new lows in LeBron James’ second season back in Cleveland. A nationally-televised meeting between the two teams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day serves as a tipping point for both organizations. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories. Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne. — Steph Curry

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have very quiet summers after their meeting in the 2015 NBA Finals. The Warriors draft UCLA’s Kevon Looney with the 30th pick in the draft while the Cavaliers sign bench pieces Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson. However, the most intriguing (and for that matter, disturbing) part of Cleveland’s summer has nothing to do with their free agent acquisitions.

On July 14, ESPN’s Marc Stein publishes an article on his company’s website in which he criticizes LeBron James for “emasculating” coach David Blatt in front of the team, reporters, and fans during the Finals. The article passes along another quote from Stein’s colleague, Brian Windhorst, stating that James wants Blatt to stay on as the team’s head coach because he “likes having Blatt to kick around”. It is worth noting that Windhorst has covered James in some capacity since the Cavaliers drafted him first overall out of high school in 2003, so when it comes to what James is thinking at any particular moment, Windhorst is a trusted and reputable source. And the reporting of he and Stein seems to indicate a rift between superstar and head coach.

The Warriors’ main question mark going into the season is the health of their head coach, Steve Kerr. Kerr underwent back surgery over the summer, and while the surgery was successful, it left Kerr with leaking spinal fluid and migraine headaches. Because of this, he decides to take a leave of absence to start the regular season; this leaves Kerr’s top assistant, Luke Walton, in charge of the team. Walton has never coached before, and Kerr’s top assistant from the previous season, Alvin Gentry, is now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. It is unknown how long Kerr will be away from the team, but Walton’s relative inexperience and Kerr’s leave is, at minimum, a slight issue for the defending champions.

At the start of the regular season, though, both squads are clicking. After a season-opening loss to the Chicago Bulls, the Cavaliers reel off eight wins in a row between October 28 and November 13. The real story in the NBA, though, is quickly becoming the dominance of the Warriors. While the Cavaliers are 8-1 on November 13, the Warriors are 10-0 and showing no signs of slowing down. The most significant of these first ten wins is a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on November 4, one that saw Golden State trailing by double digits with just under eight minutes to play. Steph Curry hits seven threes in the victory, continuing his torrid three-point shooting pace in the early days of the season.

The Warriors continue their undefeated rampage through the NBA for another month. The closest they come to losing in their first 24 games is an overtime win against the Nets on November 14 and a double-overtime victory over the Celtics on December 11. The Warriors win their first 24 games of the season, the longest winning streak to start a regular season in NBA history. Curry is captivating the league and the world with his play, as he makes 125 threes over the course of the first 24 games. At his current pace, Curry is set to make well over 400 three-pointers in the regular season, which would topple the previous record of 286 set the season before by none other than Curry himself. He becomes the clear front-runner to win his second straight MVP award, and the team is following Curry’s lead in dominating the rest of the league. Their winning streak ends, however, on December 12, with a 108-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

While the streak is over, the Warriors have established themselves as the team to beat in the 2015-16 NBA season. And they have done so with a first-time head coach at the helm, speaking to the organization’s newly-found culture of winning and continued excellence, even in the face of adversity. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have also been rock solid in the first two months of the season. A December 23 win over the Knicks propels them to 19-7, and their next game is the most highly-anticipated contest of the young NBA season: a Christmas Day tilt in Oakland with the 27-1 Golden State Warriors.

Both teams are almost at full strength heading into the game. The Warriors are missing Harrison Barnes while the Cavaliers are without Richard Jefferson. Sure enough, the nationally-televised matchup lives up to the hype, and both teams play with championship-level intensity. The low-scoring affair sees the Warriors leading by five points at the start of the fourth quarter. The game feels like it’s being played in June instead of December, and the Finals rematch proves as a telling litmus test for both teams. The Warriors hold off the Cavs in the fourth quarter en route to an 89-83 victory. While much of the hype surrounding this matchup revolves around the battle between James and Curry, the two best players in the league, the real hero of this one is Golden State’s Draymond Green; Green scores 22 points and grabs 15 rebounds in the victory. Curry finishes with 19 points while James closes with 25. The Warriors improve to 28-1 and maintain their perfection at Oracle Arena.

Golden State is at least slightly better than Cleveland at this point in the season, but the two teams have another matchup on January 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That game, like the other one, is nationally televised and gives both teams a chance to establish (or, in the Warriors’ case, re-establish) themselves; this time, though, it’s played in Cleveland. Before the game, Curry says that he hopes the road locker room still smells of champagne; the Warriors closed out the 2015 NBA Finals in Cleveland and celebrated accordingly. Coming into this game, the Warriors find themselves at 37-4 and still undefeated at home; the possibility of them breaking the NBA’s regular season wins record of 72, set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, is becoming more and more serious with each Golden State victory. The Cavaliers are 28-10 and sit atop the Eastern Conference as they approach the halfway point of their season.

This game, just like the first one, is very highly-anticipated. Unlike the first matchup, though, it fails to deliver on the hype. A J.R. Smith basket makes the score 15-11 in favor of Golden State halfway through the first quarter. It would mark the closest the Cavaliers would get to the lead after the opening two minutes, as the Warriors pull away and coast to a 132-98 victory. Over the course of 48 minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers fail to appear, as they fall behind by as many as 30 points before the game even reaches halftime. Curry finishes the night with 35 points and seven threes in all of 28 minutes, and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP, chips in another 20 points off the bench. The Warriors are leaps and bounds ahead of the Cavaliers, and thanks to their performance in Cleveland, just about everyone is aware of that. While the Warriors may be the best team in NBA history, the Cavaliers are in disarray.

After back-to-back victories seemingly right the ship for the Cavaliers, the organization does the unthinkable and terminates Blatt’s contract just four days after the team’s disastrous Monday night performance against the Warriors. In an even more fascinating move, the team immediately promotes the league’s highest-paid assistant, Tyronn Lue, to head coach on a permanent basis. Blatt leaves the team at 30-11 and on pace for an even 60 wins; however, it’s not enough for him to keep his job. Lue is regarded as a more assertive force on the bench for the Cavaliers; one of Blatt’s main problems was his allowing James to essentially coach the team during huddles and timeouts. Lue is put in place in part to regain control of the team from LeBron, but the move is still a massive risk, especially right in the middle of the regular season.

Ironically, on the same day Blatt is fired, Kerr returns to the sidelines for the Warriors. Walton reverts to his role as Kerr’s top assistant, having gone 39-4 in his stewardship of the NBA’s best team. Kerr’s comeback provides an emotional lift for the Warriors, and in his first game coaching the team in the 2015-16 season, Golden State defeats the Indiana Pacers 122-110. Two symbols of the Warriors’ farcical domination over the NBA come in the first half; Curry drills a 70-foot shot after the first quarter buzzer that does not count but still electrifies the Oracle Arena crowd. At the end of the second quarter, Curry fires a 48-foot shot that beats the buzzer and goes in off the glass. It is Curry’s 200th three-pointer of the season, and with his circus shot, he becomes the first player in NBA history to hit 200 threes in four straight seasons.

The Warriors’ domination over the NBA is slowly turning to demolition, and it seems the real point of the regular season is to find out whether or not the team can break the Bulls’ wins record.

Meanwhile, in northeast Ohio, the Cavaliers adapt to Lue’s insistence on increased pace and floor spacing. Cleveland earns two five-game winning streaks in the span of just under a month but loses three out of four after the All-Star break. The team, though, is responding to Lue; during a huddle at one point in the regular season, Lue tells James to “shut the f— up”, and it’s clear that the coach is controlling the huddle, even if his players use him as a towel rack during media timeouts.

The main story in the league, though, is still Golden State’s dominance. The Warriors are 52-5, with all five losses coming on the road, heading into a nationally-televised matchup in Oklahoma City against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder. Golden State needs to win 21 of its last 25 games be the greatest regular-season team of all time, and games like this one could go a long way towards deciding their fate.

The Thunder lead the game by 11 points at halftime, and early in the third quarter, Curry turns his ankle driving to the basket. (He would later return to the game.) The Thunder, though, look to be the better team on this night, and they lead 96-85 with 4:51 to play. And then, the Steph Curry show commences.

Curry scores eight points in the span of two minutes to help bring the Warriors within three. A Durant three, though, with 15 seconds to play puts Oklahoma City up four. A quick Klay Thompson layup is followed by a Durant turnover. Iguodala attempts a jump shot to tie the game a force overtime; while the shot misses, Iguodala is fouled by Durant with 0.6 seconds left. Iguodala, who goes on to shoot just 61% from the free throw line for the season, makes both free throws, and a Durant miss at the other end necessitates an extra five minutes.

In the overtime, the Thunder find themselves with a late lead once again. And once again, the Warriors come back, as a Thompson and-one layup and free throw tie the game at 118 with 30 seconds left. A Westbrook miss gives the ball back to Golden State with just seconds to play. Instead of taking a timeout, the Warriors play out the final few seconds of the game with Curry dribbling up the floor. Curry pulls up from 32 feet and drills a game-winning three; his shot beats the Thunder, breaks NBA Twitter, and spawns a double “BANG!” call from longtime broadcaster Mike Breen. The Warriors win the game to improbably go to 53-5 and maintain pace with the 95-96 Bulls. This game turns out to be the best in the NBA regular season and is the seminal moment in the Warriors’ quest for 73 wins. Curry finishes the night with 46 points and 12 made threes, tying the single-game NBA record. Also in this game, Curry breaks his own NBA record with his 287th three-pointer of the season, one he hit halfway through the overtime period. He is still on pace to hit over 400 threes for the year.

The Warriors do not suffer a letdown after the thriller in Oklahoma City, as they win nine of their next ten games. Their only loss in this span is a Sunday afternoon loss to the hapless Lakers in Los Angeles. Their next loss comes on the road at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, the team many believe Golden State will have to go through to win the Western Conference. Unbelievably, the Spurs are also perfect at home for the season and move to 59-10 after the victory. The Warriors fall to 62-7 with the loss; for as historic as their performance has been to this point in the season, they are just three games ahead of San Antonio for the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. While everyone has been enthralled with their run at history, they will need to fend off the Spurs to hold on to home-court advantage.

The Warriors win their next six games before a home matchup with the Celtics on April 1. The Celtics lead for the entire fourth quarter and hang on to win 109-106 to deliver the Warriors their first home loss of the season. The next Tuesday, April 5, Golden State surrenders their second home loss of the year to the 26-52 Minnesota Timberwolves. The quest for 73 is clearly wearing on them, and the home loss is their ninth of the year. At 69-9, Golden State must win their final four games, two games each against the Spurs and Grizzlies to break the Bulls’ long-standing record.

In the first of the two San Antonio tilts, Golden State defends their home floor with a 112-101 victory. This win clinches them home-court advantage through the entire NBA Playoffs and brings them to within three wins of the record. On Saturday, April 9, the Warriors play in Memphis and are pushed to the limit. A Draymond Green basket with a minute left puts Golden State up 100-99, and the Warriors hang on in the final minute to beat Memphis and keep their hopes of reaching the milestone alive.

Their next game against the Spurs is in San Antonio on April 10; a Warriors win would tie them with Chicago for the wins record. The Warriors lead for most of the second half and stave off a late charge from San Antonio to win the game by a score of 92-86. The loss is San Antonio’s first regular season home defeat; the Spurs had won their first 39 home contests. The Warriors end their streak and earn a chance to break the record on their home floor against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 13, a full three days after their win in San Antonio.

Even though the Grizzlies pushed the Warriors four days prior to the final game of the season, Golden State’s last test in their quest for history turns out to be anticlimactic. A shorthanded Memphis squad is no match for the Warriors’ high-flying offense, and Golden State hangs 70 points in 24 minutes to take a 20-point lead into the half. The Warriors never look back and coast to a 125-104 victory, their 73rd of a historic 2015-16 season. The Warriors become the winningest regular-season team in NBA history; even more impressively, they never lose back-to-back games over the course of five and a half months of basketball. Curry makes 10 threes to finish the year with a whopping 402 three-pointers and over five made threes per game. He is going to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award when the winner is announced in May.

The Cavaliers finish their season with significantly less fanfare; Lue goes 27-14 as head coach and the Cavaliers finish at 57-25 to secure the top seed in a traditionally weak Eastern Conference. Their main challengers in the East are the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat; these two teams will meet in the second round of the playoffs if they win their first-round series against the Pacers and Hornets, respectively.

The Cavaliers look like the best team in the East while the Warriors appear to be the best team in the NBA. Will the two teams meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals? Or will challengers ascend to the throne and knock off one or both teams in the Playoffs

Path to a Trilogy, Chapter IV: Don’t Forget About Dre

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Welcome to Chapter IV of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter IV, we take a closer look at the 2015 NBA Finals, one in which the Cavaliers endured injuries to key players while the Warriors struggle to put the ailing and shorthanded Cavs away. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter IV of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Going into the 2015 NBA Finals, much is made about the point guard matchup between Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. Many believe that the series could hinge on this important battle, but Irving will not be at 100% because of left knee tendonitis that kept him out of part of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Warriors are a slight favorite, but the Cavaliers have the best player on the floor and the best player on planet Earth: LeBron James.

Both teams have a week off before the Finals, and early on in Game 1, it shows. The two offenses combine to shoot just 35.5% in the first quarter, at the end of which the Cavaliers lead 29-19. The Warriors rebound in the second quarter and pull the score to within three points at halftime. The main story is becoming the other-worldly performance of James, who has 19 points at the half. The Warriors use 18 points from their bench to get back in the game in the second quarter, speaking to their appropriate “Strength in Numbers” slogan.

The Cavaliers and Warriors start to find their rhythm in the third quarter, and the game is tied at 73 heading into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter turns out to be just like the first three, with neither team able to gain control. Game 1 is setting the stage for a potentially classic NBA Finals, one replete with star power and fascinating storylines. Two made free throws from Cavaliers center Timofey Mogzov tie the game at 98 with 32 seconds left, but the Warriors have possession with a chance to take the lead. The Warriors run a play that allows Curry to get past Irving and drive to the basket. Keep in mind, Irving is playing with left knee soreness and, while he scores 23 points in regulation, is clearly not fully healthy. And yet, somehow, someway, he is able to make up ground on Curry and block his layup attempt against the backboard.

On the Cavs’ next possession, James takes a stepback three from the wing and misses. A desperation attempt from Iman Shumpert very nearly goes in at the buzzer, but the Warriors get the stop and overtime is necessary to decide Game 1. James’ 42 regulation points are not enough to will Cleveland over the finish line.

Curry scores the first four points of the overtime, all on free throws. With just over two minutes left in the game, Irving drives on Klay Thompson, loses his footing, and fractures his left kneecap, the same knee that caused him trouble in earlier rounds of the Playoffs. Harrison Barnes hits a three on the next possession to put the Warriors up by a score of 105-98. The Cavs are sunk in Game 1, but the concern shifts to Irving’s injury. It is announced the next day that Irving will have surgery and miss the rest of the NBA Finals. Many see the injury as a soul-crushing blow to the Cavaliers, as James is the only member of the “Big Three” the Warriors have to contend with defensively. The main defender on James in Game 1 is Andre Iguodala, and he makes LeBron work the hardest out of any of the Warriors’ best defenders. Iguodala also pours in 15 points on the offensive end, including two three-pointers. He is quite possibly the MVP of the game for Golden State.

Game 2 takes place three days after Game 1, giving the Cavs and head coach David Blatt two days off to game plan for life after Kyrie Irving. Matthew Dellavedova, the author of just nineteen starts before this game, will start at point guard for the Cavaliers; he is tasked with the responsibility of guarding Curry. The matchup appears to be lopsided, but Dellavedova’s main strength is his defensive effort.

Sure enough, his defense helps the Cavaliers in Game 2. Dellavedova hounds Curry all night and forces him into one of his worst performances of the season. The Cavaliers’ style of play is reminiscent of what was common in the NBA in the 1990s, as isolation and late-shot-clock attempts rule the day for Blatt’s offense. The plan of slowing down the game and letting James work in isolation sets is working, and a LeBron three puts Cleveland up 83-72 with 3:14 to go. The Warriors chip away at the deficit and, on their last possession in regulation, Curry hits a scoop layup to tie the game at 87. On the Cavs’ final possession, James, instead of taking a deep three like he did at the end of Game 1, tries to drive past Iguodala. He misses a contested layup over several defenders, and the game heads into overtime, marking the first time ever that the first two games of the Finals went into an extra period.

Once again, a superhuman regulation performance from LeBron James (36 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) is not enough to beat the Warriors. In overtime, the two teams go back and forth, and the Warriors take a one-point lead on two Curry free throws with 30 seconds left. On the ensuing Cavs possession, LeBron James and James Jones both miss shots, but Dellavedova is fouled going for an offensive rebound on Jones’ three-point attempt. He makes both free throws to put the Cavaliers up 94-93. Curry airballs a stepback jumper on the next possession, and James splits a pair of free throws to put Cleveland up two. With no timeouts, the Warriors must push the ball up the floor with just four seconds left. Curry turns it over, and the Cavaliers tie the series at one game apiece. The series heads back to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. James finishes with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists on 11-of-35 shooting from the field. Curry, the 2015 league MVP, finishes with 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Dellavedova is the hero of Game 2, but can he continue to help the Cavs in subsequent games?

In Game 3, that answer is an emphatic yes. His defensive energy and penetration, combined with the overall brilliance of James, carry Cleveland to a 68-48 lead late in the third quarter. The Warriors, though, begin to figure out some things in the fourth quarter with a lineup centered around unlikely facilitator and backup power forward David Lee. The Warriors bring the lead down to one when Curry hits a three with 2:46 to play in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, a wild Dellavedova shot goes in; the Aussie was fouled on the play and made the free throw to extend the lead to four. The crowd at Quicken Loans Arena later chants “Delly” as his unexpected 20-point performance helps the Cavs to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The real star, though, is James, who scores 40 points, grabs 12 rebounds, and dishes out eight assists in the victory; LeBron plays a whopping 46 minutes in Game 3.

The wear and tear on the Cavaliers is starting to show, however; cameras catch a fatigued James holding the basketball for over five seconds after the final buzzer sounds in Game 3. A more tangible sign of Cleveland’s exhaustion is Dellavedova’s hospitalization for extreme cramping after the game; the cramping would not affect him enough to keep him from playing in Game 4, but the damage has been done.

The Cavaliers’ model of winning is to have James play at an all-time great level and have the supporting cast make enough shots around him to win. That model begins to fail the Cavaliers in Game 4. While James is good, he makes just seven of his 22 shots in 40 minutes. The other part of the problem is that the Warriors are better in this game, as well; Curry contributes 22 points while Iguodala adds another 22 in his first start of the season. Instead of starting traditional center Andrew Bogut, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr decides to start their so-called “death lineup”, with the 6’7″ Draymond Green playing the center spot normally occupied by the seven-foot-tall Bogut. This is the lineup that the Warriors use at the end of their games and the one that carried them to victory in overtime of Game 1, and Kerr rolls the dice with it to start Game 4.

The decision pays off. The five starters combine for 84 of the team’s 103 points en route to a 103-82 victory. The Cavaliers close the game to 73-70 near the end of the third quarter, but a 17-5 Golden State run spanning the third and fourth quarters is too much for the Cavaliers to overcome. After his stellar performance in Game 3, Dellavedova shoots 3-for-14 from the field, bench flamethrower J.R. Smith goes 2-of-12, and the team combines to shoot just 33% in what would be their worst offensive performance of the series. The surprising standout of this one for the Warriors is Shaun Livingston, who earns a +25 figure in just 24 minutes of playing time. He adds in seven points, eight rebounds, and four assists, and his presence stabilizes the second unit in the win. Golden State’s hero, though, is Iguodala, who, in his first start of the season, guards James for most of the game and forces him into his worst performance of the series. The series is even at two games apiece heading back to Golden State for a critical Game 5.

In Game 5, the stars arrive for both teams. In the first half, James scores 16 points while Curry drops in 15 to lead the Golden State effort. The Warriors lead 51-50 at halftime, but seven first-half threes from Smith, Shumpert, and Mike Miller help the Cavs keep pace. The Warriors stretch the lead to six at the end of the third, but the Cavaliers come back to take an 80-79 lead on a parking lot three from James with 7:48 to play in regulation. Curry counters at the other end with a three on the next possession. The Warriors expand their lead with five straight points, including a circus layup, from Iguodala. They lead by seven points with just under three minutes left when Curry crosses over Dellavedova and hits a stepback three over him. The play sends the internet into a frenzy and becomes the signature moment of the 2015 NBA Finals. Curry finishes the game with 37 points and seven made threes. 17 of his 37 points come in the fourth quarter.

James’ stat line indicates yet another stellar performance: 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists. His team, for as great as he has been, finds itself down three games to two in the NBA Finals.

Game 6 is back in Cleveland just two days after Game 5. Early on, the Warriors look like the far superior team, charging out to a 28-15 lead after one quarter. It is becoming increasingly obvious that James will need far more help than he’s getting if the Cavaliers are to win Game 6 and, for that matter, an NBA championship. The Cavaliers close the gap to two points before halftime and even take a 47-45 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Warriors are just too much for the banged-up Cavaliers to handle. Golden State pulls away in the third quarter and leads by as much as 15 points before it ends. A LeBron James dunk pulls Cleveland within seven points with just over ten minutes left in the game, but the Warriors expand their lead after that behind the shared offensive efforts of Curry, Iguodala, and Livingston. The Cavaliers never get within one possession of Golden State’s lead, and the Warriors coast to the franchise’s first championship since 1975 behind 25 points in Game 6 from Curry and Iguodala. James finished the game with 32 points on 13-of-33 shooting.

The individual performances of the players in this series create a new dilemma; who will win NBA Finals MVP? James is clearly the best player in the series, having logged nearly 46 minutes, over 35 points, and 13 rebounds per game. The Warriors’ two candidates for the award are Curry and Iguodala; while Curry has the better numbers over six games, Iguodala’s insertion into the starting lineup helped turn the series around for the struggling Warriors. The award ultimately goes to Iguodala, who is praised for guarding James for most of the series, even though James still thrived offensively when guarded by the Finals MVP.

Many argue that the Cavaliers would have won this series had they been fully healthy, but we will never know. Can Cleveland get Irving and Love back to form to take another run at the championship next year? Or will the Warriors’ dominance continue in the 2015-16 season?