LeBron James came up limping. Nearly 10 minutes remained in Cleveland's imminent 117–104 Game 1 win over Boston when James drove and rose to find Isaiah Thomas clutching at his waist. The game itself had been decided in the opening minutes, if not earlier; the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket had collapsed when James and the Cavs opted not to bide their time, treating every one of their series as a potential sweep. They are thus far undefeated in nine games, mirroring the lossless Warriors on the other side of the league. “I don't think we even played that great tonight,” James would later say, following a game in which his team led by 28 points.
This is the year of the playoff formality, but let's not forget: LeBron James came up limping. He nearly converted the shot that sent him to the floor, and in classic LeBron fashion, he sprung up as quickly as he could. But this time, he bounced gingerly. Every step with his left leg was a strain—the kind that makes viewers search a player's face for a twinge of something. Many injuries have tells. They can be toughest to hide in the immediate aftermath, when there is no way for a player to anticipate or compensate. The camera stayed with LeBron as he walked his way through it—a searching look down, a slight grimace—and eventually the nuisance of the fall seemed to subside.
Through three rounds, these have been the least competitive playoffs in modern NBA history. Even some of the more balanced series have been a procession of blowouts—all held for the ceremonial honor of eventually losing to Cleveland or Golden State. Those two prohibitive favorites are hurtling toward a third straight NBA finals. One could see their trajectory in October. That an outcome is the most likely does not make it meaningless; even if we knew which teams would likely play in the Finals all along, their getting there seals a three-year epic. A best-of-21 series. What the Cavs and Warriors share isn’t so much a rivalry as a saga—a rich narrative arc given time to develop to its fullest. Considering what’s at stake, is there really so much harm in a little inevitability?
Great things come at expense. The expense for a third bout between the Warriors and Cavs appears to be the rest of the playoffs. This is what hangs in the air when James comes up limping—or, for that matter, whenever Stephen Curry takes a spill. Both of these teams are so great as to virtually guarantee their return ticket. All that might derail them is injury, itself an artificial source of parity. Would these playoffs be more competitive if Kevin Durant was still sidelined? Surely. Would the Celtics stand a better chance if James’s limp had stayed with him for a game or two? Undoubtedly. But all of this—beyond being a drag in the most basic sense—serves only to challenge the best possible outcome. Were even a healthy Cavs or Warriors team upset by some situational advantage, was there any team more interesting for them to meet in the Finals than one another?
Predictability can be acceptable for the sake of backstory. It would be regrettable if the Cavs didn’t have a proper chance to defend their title. It would be a great shame if the Warriors didn’t have a chance to chase off the ghost of their blown 3–1 lead. The want for a little more early-round intrigue is understandable, but the NBA has had its share of anticlimax. It has seen the “We Believe” Warriors casually ushered out of the playoffs in the same year that the Cavs (and a young LeBron) were plainly outclassed in the Finals. This year, it has unquestionably saved the best for last because the Warriors and Cavs have made all else feel small. These games are a means to an end.
That end is the only context in which LeBron could be an underdog. It is the culmination of three years of veiled commentary, unresolved angst, and decorated cookies. It pits what might be the most talented team the league has ever seen against a history-defying champion in its own right. It is an occasion draped in LeBron’s legacy but nothing less than essential to Curry’s and Durant’s. The process of getting there is less thrilling than usual, but so it goes when the two sensational teams refine their rosters and processes over a three-year term.
This is the season we were treated to the rampage of Russell Westbrook, the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the incomprehensible rebound of the Miami Heat. Nothing in these playoffs could possibly invalidate those things. The ease with which the Warriors and Cavs have found their way doesn’t change the rapture of Isaiah Thomas in the fourth quarter. It doesn’t erase the vision of Kawhi Leonard in full takeover. All it does is fulfill that most likely, most resonant outcome—to return two adversarial powerhouses to the stage where they belong.