The 2015 NBA Finals and the roller coaster of opinion
By Matt Zemek
It could be that the volatile nature of both public and media opinion on the 2015 NBA Finals is a product of modernity and, more specifically, of the relentless nature of the sports-media news cycle. Each new year, it seems that the pressure to say something strong — and preferably before anyone else says it — intensifies to a considerable extent.
Yet, it seems that opinions have enjoyed a very short shelf life in these Finals, more than in previous editions of the NBA’s championship series.
Before these Finals began, the majority opinion was that Golden State was in an entirely different league compared to Cleveland. Warriors in six games represented a majority opinion of national writers and pundits, taking into account any seven-game series predictions or any “Cavs in 6″ picks as well.
Following Game 1, a tidal wave of opinion flooded the Internet and the broadcast airwaves, saying that without Kyrie Irving, Cleveland had little to no chance despite controlling most of Game 1 and playing it on its preferred terms.
Then Game 2 happened, and suddenly, Dellavedova was thrust squarely into the center of the national sports spotlight. “The series could be, should be, 2-0 Cleveland,” said a noticeable number of people in social media forums. That’s what dictating the tempo of two straight road games in Oakland will do for a narrative after a victory. Had Cleveland thrown away Game 2 — it came perilously close to doing so, thanks to J.R. Smith — we wouldn’t be sitting here with a best-of-three series that has proved to be supremely fascinating, though not elegantly played.
As well as Delly played in Game 2, though, he went one step better in Game 3, making a difference with his offense as well as his defense and his knack for chasing down the 50-50 ball. A 20-point outing capped by a pivotal three-point play with 2:27 left pushed Cleveland into the series lead at 2-1.
“Steve Kerr is getting outcoached! He needs to figure something out for Game 4!”
When the flow of a series isn’t going well for a team expected by most to win, the coach becomes a convenient target, even though the NBA is widely acknowledged as a player’s league and a make-or-miss league. Golden State wasn’t hitting enough uncontested jumpers, and the combination of Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes was neither engaged in the Warriors’ halfcourt offense nor decisive in looking for opportunities to score.
Then Game 4 happened, and what do you hear now — perhaps not exclusively, but enough to saturate the airwaves?
“Series over! Golden State has figured things out. The Cavs are spent. Dellavedova’s overrated, as we all knew he was. Cleveland’s just not that good. This is where the Cavs need Kyrie. Oh, and David Blatt needs to use his bench.”
Is anyone else suffering from a case of whiplash? I’m trying to massage my neck and upper back right now, just thinking about all these abrupt swerves and turns in the realm of public opinion.
Everyone has an opinion and a right to one, but it’s worth noting the following point about opinions: They’re generally better when expressed in measured tones with sensible parameters. They are easier to accept when leavened by tempering statements and qualifiers.
The wild shifts in opinion we’ve seen over the past week are rooted in the initial expectations established for this series. Golden State was placed as such a clear favorite despite the fact that not one Warrior player had ever competed in the Finals before. Golden State had played ample amounts of nerve-addled basketball in previous playoff rounds and moved through without need of a Game 7 because of opponents’ injuries (Memphis) or key breaks (James Harden’s turnover at the end of Game 2 in the West Finals versus Houston). It’s not as though Draymond Green had shot three-pointers with great confidence or accuracy against Memphis and Houston. It’s not as though Golden State was thriving as a jump-shooting team against the Rockets (at least in contests other than Game 3). Yet, the Warriors were given the clear benefit of the doubt in the Finals, with the underlying suggestion being that a Cleveland win would be wildly improbable. That might feel like an overstatement to some, and if you picked a seven-game series either way, or Cavs in six, you would have every right to feel justified in contesting that claim.
Precisely because of the pre-series expectations for Cavs-Warriors, the tenor of opinion surrounding the series shifted as soon as the Cavs established an ability to consistently control the tempo and style of play. There was such profound cognitive dissonance between what most pundits thought would happen and what actually happened in Oakland. The Delly-in, Kyrie-out scenario most commentators thought was such a fatal blow to the Cavs instead turned out to be the very thing that enabled Cleveland to rest its hopes on its defense. The Cavs used their defense to thoroughly flummox Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes for several quarters in a row. The decisiveness with which Cleveland kept Golden State under wraps created a sense of panic about the Warriors’ situation and their next move before Game 4.
The confounding of expectations at every turn — we’ve seen it from game to game in this series — has been conducive to wild swings in opinion. After all, this is a series in which Dellavedova and David Lee have made huge contributions to their teams, and both Timofey Mozgov and Andre Iguodala are one of the two best players on the floor for their respective sides (Iguodala being the best player so far for the Warriors).
Full disclosure here: While I thought that Delly would make the Cavs a better defensive team, I did not expect Cleveland to be at 2-2 through four games without one vintage J.R. Smith 30-point game on seven three-point shots. While I thought Game 1 was likely to be the most important game of the series (and Golden State’s ability to steal it could still wind up being decisive in the end), I also thought Game 3 was the Cleveland game Golden State needed to win, since LeBron had just played 50 minutes in the 53-minute second game of the series. Game 4 blew that inclination out of the water.
I’ve been right about a few things in this series and wrong about a lot more things. That’s the reality of opinion-giving — you’re going to be wrong a lot, and putting forth opinions is just an accepted part of a very imperfect science. However, as often as opinions will be wrong, I’d like to think that in a 2-2 series with more plot twists than an Agatha Christie whodunit, we can refrain from being overly certain about how this series is going to end.
It’s OK to have an opinion, a set of inclinations and a prediction that flows from both. What needs to decrease in these hours before Game 5 is an insistence on the outcome, a fixed idea of what’s about to happen. This series has defied the conventional wisdom far too frequently for this final week — and these final three games (perhaps only two) — to be shoehorned into the realm of certainty. Let’s also ease up on players when they show us that they are (surprise!) mortal and imperfect.
LeBron James can’t be Superman every night (not with the minutes he’s played, at any rate).
Delly can’t be the Heroic Role Player every night.
Stephen Curry, as great as he is, can’t win this series alone.
Expectations for these players have to be restrained and kept within reasonable limits.
Perhaps most important of all, don’t expect two teams that are largely new to the NBA Finals to handle this series the way the 2014 Spurs or the 2013 Heat managed to do. That’s probably the biggest epiphany to emerge from these pendulum swings of public commentary on the 2015 NBA Finals.
Tim Duncan, D-Wade, Manu, Bosh, Parker, Ray Allen — we grew comfortable seeing these players in June and had a history with them. We don’t have well-developed histories with the 2015 Warriors and the 2015 Cavaliers (other than LeBron) in the month of June. Therefore, it seems as though wishes and hopes are more urgently being projected on each player.
Game 5 of a 2-2 NBA Finals awaits. We’ll see if opinions can be held in check this time … but don’t count on it.
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