The funny thing about sports -- and about life, really -- is that we sometimes don't realize that what we are watching is not, in fact, the culmination of every thread and storyline, every second we've invested emotionally and intellectually into this silly game of men running around in their pajamas, every subplot and talking point leading to this: The Big Game. Every moment of your life is prologue, because the world stubbornly keeps on going, refusing to hew itself to all your existing narratives. In a year, everything you're worried about will seem quaint, almost hazy, because all your worries of today will be replaced by all new worries. In the long run, it's all just stuff that happened a long time ago.
The NBA Finals (which is the championship of professional basketball, a sport in which 2017 playoff games were played in olden times, decades and decades ago) begin Thursday, and the series is, of course, a rematch of the last two NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors (who won in 2015) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (who won in 2016). At the time that each of those series were played, both seemed like the most monumental series imaginable.
The first one featured a glorious, almost revolutionary Warriors team -- back when you all loved Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and even Draymond Green -- temporarily brought to its knees by LeBron James and 11 short guys named Matt. Eventually the Cavaliers succumbed, but you came away with greater respect for both the Warriors and LeBron James. It felt like the best possible series.
But last year's matchup was the pinnacle. The Warriors, the team with the best regular-season record of all time, breezed through the Cavs to take a 3-1 lead. But then Green got himself suspended for a game, the tide turned, and then it all exploded in the most riveting story this side of the Cubs winning the World Series. LeBron won Cleveland a championship; the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead; life is an infinitely rich pageant. How could it possibly get better than this?
Now, though, we have a third series. And suddenly you see some wrinkles and flaws in those past two series. The Warriors' win did feel a little less definitive because it was against LeBron without any of his weapons. (No offense to all the Matts.) And you know, last year's was a little off too, now that you mention it. Stephen Curry was injured, first off, and the Green suspension was strange, and, perhaps more than anything, for all the talk of "The Block" and Kevin Love's defense and the "LeBron Jam That Could Have Been," the last three-plus minutes of Game 7 last year were not, in fact, particularly pleasant to watch. Seriously, watch the last 3:39 of this game.
You have Kyrie Irving's (amazing) three-pointer, you have LeBron hitting the back free throw and you have … clank after clank after clank. The Cavs missed open shots, the Warriors missed open shots, everyone looks exhausted. That was not the pinnacle of what these two great teams could do. That was ugly. At the time, watching it live, it was so taut and intense that it felt overwhelming, like we were seeing the most thrilling NBA Finals Game 7 ever. But now? Now it just looks kind of disheveled, with LeBron's brilliant dunk and Irving's lunatic three-pointer breaking up the slop.
But that's the beauty of a third series: We might get to fix all that. That now just looks like preamble for this.
The greatest thing about a third Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals, particularly this version of these two teams, is that there are no actual bad outcomes. What's the worst-case scenario of these Finals? It's probably the Warriors stomping the Cavaliers, sweeping them out in four games, right? This would be another cudgel with which to bludgeon Kevin Durant and the NBA superstar structure, when one all-timer joins the best team in the league as a way to essentially secure itself a title; it would give (mild) credence to those who claimed that the minute Durant chose the Warriors last Fourth of July weekend, we already knew who the 2016-17 NBA champion would be. It would, not secondarily, also lead to a cataclysm of takes about the supposed deficiencies of the greatest player of this generation. This would be the most disappointing way these Finals could turn out.
And you know what? This would still be amazing. It'd be fantastic and historic. The Warriors -- in the midst of an NBA renaissance featuring the highest level of individual and team play we have seen in decades -- will have gone undefeated in the playoffs. 16-0! That has never been done: The 2001 Lakers and the 1983 76ers each lost one game, and those two teams came the closest. The Warriors would have the most popular player in the NBA (still), the most visually pleasant style in the game, with an inner-circle Hall of Famer in Durant winning his first title. They will have finished off the best playoff run ever, against the best competition, and they will have done all of it (or almost all of it) without their head coach. We would talk about what the Warriors did these past two months of playoffs for decades.
That's the worst-case scenario. Every other scenario is terrific.
- The series goes seven games? Terrific.
- The series goes six games, allowing us another trip back to Cleveland, where the Cavs are either trying to win a series at home or make one last stand to defend their title at home? Terrific.
- The Warriors win despite a Herculean turn from LeBron James? Terrific.
- The Cavaliers defend their title against the great Warriors plus Durant? This wouldn't just be terrific, this would be the definitive achievement of LeBron's career, the one thing he'd be remembered for, the one thing it's difficult to imagine anyone else on the planet ever doing, not Jordan, not Magic, not anyone. (Note: It feels like we say "this is the definitive LeBron achievement" every year).
There's just no way this series can't be worth the wait. There is no downside. Every scenario feels more vital, richer, more textured than what came before. This is the benefit of a series rematch, a rubber match, all the different characters and plotlines coming together, more urgent than ever before. No matter what happens in the NBA Finals, we'll get the best we can possibly get. This is the pinnacle.
Until next year, when we get to do it again, when it's Warriors-Cavaliers IV, and we look back at 2017 and wonder why we were so excited back then, considering we now get this to watch.
Subscribe to Will's weekly newsletter and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org