This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
It's not true that the NBA Finals changed irrevocably at the moment that Draymond Green socked LeBron James in the wiener during Game 4. Or...anyway, it is probably not true that the NBA Finals changed irrevocably at that moment. Things were changing before the wiener-socking in question, and things have continued to change after that. Those things can, if you are so inclined, be seen as happening in such a way as to support the conclusion that the NBA Finals changed irrevocably at the moment that Draymond Green socked LeBron James in the wiener. That is true. But it is probably not true that the NBA Finals changed irrevocably at the moment that Draymond Green socked LeBron James in the wiener. So pick a moment, then.
It's when the Warriors lost Andrew Bogut in Game 5. It's when the Cavaliers dumpster-dived their way into a passable Death Lineup of their own when they plugged in Richard Jefferson for the concussed Kevin Love. It's Draymond Green's getting in his feelings or it's Stephen Curry's wounded knee or it's LeBron's ability to switch on screens or it's the benevolent cosmic protection of Chance The Rapper. In one game the difference objectively was Kyrie Irving, but that's more of a one-game thing. Otherwise, we're still chasing it.
It's a stretch to attach concrete causality to the wiener-socking incident, just as it is to any single one of the things above. But this is the time of year when we stretch, and when otherwise reasonable people say things like "the NBA Finals changed irrevocably" with comparatively straight faces, and then earnestly put their otherwise reasonable brains to work trying to pin down the moment when that happened. We attach causality to heat-of-the-moment dick-punches, both literally and metaphorically. This is a stupid thing to do, mostly, and almost always wrong, but also there are only so many ways to respond to the unraveling of what seemed to be a fact.
Or not unraveling, really, so much as complicating. The ex-fact in question is the earned inevitability of the Golden State Warriors; the complication, against the Cleveland Cavaliers as it was against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, is that the Warriors still have to earn it. The Warriors have spent most of the last two seasons playing a fluid, futuristic, multiply startling version of basketball, and for much of that time the question seemed to be which other team could figure out how to play that style first, or at least manage a temporary antidote for it. That would happen...at some point down the line, eventually, probably, and would happen through some combination of sufficiently brilliant superstars and a complimentary collection of versatile gangliness and three-point shooters, judiciously deployed. The actual recipe was still very much TBD.
This conversation was, necessarily, sort of abstract. That's mostly because it seemed abstract; there seemed to be a great deal of work left to be done, and it seemed reasonable to assume that the Warriors would continue to style and grin and generally beat everyone's asses until someone figured out how to get them to stop. So maybe another season from now. Maybe two. Or maybe they really do add Kevin Durant to the roster and it never happens and the NBA evolves into some sort of And-1 Tour barnstorming concern, with the Warriors touring the country kicking local team's collective dicks in while strangers high-five each other and Mike Breen roams the court making up nicknames and howling BANG into a cordless mic. Anyway, as mentioned earlier: abstract. It seemed like there was time to figure all this out. And then suddenly it's Game 7, and the future is just about here.
It's astonishing enough that the Cleveland Cavaliers have flipped the balance in a series that appeared to be cruising at precisely the posted speed limit towards a five-game Gentleman's Sweep. It's more astonishing still that they have put the Warriors on the defensive and utterly melted their team-spanning vibe of smuggish Olympian chill by playing something very much like Golden State's own game. Because of how depleted the Cavs were by the time the Finals began, and because the Warriors were still in the first supernova flare, last season's NBA Finals felt like a watershed—for all the heroics of LeBron's single-minded and effectively single-handed labors, the series felt explicitly like the end of one era and the beginning of another.
LeBron has always been a revolution unto himself, simply through his sheer unprecedented LeBron-ness. The Warriors took his team apart in a way that was somehow both methodical and whimsical; they made an epochal talent who is still in the last years of his prime look antique. Or not quite that, because LeBron, even backed into playing an uncharacteristically brutal style, still dominated the series. It was more that the Warriors, skipping and glitching and playing their giddy protean game, made the greatest basketball player of his and maybe any era seem insignificant. LeBron did everything he could, which is everything. But what he could do no longer looked sufficient.
In retrospect, it was obviously unwise to draw conclusions from that series. Not about the Warriors, necessarily—they really are great, and they really are playing a visionary version of basketball that the rest of the league will spend years trying to figure out—but about LeBron. The strangest thing about LeBron's brilliance has always been that it flourishes most in collaboration, as opposed to isolation. James dragged some otherwise shitty Cavaliers teams to the NBA Finals during his first stint with the team, because he was great enough to do it; he did the same trick last year with a team that was, by the tipoff of Game 2, more bereft of talent than any NBA Finals team in history. But what James did at his best in Miami, and what he has done in these Finals, is more representative of how he plays when he's at his singular best, and when he's playing the most like himself. He plays within the flow of the game even as he commands it, and it's as uncanny as it sounds.
He did everything in last year's Finals, too, but there was a Sisyphusean grimness to it that didn't fit. To see James doing what he's done in these Finals—attack the rim with righteous violence, and defend it with purpose and, after Draymond's cup-check, a certain imperiousness—is to be reminded not just of what he can do, but that he is still the future. Not in the sense that the basketball players of the future will look or play like him; they are not making new LeBrons, not for another generation or so, anyway. Just in the sense that any possible future for the league will have to go through LeBron in order to become reality.
That is Golden State's challenge now, and it only feels like a step back because it already seemed like the matter had been settled; blazing through the NBA Playoffs and following it with a 73-win season tends to lend that impression. However this series ends up, it still seems likely that the Warriors are the revolution, both as a model and as a team. It is not their fault that various triumphalists up and down the line started talking about the team as if they were already a dynasty, and spinning their brilliance to fit their own stories about what the future will look like, and who will own it. It would be the Warriors fault if they believed it, and the last two games do not appear to have disabused them of that.
But the Warriors are not a #disruptive product. They are a brilliant basketball team. Golden State's venture capitalist owner seems to see his team as Basketball Technology—the slack-free result of a refined system built to exploit existing weaknesses and inefficiencies. For all the ways in which that presently seems wrong, the most obvious is that it sells the Warriors short; they are something much more interesting than that. They are a modular system that changes with its component parts; they're not star-driven, although their stars are important, so much as they are a symbiotic unit that's designed around the strengths of the constituent parts. They're a collective, and the Warriors' strength—beyond the virtuoso shooting of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, beyond Draymond Green's kamikaze will or Andre Iguodala's versatility—is their dynamism, the way that the team changes shape from moment to moment to best serve the talents that make it go. It would not be surprising if the future looked like that; it would be nice if it did, because that is some fun basketball to watch. This, finally, is the reason why it seems so supremely silly to be looking for The Moment That Everything Changed. It hasn't happened yet.
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