By Jason Keidel
The clip has been on endless loop. Kawhi Leonard rises for a jumper from the corner against Zaza Pachulia, who keeps inching toward Leonard, even after the ball leaves his hands. Leonard lands on Pachulia’s foot, his tender ankle snapping sideways before he crumbles to the hardwood.
Did Pachulia do this knowing there was a good chance this would happen? Quite likely. Can we prove it? We can’t.
Spurs fans take solace in asserting that San Antonio was blowing the doors off the Warriors up to that moment, their lead bulging to 22 points before Leonard’s injury. Since then, the Warriors have outscored the Spurs by 61 points (194-133) in five-plus quarters.
It’s impossible to say with certainty that the Spurs would or even could win the Western Conference finals with Leonard on the court. It’s probably safe to say they would be tied 1-1 going back to Texas for Game 3. Now, we don’t even know if Leonard will even play in Game 3.
At the risk of making clashing conclusions, both Warriors fans and Spurs fans have a point. This could easily be a six or seven-game series with a healthy Leonard. But if the Spurs’ entire prospects ride on his brittle ankle, then Golden State is likely the better team and would win this series, regardless.
Entering the 2017 NBA Playoffs, teams down 0-2 in a series have an 18-262 record overall (according to oddsshark.com). Since 2009, the record is 4-51. The numbers are even worse now that the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors swept their first two series of the playoffs. With a win in Game 2 against the Celtics, the Cavs will tie the Lakers for the most consecutive playoff wins, with 13. The Warriors are “only” 10-0 so far this year.
So while it’s romantic to suggest the Spurs would be more than a speed bump in the inevitable collision course between the Cavs and Warriors, the two best teams will all but assuredly meet in the NBA Finals.
That raises another question, of course, which applies to all team sports and has been italicized this NBA season. Is this good for the game? Are two monoliths going through the regular-season motions just to get where they were last year — facing each other in June — healthy for basketball?
We love sports for the zero-sum essence of the final score. Life is so often filled with vagaries and mottled outcomes, we relish the clarity and truth of a victor and vanquished. And sports, for the most part, is where we find the purest meritocracy. So the fact that the two best basketball teams will meet for the third straight year to settle the title should give us comfort.
But we also see the world through storytelling, and the idea of two teams lumbering toward an inevitable outcome isn’t always gripping. The NFL prides itself on its legislated parity, the idea that a forlorn franchise, like the Rams, Saints or Buccaneers, can live the outhouse-to-penthouse fantasy, and bag a Lombardi Trophy between trips by the Patriots, Packers, Steelers and a few other members of the NFL aristocracy.
While football is quite quarterback-dependent, it relies on too many moving parts for even Tom Brady to make football titles a fait accompli. In basketball, the teams with the best player — or two of the best ten — tend to render the odds rather moot. So whatever team that includes LeBron James will win the Eastern Conference and, likewise, the team with Stephen Curry will win the Western Conference. But add Kevin Durant, another of the top-five players on the planet, and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and the Warriors are nearly unstoppable.
Which team is better? The Warriors juggernaut that won 73 games last year and was up 3-1 in the NBA Finals? Or the team that lost some size and depth, but added Kevin Durant? Maybe it was somewhat soporific to get here, but there’s nothing boring about finding out the answer, when Curry, Durant & Co. have to prove it against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavs.
Is a dynasty good for basketball? We may be split on that. When two dynasties play each other every year, one will lose, but we all win.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.