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As The Warriors Close, A New Era Approaches In The NBA

LeBron is still the best player on the planet, but the Warriors are simply too good for him to overcome. How will the NBA change if Golden State pulls off the Finals sweep?

For three quarters in Game 3, LeBron James did a better job containing Kevin Durant than Cleveland had done the entire series. Coming into the fourth quarter, Durant had 17 points on just 12 shots, with most of his damage coming against Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert. He was scoreless in the third. Meanwhile, LeBron already had 32 points. Kyrie Irving was going nuts. The Cavs were up five. Then the fourth quarter happened.

The Cavs were exhausted but they kept finding ways to score, and it really looked like they were going to pull it off. But the Warriors answered with offense that was as surgical as it's been the whole series. With a combination of ruthless threes and effortless lay-ups, Golden State stayed close enough to make the fourth quarter stressful for the whole country. Then, they won the game when LeBron was a half-step slow picking up Durant at the top of the key in transition in the final minute, and KD drained the go-ahead three. Thirty seconds later, LeBron's game-tying three was blocked, and he bobbled it out of bounds.

LeBron carried Cleveland on both on offense and defense for the entire game, and then he failed on both ends in the fourth. It was Durant who looked unstoppable. 

It's hard to tell whether this series is a torch-passing moment between the two best players in the NBA or a much simpler concession to basic superstar math. The Warriors have four players in their prime who have been a seamless fit for the past three months, a bench and coaching staff that compliments them well, and the Cavs are left with Kyrie, LeBron, and Kevin Love valiantly fighting to find ways to help more than he hurts. Of course, this was going to get bleak for Cleveland.

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But this isn't quite the series I expected. I knew the Warriors would dominate and win in four or five games. I did not expect Durant to upstage LeBron in every game they played.

If last June was about LeBron approaching immortality, a year later we're watching him confront the alternative. In every game, Durant is closing and LeBron is fading.

You can explain it by pointing out KD has less of a burden on both ends of the floor. He also has an offense that gets him easier looks than he's had his entire career, and he's playing against defenses that are profoundly stressed out trying to account for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. All of that's true. But again, whatever the circumstances, KD's been the most dangerous player on the floor.


Midway through the first quarter Wednesday, LeBron was blindsided by Tristan Thompson rotating across the lane. Thompson's massive shoulder hit him square in the jaw. He crumpled to the floor. He was flat on his back, motionless for a few seconds. It might have looked like a dramatic scene for anyone who hasn't been watching LeBron James for the past ten years.  

LeBron got up, because he always gets up. He's the athlete with the most convincing case of all time for being genuinely bionic and indestructible. He's also the athlete who's pretty good at maximizing drama whenever he hits the floor. All of this is familiar by now.

Here's a brief timeline of LeBron injuries over the past 10 years:

2007: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

2008: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

2009: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

2010: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

2011: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.) 

2012: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.) 

2013: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.) 

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2014: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.) 

2015: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.) 

2016: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

2017: "Whoa. Is LeBron hurt?" (No.)

That official medical history is noted only to say this: if and when LeBron suffers a real, serious injury, it may trigger an existential crisis among diehard NBA fans of the past decade. LeBron's mortality is a scenario that does not compute.

But eventually, theoretically, we'll get there. If that fall in the first quarter didn't remind us, then maybe the better warning came when LeBron looked a step slow throughout the final minutes of the fourth, and then watched Durant drain a game-winner in his face.

"Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game," Steve Kerr said after Game 3. "But that's pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game. Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39. But that takes a lot out of you. We just kept telling the guys, they're going to get tired.

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"When you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it's—you hope eventually it's going to take its toll. I wasn't sure after awhile, they just were going nuts. But I think that we just stayed with it, and our defense finally kicked in."

For the record, it's a mistake to think that Durant has already surpassed LeBron as the best player on the planet. That part is simple. If they switched places in this series, LeBron's Warriors would destroy Durant's Cavs. 


But Durant and Steph Curry are the only two players in the past five years to even make this an open question. Now they're on the same team. And if Durant is playing with a stacked deck in this series, LeBron knows better than anyone that sometimes that's part of the game. He was the one who helped change the rules. As of 2010, being an NBA superstar means choosing teammates wisely and giving yourself the best chance to succeed in the face of impossible expectations and unfair legacy questions. 

"Before the series even started," James said Wednesday, "We knew what we was dealing with. I said it after we won the Eastern Conference finals that we're getting ready for a juggernaut. It's probably the most firepower I've played in my career. I played against some great teams, but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower."

So I wonder what he does from here. 

We just spent two months watching LeBron look better than ever rolling through the East. He's probably got a few more years playing near the peak of his game. But the Cavs roster looks older and limited in the same way the Heat did in 2014. Likewise, the Warriors look more talented than any dynasty he's dealt with in the past. 

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LeBron's a free agent after next season, so if they haven't already, rumors on that front will surely start soon. There will also be Kevin Love trade rumors along the way, and any number of veteran role players will be recruited to help next year's cause. That's where the Cavs are right now.

Everything’s on the table if they get swept. The last time LeBron got beaten this badly, he turned the league upside down and went home to Ohio. Three years later, if he's still pretty clearly the best player on earth, the most surprising takeaway from the Finals might also be the first real sign that a new era is approaching. 

LeBron just spent nine months in late-90s Jordan mode, and now there’s plenty of room to wonder about his future. But watching these games, it's not clear that any of it will matter. What trades LeBron forces, what roster he'll assemble, where he might go in free agency. That probably isn't the story that will dictate how the league operates for the next three years, or even the next three months. How can it? Have you seen what Durant’s done to the Warriors?