The Finals are upon us and somehow it does not feel like we had playoffs this year. What is supposed to be the most competitive stretch of basketball of the year turned out to be nothing more than a gentle downhill stroll for two of the greatest teams of the past 20 years. Even though we have had this column brewing for some time now, we delayed it in hopes of some crazy twists and unexpected developments that would level the playing field. Well, that clearly has not happened. Before enjoying a hopefully highly competitive Finals, let’s look back at these playoffs using movie (and TV) quotes to make it more interesting.

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« You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability »

Agent Smith – The Matrix

To the completely unsurprising way these playoffs have unfolded, with only a handful of close games to feast on and an ending duel that seems to be etched in stone ever since last summer, if not the year before. After two epic finals between the Warriors and the Cavs, every single sports pundit had predicted a third encounter this June, and no serious opposition emerged this year to prove that prediction wrong. It must be especially dispiriting for certain teams that made moves specifically to counter their conference nemesis (i.e. Toronto acquiring Serge Ibaka to better match with Cleveland), only for these teams to be annihilated come playoffs time.

If the Warriors have reached new levels of consistency in greatness for the past three years, the catastrophic end of regular season of the Cavs (11-15 after Feb. 23) almost made us rethink their ability to reach the Finals, let alone repeat as champions. Turns out they suffered from fliptheswitchitis, a common condition for teams that occasionally become bored from too much winning (no, not that kind of winning). Like many championship teams trying to repeat, the Cavs have difficulties finding motivation against lesser opposition, something the Warriors will not be dealing with anytime soon as they can still feel the deep burn of squandering that 3-1 lead in the Finals last year. You can put last night’s L against Boston on that occasional boredom, as Cleveland was otherwise much more engaged on D and consistantly ran other teams out of the gym on offense ever since the playoffs started. It is now 12 straight playoff Ws for the Dubs, and the Cavs were on a 10-game tear (13 if you count last year’s Finals) before last night’s dud. That loss proved to be only a dent in an otherwise smooth road to the Finals, the Cavs ending the Celtics’ run in a gentleman’s sweep.

With each passing year, the often misused talks of dynasties and rivalry seem more and more fitting when referring to the Warriors and the Cavaliers. We understand why the usually smooth Adam Silver risked expressing reservations about the Durant move last summer: barring major injuries, drastic roster moves or the emergence of a new top-3 player who could singlehandedly tip the balance of the league, this little back-and-forth could go on for at least 3 or 4 seasons. The lack of suspense can’t be good on the long run for a product that needs to keep fan bases engaged: in the wise words of Ricky Bobby, « if you ain’t first, you’re last », and fans can only bear so much losing before turning their attention to other sports.

It feels weird complaining about the brilliance of two teams that every basketball fan should deeply enjoy watching play, but there is a distinct, depressing possibility of having the Finals be over in early June. The offseason is already agonizingly long as it is…

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« The king stay the king »

D’Angelo Barksdale – The Wire

To LeBron James, who keeps making greatness look routine. Case in point: the fact that a once-in-a-generation player – averaging career highs in rebounds and assists, mind you – will not even be on the podium of the MVP race this year has had people talking but hasn’t really caused much of an uproar (we’re looking forward to discovering the name of the only person who didn’t vote him in the All-NBA 1st Team, though).

Playoff LeBron has been a sight to behold ever since that game 6 in Boston 5 years ago, but since last year, he has reached John Wick-levels of efficiency and ruthlessness. His latest hot shooting streak (42% 3 point field goal percentage on 63 attempts) furthers the point. Of course, we only had to make this argument for him to go cold and have a no-show on Game 3 against Boston, but this kind of lackluster performance did not feel as preoccupying as it did in 2010 or 2011: since then, he has become a champion and a proven winner, and it has changed everything for him.

This year, LeBron displayed great command and Olympian calm in disposing of his opposition, occasionally turning playoff games into his own private All-Star Game.

This playoff thing seemed like practice to him at times, like when he started shooting left handed.

And after a good practice, what better way to celebrate than with a cold brewski?

Sure, he plays too many minutes, but he has had ample time to rest between series (7 days between the first round and the conference semifinals, then 9 days between the conference semifinals and the conference finals).

As James enters the last few years of an amazing career, his continued success and his ever improving game make us wonder how much further he can stretch a prime that started 14 years ago. By individual and collective success standards, his last couple of years rank right up there with 1992 Michael Jordan, 2006 Roger Federer or 2000 Tiger Woods. He has nothing left to prove indeed. All that is left for him to do is to keep piling up records and try as hard as he can to catch up on that elusive ghost from Chicago.

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« Boy… That escalated quickly! »

Ron Burgundy – Anchorman

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To the Celtics and Wizards for gifting us with one of the rare disputed series of these playoffs, with a level of physicality at times reminiscent of those hard-fought Heat-Knicks series from the 90s. Well, we may be overstepping the mark but still, in a league of pace-and-space and 3-point shooting, this somewhat feisty series felt like 1994.

The Celtics even tried the whole « dressing in black for the elimination game to mourn your soon-to-be-demised adversary » thing, only for it to monumentally backfire on them because of that guy.

Another detail that made this a 90’s throwback: John Wall’s legendary trash talking. The lightning-quick point guard mean-mugged his way through the playoffs, especially in the 1st round against the Hawks with that epic dunk-staredown-verbal diss combo on Dennis Schröder. The trash talking part of that play does not appear in the previous link but here is the video: if your lip-reading skills are subpar, it starts with « the » and ends with « is wrong witchu bwoy », with a 4-letter expletive in between…

Even after their loss in game 7, it was hard not to consider the Wizards season a success. Their series against the number 1 seed in the East came down to the wire, a most unlikely outcome after their uninspired previous season under clipboard-confused coach Randy Wittman. Last year, the franchise displayed a level of inconsistency such that local boy Kevin Durant didn’t even grant the Wizards an interview during his free agency last summer.

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With coach Scott Brooks at the helm, the team resumed its progress and at times showed glimpses of its scary potential, like when the Wizards activated hyperspeed in the 3rd quarter of game 3 against the Celtics, resulting in a 26-0 run in barely 6 minutes. Bradley Beal has matured into a remarkable 2-way player and the already great Wall has officially reached superstar status with his play during the playoffs. Together, they form arguably the toughest defensive backcourt in the NBA. Things are looking up for the Wizards, they have a great backcourt and the team will be more comfortable with coach Brooks’ sytstem next season. Now, all they need is a proper bench.

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« It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog »

D Jay – Hustle & Flow

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To Isaiah Thomas, for somehow still being overlooked and making teams pay for it. Sure, the aforementioned quote is Mark Twain’s, but whenever you have the possibility of attributing a quote to a fictional southern pimp trying hard to make it in the rap game instead of one of the greatest american authors, I say you go ahead and do it.

Some critics argue that he is not a franchise player, that he cannot play defense, that Boston will never win a title with him manning the point. Yet Thomas carried Boston on his back all season long and amid tragic circumstances, Thomas stood tall during the playoffs. Not since Allen Iverson has a player his size shown that level of courage and toughness battling giants. Even after his season was over with a hip injury sidelining him indefinitely, some people ussed the smallest sample size of Game 3 against Cleveland to make the argument that the Celtics might be better without him. Keep proving them haters wrong, IT.

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« Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty… For tonight, we dine in hell! »

King Leonidas – 300

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To the San Antonio Spurs, for riding out this nightmarish playoff run to the bitter end. In their first season of the post Tim Duncan era, the Spurs endured one of their toughest postseason eliminations to date because of an injury-plagued roster. Losing Tony Parker in round 2 had all but crushed their title dreams, but losing Kawhi Leonard on a dubious defensive closeout by Zaza Pachulia was particularly painful, and proved to be the final blow to a roster that grew thinner by the game. We had to endure another sweep that was particularly disappointing as the Spurs were on their way to upset the Warriors in Oakland before Leonard’s injury: being up 20 at the half while allowing the almighty Warriors a mere 42 points in the first half was extremely impressive.  We sure looked forward to Pop’s tricks and clipboard wizardry against one of the greatest teams of the last 30 years, maybe ever.

Somewhere along this postseason run, the Spurs morphed into the Spartans, a tight crew of accomplished soldiers battling overwhelming firepower with clever strategy, strict discipline and pristine execution. They embraced their « next man up » mentality after losing 2 of their most important players, staying the course without looking for excuses. After that crushing Game 1 loss, we could totally picture Gregg Popovich channeling his inner Leonidas and galvanizing his troops into fighting until their last breath. But again, there is not much logic to our thinking, as tends to happen when one watched too much Monty Python at a young age.

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« I’m alone. I am not lonely »

Neil McCauley – Heat

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To Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who have enjoyed historic seasons running the show for their respective teams, only to measure how brutally short their playoff runs will be without the help of another superstar.

The two frontrunners in the MVP race have ways to go before experiencing collective success, but their trajectories diverge: Harden is surrounded with a diverse cast of role players as efficient as you would expect from a franchise that has been at the forefront of the analytics movement ever since it made Darel Morey its GM. Hiring Mike D’Antoni as their coach last summer produced the expected results (an offense on steroids, ranking 2nd in offensive efficiency rating) as well as its expected side effects (a middling-to-mediocre defense, ranking 18th in defensive efficiency rating). It is hard to see how Houston can overcome the Warriors or even the Spurs in the future without adding top-notch talent to their roster.

As for the Thunder, they lived by the Russ, died by the Russ this year. After being abandoned by  KD last summer, Westbrook went on a revenge tour that lasted the whole year, averaging a triple double for the season, an unbelievable feat that had not been accomplished since Oscar Robertson 55 years earlier. To some extent, that incredible season came at the expense of the developing players around Westbrook. With only 3 other players with a scoring average in double figures, OKC clearly relied almost exclusively on its point guard. Steven Adams saw an increase in his offensive production (11.3 PPG, after averaging 8 PPG the previous year), yet not as big an increase as you would expect in a team that lost its leading scorer last summer. As for newcomer Victor Oladipo, he averaged roughly the same numbers as in his last season in Orlando and never really seemed to find his comfort zone with his new team. OKC GM Sam Presti will have to work his magic and surround Westbrook with more talent if he wants him to stick around.

Right now, Harden and Westbrook are brilliant soloists who probably will not experience further forays into postseason territory if their supporting cast does not add 1 or 2 top-tier players.

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« Chad, he’s your brother. Look at him! For Christ’s sake, look at him! Just take a look at him! He’s your twin brother! »

Frank Avery – Double Impact

To Markieff and Marcus Morris, who may have played one of the greatest tricks in professional basketball since that one. The setting: during game 1 against the Celtics, Wizards power forward Markieff Morris turned his left ankle pretty badly and had to leave the game.

Even if taping ankles reduces the risk of injury, that still looked like a nasty one and it was easy to assume that Morris would not be back for game 2, and maybe more. Lo and behold, he was on the court for game 2 and did not look slightly troubled by his left ankle. How was that possible?

As previously mentioned, there is not much logic to our thinking, so we immediately thought about the least plausible, yet most intriguing solution:

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Or in that case, a not-so-secret one, since his twin brother Marcus is also an NBA player currently under contract with the Detroit Pistons. Sure, it sounds like a stupid idea straight out of a 90s sitcom, but think about it: they admitted to pulling such a stunt in AAU basketball before, so what stopped them from doing it again? And what’s the point of having the exact same tattoos if not for doing this?

We were not the only ones to contemplate on such a goofy theory, but the answer came soon enough:

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Both Markieff and Marcus swiftly denied this conspiracy theory, the former not so amused as the latter. I guess we know who’s the evil (or at least grumpy) twin now…

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« Sorry boys, all the stitches in the world can’t sew me together again. Lay down, lay down… Gonna stretch me out in Fernandez funeral home on Hun and Ninth street. Always knew I’d make a stop there, but a lot later than a whole gang of people thought… Last of the Moh-Ricans… »

Carlito Brigante – Carlito’s Way

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To Paul Pierce and Manu Ginobili, the last of a dying breed. That quote is quite long, but it seems appropriate when contemplating the end of Pierce’s and (potentially) Ginobili’s storied careers.

At the start of the season, both players were among the last 6 active players to have been drafted in the 90s (with Dirk, Jason Terry, Metta World Peace and Vince « Half Old Man-Half Amazing » Carter, who still does this at age 40). After 19 seasons, Pierce has officially played his last NBA game. With 1 title, 1 Finals MVP, 11 All-Stars, 4 All-NBA selections, and more than 26 000 points scored over his career (15th all-time), The Truth is a certified first-ballot Hall of Famer. Despite his last few years in Brooklyn, Washington and L.A., he will always be remembered as a Celtic and has already joined the prestigious cast of Celtics legends.

As for Ginobili, the second oldest active player in the NBA behind Carter, it is yet unclear if we will see him suit up next season. Based on his rejuvenated and always clutch play during the playoffs, where injuries to key players Leonard and Parker forced him to assume a bigger role, El Manu looks like he has enough left in the tank for 15 to 20 minutes off the bench next season. Even if he does not retire this summer, we will have to brace for the inevitable eventually, and it saddens us already. It is no secret we are huge fans of the Argentinian’s quirky game and his unique inventivity, we are not quite ready to let him go when it feels like we still haven’t seen all of his tricks.

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« Hey Sol, do you ever wonder at what point you just got to say f**k it man? Like when you gotta stop living up here, and start living down here? »

B-Rabbit – 8 Mile

To the Clippers and Raptors, 2 perennial contenders whose repeated failures in the postseason have them questioning their potential and their very foundations.

Both teams have been eliminated in very different (Game 7 at home for the Clippers, sweep for Toronto), yet equally depressing fashion, and this umpteenth elimination gave way to introspection:  will they ever get over the hump the way they are currently built? For Toronto, as long as LeBron plays in the Eastern Conference, it is doubtful that they will ever reach the Finals. As for the Clips, it is likewise difficult to see them overpower the Warriors with their current roster. Factor in the repeated health issues and the occasional off-the-field trouble, and the future looks surprisingly bleak for a franchise that has won more than 50 games each of the past 5 seasons.

Will any of these 2 teams decide to blow it up and start over by trading Paul or Griffin, or breaking up the DeRozan-Lowry dynamic duo? Both teams should be careful what they wish for, as their title windows can suddenly open up if one of their archrivals suffers from injuries. Another option would be to play it out as long as the Cavs and Warriors have such amazing rosters, and start rebuilding down the line in order to be compete in 5 years. They way they handle this offseason will tell us which option they picked.

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« Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies »

Andy Dufresne – The Shawshank Redemption

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To the Jazz, the Bucks and the aforementioned Wizards, who may have been eliminated but can look forward to a bright future.

We have already talked about Washington, so let’s focus on Utah and Milwaukee. The Bucks have a future superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a tall yet explosive playmaker who can leap from the 3-point line to the rim in two steps. Jason Kidd has done a great job helping him unlock his potential as a point forward these past 2 years, and if the Greek Freak can gain some experience and ever develops a reliable jump shot, he will be unstoppable. The Bucks have done a great job surrounding their crown jewel with a well-balanced mix of young talent (Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon) and rugged veterans (Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova). If they  can keep their most promising players and add a few more pieces through free agency and the draft, they may become the team to beat in the East in the future (after this current version of the Cavs disbands, of course).

As for the Jazz, the sweep they were dealt by the Warriors steamroller does not reflect on their bright prospects. Around swingman Gordon Hayward and center Rudy Gobert, Utah has assembled a deep and versatile roster full of savvy veterans (Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw), and has a quality coach in Quin Snyder. The Jazz should make it their number one priority to keep Hayward when he hits free agency this summer, and hope that Gobert’s steady improvement on both sides of the floor and the growth of their roster will help them reach new heights.

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