The fighter pilots of World War II were not well-versed in aerodynamics. Certainly they had a fundamental understanding of what kept their planes in the air, but as former pilot Robert De Haven attested in 2000’s Fire in the Sky, they didn’t let that slow them down.
“In that era of aviation, flight experience, good leadership, teamwork and a certain ‘feel’ were what helped you,” he said. “I do not think many of us could have given lectures about the physics of flight. Fortunately most of us were too stupid to remember or even know about the laws of physics, so we went ahead and violated them anyway.”
This is – to use a contemporary term – horse pucky. You violate the laws of physics, you crash. Simple as that. But the sentiment at the heart of what De Haven is saying forms, I think, the core of what we admire in a great many human endeavors but maybe most especially in sports: the idea that heart, grit, will, belief or blood can overcome the limits not only of the human body but in small measure of the universe itself.
It is embodied in Michael Jordan’s shrug, in Katie Ledecky’s colossal, blowout win in the 400m freestyle at the 2016 Olympics, in Curt Schilling’s (now forever tarnished) bloody sock, in Willis Reed’s limp, in Alex Honnold’s free soloing of El Capitan. It is David and Goliath where David need not be a puny weakling, but can in fact be a top-level athlete who challenges and overcomes a Goliath that is the world and all its paltry Newtonian principles. Or at least makes us feel that way.
The challenge, then, for any of us watching the Golden State Warriors comprehensively dismantling the Cleveland Cavaliers in these NBA Finals is what to do with a champion who seems to have no need for heart, grit or any of that human garbage. Stretching back to the decision to take a gamble on a long-term contract for a then-gimpy Steph Curry in 2012 and going right up to spending the “Bank Error in Your Favor” space afforded by an enormous salary cap spike on maybe the most gifted scorer on the planet this year, the Warriors as an organization have used foresight, awareness, tactical innovation and luck to construct a remorseless, bloodless basketball machine.
Doing so (and crowing about it in the New York Times Magazine) evinced the kind of hubris that was supposed to be rewarded with a quick plunge into the ocean once the wax on their wings melted. And – to be fair – that’s precisely what happened last year, to the glee of many. But far from being riven by self-doubt, they simply signed Kevin Durant. If a less auspicious regular season than last year’a gave anyone cause to worry, those doubts have been laid to rest by the playoffs.
The Warriors have gone 14-0 so far in the postseason, a place where no other team had even reached 12-0. They shot 43.5 percent from beyond the arc through the Conference Finals and are currently holding the Cavaliers to 31.7 percent shooting from 3-point range – a figure that would have put them dead last in the league during the regular season. Cleveland’s 97.4 points per 100 possessions against Golden State also would have ranked last in the league.
This is neither the thrill of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns pushing the tempo to its breaking point in the hopes of outrunning their steady if not stellar defense, nor is it the Bad Boy Pistons grinding teams into dust with agonizingly brutal basketball. It is a team that is better in many ways at both of those things than either of those teams.
Down 0-2 and headed home, it is not hopeless for the Cavs, despite all the above. They were, after all, in the exact same position last year. To tack on one more big stat, the Warriors’ plus-41 scoring margin so far is the second highest for any team through the first two games of the Finals. The team above them is the Warriors from last year at plus-48, but don’t let that gaudy margin distract you from the fact that they blew a 3-1 lead in the end.
Cavs fans are hoping for some of that sports magic to come their way again because if this remains a conventional conflict won and lost on the field of play by the forces directly arrayed against each other, this is over. Last year, Curry was a shell, Draymond Green got suspended and LeBron put together a three-game stretch for the ages and the Warriors still nearly won that seventh game, no matter how inevitable their downfall feels now in retrospect. And now they have Durant. Where they can, they have outthought teams. Where they can’t, they have outskilled teams. They may well win the championship in fourth gear.
But as much as they may look like they’ve done it, I still don’t believe basketball is “solvable,” not by the Warriors or any other team, simply because basketball is not a problem. All evidence in Golden State to the contrary, it is not an equation – not even a very complex one. It’s a field, a place we bracket with lines and rules, a space with a moral dimension that we invest with hope. For anyone who believes in the frail magic of players slipping the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God (Shammgod), this series is a near lock to be a disappointment. Cavs fans will mourn, Dubs fans will rejoice, casual fans will go back to wherever it is they go when the season’s over. The rest of us will wait for the a team too stupid to know about all the laws of physics the Warriors so handily exploit – a team that will go ahead and violate them.