The Three Stages of Facing Game Four Elimination in the NBA Playoffs
I’ve never played high-level basketball, but I’ve been a fan of a team facing a sweep plenty of times
The Cleveland Cavaliers are one game, four quarters, 48 minutes away from elimination. Cavs/Warriors III has been a massive disappointment from a competitive standpoint, and Cleveland is now literally with its back against a wall. Game three at home was a thriller — LeBron James and his team rallied after the first two games to come within seconds of taking the series to 2–1 — but now everything feels much more subdued. Fans can make the obligatory reference to the 3–1 lead in 2016, but few are taking that seriously. FiveThirtyEight gives Golden State odds of over 99%, and that feels about right. For all intents and purposes, it’s over.
But, the game still has to be played. Quicken Loans Arena will be full of fans tonight, the lights will shine just as brightly, and these two teams will face off for a fourth and perhaps final time this season. Even if game four is a whitewash from start to finish, it’s one that has to happen.
So if you’re a Cavaliers fan, how do you motivate yourself for this? Fortunately, I’m here to offer my help, ironically drawing from two straight seasons of watching Cleveland sweep my beloved Atlanta Hawks. Both of those game fours were heartbreaking and final. And they’ve taught me lessons I’d like to share here.
Stage One (of three): Despair
The thing about the 3–1 lead jokes, as great as they are, is that there was at least some precedent for them. Teams in the NBA had blown 3–1 leads, just not in the finals. But 3–0? that has never happened in any round. So in 2015 and 2016, I knew that the season was over after Cleveland won game three. Both of those defeats were bitter pills to swallow, too.
In 2015, the Hawks won 60 games, and were legitimately the best team in the NBA for a solid month. Even if they were a long shot to reach the finals, the momentum from such a good regular season is a beautiful thing. But in the conference finals, it all came apart at the seams, due in no small part to crippling injuries.
And after game three, despair at everything that had been accomplished washed over fans. That game was a close one — Atlanta somehow almost won despite being on the road, playing without Kyle Korver, and losing Al Horford to the wily machinations of Matthew Dellavedova. So after that loss, there was (a) the pain of knowing that the Hawks’ best shot came up short, and (b) that this defeat effectively ended the most exciting season in Atlanta basketball history. That, in a few words, is not fun.
It’s easy to say that despair is the first response, and there’s not much to say about it after that. But it’s powerful. Losing in the playoffs is never fun, but at least college basketball and football are one-game affairs. When the Atlanta Falcons lost the Super Bowl, at least they only had to endure one game of agony. When a team is down 3–0, they’re the walking dead. After three painful games, they have to go out and play a fourth.
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Stage Two: Reflection
On the brink of elimination, it’s right and fitting to look back on the accomplishments of a long season. For my Hawks in 2015, the season still shone brightly despite the dire circumstances. Even in 2016, I was still happy with how the team had played. The 2015–16 Hawks were a perpetually underrated team that boasted an elite defense. I was proud of what they had done.
If you’re Cleveland in this spot, 2016–17 is a success by all standards except one. This team coasted to a second-place finish before laying waste to the East in a fiery storm of basketball death. The Warriors 12–0 run to the playoffs drew slightly more critical acclaim, but Cleveland was quietly essentially as good. Boston, Indiana, and Toronto were all flawed teams, but they were good ones too. To demolish them like the Cavaliers did is truly something special.
After winning last year’s championship, it’s evident that Cleveland fans milked every possible ounce of enjoyment out of it. The 3–1 jokes? The first championship for a city in a long time? They deserved all of that, and they enjoyed all of it. And the aftermath of the 2016 finals defined nearly all of the 2016–17 season. Yes, getting swept in the Finals is the stuff of nightmares. But it’s hard to call a team a failure because they couldn’t compete with the Warriors.
He’s crushed my team too many times for me to ever LIKE him, but this year I want him to win the Finalsmedium.com
Stage Three: Hope
In both 2015 and 2016, I clung to the slimmest of hopes. In a sense, this is the same kind of hope that Cavs fans used last season. Yes, it’s more desperate to be down 3–0 than 3–1, but sports are an inherently illogical proposition from the start.
Every hope starts somewhere, and for Cleveland they can build on winning one game at home. In 2016, the Hawks nearly won both games at home, and were a single shot away from winning the fourth one. At points in that game, I thought Atlanta would win and force a game five. Even if there’s little practical difference between a four and five-game series, that extra bit of competition adds a great deal of dignity to losing teams.
I believe that there is no possible way that the Cavaliers can win this series. But they can still win a game, and they have the talent, home-court advantage, and will to do it. If Golden State relents even a little, we could be waiting for a game five. And, the Warriors would then hold a 3–1 lead. I don’t want to deprive Twitter of that golden moment. For Cleveland fans, there are legitimate reasons to hold on to a small bit of hope for a few more moments. Even if that hope only means one more game, it’s worth it.
I don’t know who will win the game tonight. Golden State looks too good to be stopped, but I have to imagine that James and his teammates want this game. Or maybe they don’t. I could see Cleveland come out fighting, but I could also see them give up in all but name if they’re facing a deficit at halftime or later. All I can know for sure is what I see on my TV screen.
It’s been a terrible playoffs, but moments like this one are still worth thinking about.