It was hard to believe it was happening as it happened on the afternoon of Dec. 25. Eyes widened as Kyrie Irving tossed up a jumper in the fourth quarter. Jaws dropped as he closed the 14-point gap to put the Cleveland Cavaliers ahead, as Kevin Durant missed the final shot from the seated position into which Richard Jefferson deposited him. Tweets flowed as the Cavs were once again the proud owners of a razor-thin win against their increasingly bitter rivals.
It was too perfect. The Cavaliers pulled off another comeback in a beautiful, thrilling competition.
To say we’ve seen this before would be like saying Jesus was born on Christmas Day, or that you’re going to return that weird scarf your mom’s second cousin put under the tree for you. It’s obvious.
Everybody not living under an NBA rock knows that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals with a unanimous MVP and spawned six months of memes. That LeBron James and his teammates brought home a championship to their championship-starved city for the first time in 52 years.
The biggest difference on Christmas, besides not having a Championship on the line, was that the Cavs got to beat the Warriors at home this time.
The Christmas Day game was, as Yogi Berra said, déjà vu all over again. (Forgive me. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dad-joking father over the holidays.) But it was more than that: It was the cementing of the best rivalry we have in American professional sports at the moment.
Let’s take a look at the rivalry checklist. To make one truly great, you have to have a few things: Evenly matched teams, characters who compel you to simultaneously love and hate them, an intriguing history, a whole lot on the line, and an unpredictable outcome.
The Cavs and the Warriors check all the dang boxes, as yesterday proved.
They’re the two best teams in the league. They have the most intriguing players:
- LeBron, the great hero-turned-villain-turned-hero of Cleveland.
- Steph Curry, the arrogant and gifted disruptor.
- Kevin Durant, the turncoat.
- Richard Jefferson, the 36-year-old who just casually decides to dunk all over the place.
- Draymond Green, the wild, groin-kicking firecracker.
- Kyrie Irving, the guy who just can’t stop clinching leads.
- Basically all the other players, too, from Iman Shumpert to Andre Iguodala.
They’ve got the history of beef (see: 3-1 leads, yadda, yadda). Their biggest face-offs have had a whole lot of hardware, pride, and/or chatter riding on the outcome, and a final score that you can’t even guess at until the nanosecond the final buzzer goes off.
But what the Christmas Day game also made clear is how few other truly delightful nemeses there are in sports right now. Think about it.
NFL-wise, you could maybe contend that the Steelers and the Pats are rivals. Or the Ravens and the Steelers? Or the Pats and the rest of the country outside New England? But parity across the league has made it so there’s no definitive, “oh my god, these two teams are playing each other, this is APPOINTMENT TELEVISION BECAUSE OF THEIR STORIED BEEF!”
And hey, I guess you could say that the Blue Jays and the Orioles are shaping up to be something intriguing in baseball these days? (I’m sure there’s something in MLS and in hockey, but those just don’t capture national attention the same way.) But the fact that we’re putting question marks at the end of these proposed matchups proves that nothing comes close to the excitement that accompanies a game between Cleveland and Golden State. A game in which anything can happen and absolutely everything matters.
As Irving closed the lead yesterday, I just started giggling because it was so delightful and surprising to watch the game follow a perfect narrative arc. It was the stuff of the greatest sports movies. In fact, the main reason I hope we all make it out of these next few years alive is so that we can live long enough to see the inevitable 30 for 30 made about this rivalry.
You could argue that the rest of the league suffers for having two teams worlds better than the others. Sure, maybe that’s true. And it sucks if you root for one of the other 28 teams.
But this rivalry won’t last forever. Neither will our joy of watching them fight each other. So let’s just enjoy it. Because yesterday was the best present sports could’ve given us.