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Small Screens: ‘NBA Finals’ Game 1 Review

For weeks now, we’re been hearing about the long awaited pilot for the new series, The NBA Finals, from showrunner Adam Silver (The Orlando Bubble, NBA Draft 2014-2021, All-Star Weekend Los Angeles/Chicago/Cleveland, etc.). While it did not disappoint in terms of tension and establishing initial character dynamics at play, it left a lot of questions.

In the lead up to the series — a spin-off of NBA Conference Finals — there were concerns about pacing, given the lulls and occasional dragging action of its predecessor. One recurring criticism over Conference Finals was it never being especially clear to viewers who was good, not in the sense of protagonist or antagonist, but who “had that dog in them.” The shifting representations in that show was a topic of heady, obsessive discussion amongst its fans, to the point where it was never especially clear whether fans actually enjoyed watching it. So far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for NBA Finals, which pulled in 8.1 million viewers and had fans unanimously agreeing many of the characters, even this early on, “were a bucket.”

Silver is known for some pretty memorable characters and Finals is shaping up to be no different. Within its opening minutes we got a clear sense of its protagonists, antagonists, and the characters who will no doubt straddle the line.

Steph Curry (Steph Curry) made a definitive case for being the show’s clear main character. The decision to put up six three-point shots within the first 12 minutes and record zero points within the following twelve was an interesting, if a little blatant use of underscoring that we’re going to get the trope of a hero’s journey in the following episodes. It’s a tool that one of Finals joint directors, Steve Kerr, likes to utilize but the hope here is he doesn’t get too heavy-handed with it.

Other notable characters in the supporting cast behind Curry include Klay Thompson (Klay Thompson), with some late-episode fireworks that made up for his quiet performance early on; Andrew Wiggins (Andrew Wiggins), who seems to be taking a more cerebral approach; Marcus Smart (Marcus Smart) with a bold costume decision by Finals other director, Ime Udoka, in a green wig without any additional context (fans of Silver will note that costume has had something of a renaissance in his work in recent years).

There were plenty of standout performances in last night’s pilot, most notably from the evocative body language of Kevon Looney (Kevon Looney) whose character dragged the ball down from the basket again and again to the delight of the live audience. A quiet standout also came in the character of Al Horford (Al Horford) who, after initially dispelling the fears that this might be some kind of Benjamin Button rip-off, came alive in the final half of the show with the prowess and physicality of a much younger actor. And before you ask, no, there was absolutely no CGI involved.

Where the writing in Silver’s stories can occasionally be clunky (who can forget All-Star Chicago’s use of iambic verse from surprising casting decision, Common), or without any context (oftentimes characters are seen walking across the set, alone, shouting to no one in particular), a stirring line of dialogue came in one of the episode’s quiet moments from Smart.

“This isn’t the Heat series,” Smart stresses. “We can’t start back, you have to start up, especially if they setting it so high. You start up and drop because we’re chasing.”

The disorienting, zig-zagging notes on direction in the statement are intentional, meant to evoke memories, and possibly ghosts, of Conference Finals for fans paying close attention. “Now he goes down,” Smart says with an emphatic pause, “into the paint.” It’s an interesting choice by Smart to stagger his lines, but the result is captivating.

What needs work are the interludes between the action of NBA Finals main scenes. The “Halftime” portion of this episode saw five men sitting crammed around a quarter moon shaped desk, their spacing of no real significance.

“I saw a lot of Warriors players grabbing their shorts,” an enthused but somewhat lost member of the group (Magic Johnson) states at one point, seemingly to nobody. There’s also the interaction of the live audience with the show. At one point it seemed that a lackluster “LAWYERS” chant began, but on further inquiry it was meant to be “WARRIORS,” so either better instruction or studio equipment is needed there.

Tonally, there’s still room for a theme to emerge. Is this going to be a heist show? A series about bank robbers hailing from Boston out on one last score (don’t tell Ben Affleck, not because he’ll sue, but because he’ll want to be in it)? Or is this a saga where headbands simply collide?

In the end this episode was one of close conflict and action with plenty of excitement, sustainable character arcs and hooks for a pilot, and will more than likely be green-lit for a full season.

It’s early, but it could be Silver’s most marketable production yet.