The story behind some of the most iconic photos from the Warriors-Cavs rivalry in the NBA Finals

Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesPhotographer Ezra Shaw has been on the court for all four NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Warriors, capturing iconic images of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and countless unforgettable moments.

You might not know Ezra Shaw by name, but if you read about sports on the internet, you’re almost certainly familiar with his work.

Shaw has been a photographer for Getty Images for 20 years, charged with the difficult task of taking a sport as kinetic as basketball and capturing it into still moment for both next-day recaps and basketball historians who will look back on the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry for years to come.

Having been on the court shooting for the past four NBA Finals between the two teams, he’s responsible for iconic images of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and the heated emotions that the Finals bring out from the biggest stars in the sport.

Ahead of Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals, Shaw shared some of his favourite shots from four years of covering the Warriors and Cavaliers as they battle for the NBA championship, and spoke with Business Insider about the difficulties, logistics, and joys of the job.


2015, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Through the NBA Finals, Shaw’s workday starts well before tip-off.

“You set up a camera behind the backboard, probably about five hours before the game starts. You pre-focus that camera where you think, or hope, one of these guys, Durant or LeBron is going to dunk the ball.”

These remote cameras not only provide his audience with amazing mid-air action shots, but also give him a chance to capture a play happening out of his line of sight on the court.

“It gives you an extra look on the basket your not shooting at,” says Shaw.


2018, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“You try to find a unique angle,” says Shaw.

“One thing Getty encourages is finding a unique angle – I’ve never in 20 years been asked ‘Oh where’s that shot?’ They encourage you to try something from up top of the stadium, or something different.”


2017, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The results from these remote cameras can be astounding. In Game 1 of the 2017 Finals, Shaw caught Kevin Durant and LeBron James going up for almost identical dunks from behind the same backboard.

“The two biggest stars both came in for a dunk on the right basket for me. You hope for one or two pictures a game like that.”


2017, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Shaw admits that occurrences like this are rare and only happen with a degree of chance. “It’s pretty lucky,” he says of the two matching dunks.

That said, luck comes to those who are prepared, and with his pregame setup, Shaw is certainly prepared. “I have a very similar shot from this year as well.”


2016, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With 10 players on the court, Shaw has to make decisions about where to focus his attention.

“For Cleveland, it’s pretty easy – you just kind of focus on LeBron.”


2015, Game 2

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As a photographer, Shaw’s interest lies most in the athletes that show their emotion. “LeBron is great to photograph. I’m not a huge LeBron fan, but he is an amazing athlete.”

Regarding the biggest difference between James and his Warriors counterpart Kevin Durant, Shaw says, “LeBron reacts a lot more. Kevin Durant is almost equally as amazing, even after that shot [in Game 3 of the 2018 Finals] from 10 feet behind the three point line, he didn’t react at all. To me, as a photographer, it’s unfortunate.”

“You want somebody like LeBron, or somebody like Steph or Draymond who are showing you their emotion – I’m a little more excited to photograph them.”


2017, Game 5

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Durant’s understated attitude on the court only makes it more rewarding when he is captured in a moment, like this shot from the Game 5 of the 2017 Finals. “Durant has his own sort of way he reacts,” Shaw says. “It’s just harder to get that expression.”


2018, Game 2

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

While Durant’s mannerisms are fairly reserved, the Warriors as a whole are full of emotion, led by the swagger of sharpshooter Stephen Curry.

“A lot of times, because I know that Steph is going to celebrate more than the other players, I’ll go to him to see his reaction over somebody who actually made the basket.”


2015, Game 5

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Curry’s magnetism attracts fans as well as the camera. During the Warriors first run to the championship, his pregame dribbling rituals became a must-see event for Golden State fans.

“When the doors opened two hours before the game, people in the know rush right into that location to make sure they can get a spot there. I still shoot that, there’s just a lot more people on the court now. It’s a fun interaction between Steph and the fans.”


2015, Game 6

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Golden State’s first run was especially enjoyable for Shaw.

“When I first started shooting the Warriors they were horrible. That’s what was special the fist time they won the championship nobody was expecting it. That’s what made that season so much fun to cover – no one thought they were going to win.”


2017, Game 5

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the Warriors won again in 2017, Shaw witnessed a much more subdued reaction after the final buzzer sounded.

“Last year the Warriors didn’t celebrate that much – I think it was more of a relief than a celebration.”


2017, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Shooting from the court, Shaw has a distinct style, often shooting wide in a way that almost invites the viewer into the image. His job comes down to a balance of capturing the highlights while also capturing their place.

“The big action – the big touchdown or the winning basket is obviously important,” Shaw says. “But I try to incorporate the environment into the picture. You can’t do that with every picture. But I find that I shoot a little bit looser to get a little bit more of the crowd in it than some people might.”


2016, Game 7

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The environment is something he’s always aware of, such as this shot from the Cavaliers win in Golden State in Game 7 of the 2017 Finals. While still a stunning shot, Shaw expressed frustration that he hadn’t gotten the shot clock into frame, which would have helped to set the moment a bit more.


2018, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

He’d get another chance in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, when J.R. Smith inexplicably ran out the clock with the game tied at the end of regulation.

“I tried to shoot a little bit looser. You see the time left in the game in the shot of Smith’s rebound.”

On the court watching the scene unfold, Shaw was just as confused as everyone else. “I didn’t know what was happening, J.R. Smith didn’t know what was happening.”


2018, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the buzzer sounded, Shaw got this shot of LeBron’s disbelief of the sequence. For the record, Shaw doesn’t believe Smith knew the score of the game.

“It looked to me like he was trying to run out the clock and he didn’t realise until LeBron started shouting at him.”


2017, Game 5

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Through the NBA Finals, space for photographers is extremely limited, and Shaw is only given two quarters a game – either the first and third, or the second and fourth – making luck an even more important factor of his job.

“You really hope that the action comes your way or the celebration comes your way.”


2016, Game 7

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“I have been fortunate with the timing and the picking of the quarters – I’ve been on the court for those final games.”

“It’s worked out in my favour,” Shaw says. “That LeBron-Kevin Love picture is just them coming right in front of me. I was the only photographer on the court right there.”


2016, Game 7

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“LeBron looking up and crying – by that point, ABC, NBA, they’re all in my way by the time that he’s actually reacting, but I was still able to see him just barely through there.”


2018, Game 2

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“One thing I like about my job is being able to photograph these amazing athletes in their prime.”


2018, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“LeBron in Game 1 of these Finals, every shot was going in. A three with somebody in his face, a turnaround jumper.”


2018, Game 1

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A big part of Shaw’s job is humanising the game.

“I try to get a little bit of the relationship between the players or of them interacting a bit.”


2018, Game 2

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

He also serves as a historian, capturing the images that will help us remember and celebrate the Cavaliers and Warriors rivalry for years to come.

“When you look back on these four Finals in ten years, people are going to be interested in the matchups between Steph and LeBron or KD and LeBron.”


2018, Game 2

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“So I try to shoot that a bit more heavily – whenever they’re matched up against one another, or guarding one another…”


2017, Game 5

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“…or the hug at the end of the game.”

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