Since October 25th, when the NBA season began, a few things have changed. Some are minute; perhaps you switched from white wine to red, took up yoga or bought a new pair of dress shoes that you’ll save for just the proper occasion. Others, less so, but you can read about that in the oblique, unchecked vacuum that convinced you the world was one way when, in fact, it’s the other, at least to a large enough plurality for that to matter.
Much of what we presumed to be true is shaken, even stirred, while the rest is magnified to such an extent as to be distorted beyond reasonable comprehension. What we face now, in basketball as in life, is adjustment to the new normal.
Some of it is so blatantly stupid that the suggestion of it in the past would count as a party trick, meant to entertain guests between hors d’oeuvres. Yet now, we accept it, laughing to keep from crying. Marc Gasol is taking 3.5 threes a game, approximately 3.3 more than he’s ever taken in his career, and making over 40% of them? This is great television, but pass the butter. Luke Walton is a leading Coach of the Year candidate for his work with the Lakers? Sounds great, partner, but you gotta try my wife’s world famous buffalo dip. A fashionable tortoise is averaging a triple-double in Oklahoma City? Sure, fine, does this contain fish? You know I’m allergic.
Granted – and one look at any Twitter list of knowledgeable NBA panjandrums will tell you this, so go ahead and say it all together – sample size is everything, and given that no team is even twenty games into this thing yet, it’s worth taking a deep breath before looking at what is happening. But after that, it becomes easy to gaze, to marvel – there’s a 6’11” Athenian running the point for Milwaukee, and he just put up career numbers on LeBron James and the presumptive favorite to win the East! As the season goes on, possibility becomes probability, and because 2016 was built to shock, it can also become easy to take some of this for granted.
Though the entire night was prime for study, Tuesday night’s game in the Barclays Center was a perfect microcosm of what we think we know, and how basketball tends to tear that up and throw it in our faces, just for a laugh. Sporting the second-best Net Rating and Adjusted Net Rating in the league, only trailing the Golden State Warriors in both, the Los Angeles Clippers came to Brooklyn to play the lowly Nets, their mirror on the bottom side of the ratings scales. Even with Blake Griffin resting, the Clippers should have run the Nets out of their own building, with All-NBAers Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan leading the charge. An 11-point lead at the end of the third quarter suggested as much.
Then, after a sleepy first half, undrafted erstwhile D-Leaguer Sean Kilpatrick decided he was due for a career night, taking the load off Brook Lopez and going for 38 points after getting the start over resting defensive menace Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. In double-overtime, the Nets prevailed 127-122, refusing to die when life support seemed a stretch at times. In between, Chris Paul racked up an ultimately futile, if entertaining, triple-double, and Brook Lopez went 4-9 from behind the three-point line.
First, the Paul triple-double, a 26-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound line that Russell Westbrook’s season averages scoff at in disdain. Paul is at the forefront of the MVP discussion, and the Clippers’ splendid performances this season are due more clearly to his contributions than to Blake Griffin’s than in any previous season. Westbrook, meanwhile, may end up the patron saint of the futile triple-double at this rate, but that won’t stop him either.
On the other side, Lopez, a career 29% three-point shooter, has adopted the Gasol strategy, upping his attempts from a previous career high of 0.2 to a truly gut-rumbling 5.4, and he’s shooting 36.8% on the season anyway. To think that running a play enabling Brook Lopez to get open at the top of the key for a go-ahead three would be a legitimate part of Kenny Atkinson’s offensive scheme would have gotten you blocked on so many verified Twitter accounts in years past that becoming an egg with a handle of seven random numbers would’ve seemed the only path to the light.
Of course, there are the things that we do know coming to fruition, just to reassure us that reality is in three dimensions, that total insanity has not yet overcome us all. Kevin Durant remains an efficient nightmare; even if you’re still not used to seeing him in a Warriors uniform (the new normal, with the old being, alas, OKC), his beautiful shots still fall, predictably, like the inevitable end of a Rube Goldberg machine. Elsewhere, J.R. Smith, NBA champion (the new normal), is getting caught off-guard on a live defensive play for greeting Jason Terry, a man he once elbowed in the face on the way to earning a suspension during a playoff series (the old normal), on the sideline. Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’….
Externalities have a way of getting the best, and worst, of everyone. What we find to be out of our control puts us in positions of discomfort, forcing us to learn on the fly and adapt, fundamentally changing the way we approach what we do. It’s a cliché to say that how we respond to adversity defines who we are, but then, truth lies at the heart of every kernel of corn.
Russell Westbrook likely expected at least one more year of Kevin Durant as a pressure valve, and even for all the hype, Brett Brown can’t have expected Joel Embiid to be a polished, modern NBA center, complete with a stupefying jumper; instead, the hose is running wild in the yard, and all the neighborhood dogs have gathered, tongues out, tails wagging furiously, to watch the homeowner stare in bewilderment. Nothing left to do now but call the plumber, break out some t-r-e-a-t-s and have a seat on the deck.
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 Lopez has never done better than 14.3%, last season’s mark, and had only made three total in his entire career coming into this season. As of this writing, he has 28 this year.