It is admittedly unusual for us to recap a single game from a first round playoff series. Even elimination games, which are so ripe for assessment and criticism, both in the immediate aftermath and as time wears ceaselessly on heading into every other team’s offseason. Free agency beckons; fresh wounds heal, but the scars can inform decisions for players and teams, altering the direction of the entire league.
As such, the Utah Jazz’s prompt dispatch of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games calls for some prompt discernment. Russell Westbrook is the center of the Thunder’s galaxy, and as such, he draws adulation and condemnation in equal measures. He deserves considerable amounts of both, to be certain, but context is vital. Collective blame is undoubtedly shared in Oklahoma City.
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Russell Westbrook is not going to save us. He can barely save himself, and he had to turn out an all-time playoff performance down 3-1 on Wednesday night to do so. The man who captivated us for all of last season, his stat-stuffing bonanzas bordering on joyous incontinence, who posted a triple-double average again, proving that context actually does play into the MVP award, finally combined with Paul George (and without Carmelo Anthony) to sail past the Utah Jazz in one of the most remarkable second halves the playoffs have ever seen. Still, he faces imminent danger.
A year after capturing the basketball zeitgeist, examining it closely and then firing it directly into the sun, Westbrook has led a re-tooled, if not altogether “better,” Oklahoma City Thunder team back to the playoffs. For most teams, this is, at worst, a modest success, something upon which to build no matter the outcome. For a Thunder team that did exactly this a year ago and then went out and got Paul George and the Tupperware container inside which the rotten remains of Carmelo Anthony live in the back of the refrigerator, however, a second consecutive first round exit would be nothing short of disastrous.
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The most influential player in the 2018 NBA playoffs has yet to attempt a shot. I wish I could claim that I was referring to Joel Embiid, the man currently known as the Phantom of the Process. Embiid clearly has the potential to place near the top of any list of “important” players, but the absurdly athletic and constantly entertaining center still has only regular season accomplishments to his name. Besides that fact, the most influential player I was referring to has arguably cast such a long shadow over the sport, that his performance over the past three years seems to have inspired the league’s young seven footers to work on their long distance shooting as much as their post games. With apologies to the process, I’m talking about Steph Curry.
Curry has been missing from the action long enough that the Houston Rockets closed the gap to become near co-favorites to win the title. The Warriors have only lost one playoff game out of their last 19. Yet, FiveThirtyEight, while leaning (too?) heavily on regular season data, has only just moved them from seventh to third in their ELO rankings. Back-to-back blowouts of their weakened rivals from San Antonio have barely jogged the culture’s collective short memory.
Right now, the world is James Harden’s oyster. He is the toast of the town, the cream of the crop and other phrases Frank Sinatra deleted from the original lyrics to “New York, New York,” complete with the requisite GQ profile. He is the presumptive NBA MVP and, depending on whom you choose to trust, should already have two in his cabinet. He’ll be the second player ever, after Bill Walton, to win both the Sixth Man of the Year and MVP awards. This is his time.
Equally important is the fact that, with these Houston Rockets, Harden has the best supporting cast since Oklahoma City traded him to Houston prior to the start of the 2012 season. Following his historically-efficient 2016-’17 season running the point, the first under prescient head coach Mike D’Antoni, and flaming out in spectacular fashion against the Spurs in the second round of last year’s playoffs, the Rockets went out and picked up the best point guard of his generation to share some of the load in the back court and promptly rolled off a 65-win season, the best in the history of the franchise, capturing the 1-seed and beating the epoch-defining Golden State Warriors two out of three times.
Chris Paul has enabled Harden in ways that Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and even the vaunted Durant-Westbrook combo couldn’t in years past. Harden is the first player ever to lead the league in points the season after he led in assists; he knows how to adjust. What lies before him is a remarkable challenge, one which could solidify his legacy as a figure of the zeitgeist. He figures to welcome this moment with open arms.
It’s not like Anthony Davis expected this, either. Coming into the season, expectations for the New Orleans Pelicans were sky-high, having run off an 11-14 record to close last season following the trade for DeMarcus Cousins that nevertheless inspired hope in a fan base accustomed to insipid displays by 11 of a dressed 12 on any given night.
In this era of normalizing the relatively small – that is, getting used to seeing otherwise jarringly large humans between 6’7” and 6’10” thrown into lineups and deemed “small for their position, traditionally, but with the ability to space the floor!,” the Twin Towers look had been out of fashion with few exceptions. Then, literally during last season’s All-Star Weekend, the Pelicans traded for the Swiss Army knife that is Boogie to pair alongside erstwhile Best in the World-in-waiting Anthony Davis.
The tandem worked kinks out toward the end of last season, the team re-signed Jrue Holiday and brought Rajon Rondo in for maximum weirdness, and everybody prepared for the Pelicans to be THE League Pass fodder to watch. Until…they meshed, better than expected, and went 27-21 through their first 48 games.