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In the grand scheme of these playoffs, it is a singular moment that, taken to any other end, wouldn’t have mattered. The capital-A Adult Jimmy Butler shot just preceding it had tied the game at 90 apiece, meaning it would have gone to overtime anyway. Like the Damian Lillard shot against Oklahoma City before it – but also, so very unlike the Damian Lillard shot against Oklahoma City before it – the fortune of the shooter’s team would, at the very least, have been no worse in the moment after had he missed.
When Kawhi’s moonshot clinked-clanked-clunked-and-clinked-again before dropping in, sealing the Toronto Raptors’ 92-90 victory and sending the representatives of the lone Canadian outpost in the NBA to the Eastern Conference Finals, the basketball world stopped, if only for a brief respite. Now, with that ball through the hoop and the Raptors on to a date with the Milwaukee Bucks, as many questions have arisen as were answered.
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Last Sunday in Brooklyn, after having been down by as much as 20 points, the Philadelphia 76ers found themselves with the ball, down a single point, with less than ten seconds remaining. On the floor were, predictably, four Sixers regulars – Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick and Wilson Chandler – as well as the recently-acquired Jimmy Butler. In an eerily similar sequence to one that had played out the weekend before in Charlotte, Butler shook free on the right wing and hit a step back three-pointer to give his team the lead, leaving under a second on the clock for his opponents. The Sixers won, 127-125.
Notably absent from the proceedings, yet again, was Philadelphia’s first #1 overall draft pick to actually play in his first year since Allen Iverson, a 20-year-old who has amassed a total of 680 minutes in 33 games over his two seasons in the NBA and who has not played since November 19th, in which he logged seven minutes against the lowly Phoenix Suns (more on them momentarily). Butler’s arrival, insertion into the starting lineup ahead of Fultz and evident, immediate impact has all but rendered Markelle Fultz a redundancy, so to speak, if not yet a flat-out bust. The undrafted T.J. McConnell is now soaking up minutes left behind by a former #1 overall pick, with the latter left in limbo.
Elton Brand was last an active NBA player less than two years ago. He put up 4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists in seventeen games, including one start, with the 2015-’16 Philadelphia 76ers, which won exactly 10 games, only one ahead of the all-time NBA record for fewest victories in an 82-game season, held by the 1972-’73 Sixers. He wasn’t especially good, but neither was anybody else on that team. Shout out to leading scorer, then-rookie and soon-to-be journeyman Jahlil Okafor, for throwing up 17.5 points and seven rebounds a night; your efforts were well-regarded in Manayunk, I’m sure.
A native of Peekskill, New York, and well-traveled otherwise via his not-quite-journeyman-like career in the NBA, Brand would qualify as the Wooderson-like guy who has seen some things, if the NBA were a teen sex comedy. Following his retirement, the second and final he would announce, he was immediately appointed to various player development positions within the Sixers organization before, on Tuesday, being announced as Bryan Colangelo’s non-burner account replacement as Philadelphia’s general manager. By bringing in a relative veteran of The Process, this puts the fittingly weird cap on a strange but bountiful summer for a team on the cusp of Eastern Conference pre-eminence.
It all feels pretty much normal now, doesn’t it? It’s the first week of May, and we have: LeBron treating the Air Canada Centre like a rental property; the Warriors strutting out to a 2-0 series lead over New Orleans, thanks in part to the return of Steph Curry and despite the ongoing dominance of Anthony Davis; the Wizards watching from home by the second round; and the Rockets having decimated the league’s best defensive team of the second half of the season (and subsequently falling in Game 2, calling into question Houston’s bona fides).
By most accounts, even after one of the most exciting first rounds in recent NBA playoff memory, everything is pretty much going according to plan. Everything, that is, except for the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, featuring two young-ish teams boasting a wealth of talent and assets. It wouldn’t have been totally unreasonable to expect either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics to be in their current positions, but to have done it like this, each in their own, singular ways, is as impressive as it is foreboding.