Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated
I am a Detroit Pistons fan. It should be said that I am an incredibly casual Detroit Pistons fan, and while I followed the team closely during its glory years in the ’00s, these days I rarely go more in-depth than watching their (exceedingly rare) national broadcasts, checking scores and reading Andre Drummond features that occasionally cross my Twitter feed.
This is only to say that I am explicitly not someone to offer any sort of depth or nuance in my opinion of the modern NBA. I watch the later playoff rounds, and generally know which players are exceedingly good or outright trash, but any sort of in-depth knowledge I have on the league predates Steph Curry’s time in the league. When it comes to watching pro basketball, I am all feeling and no head these days.
Robert Hanashiro – USA TODAY Sports
Let me begin by saying this, a sequence of phrases I never expected to type or read sequentially: this Martin Luther King Day will live in NBA Twitter infamy for the foreseeable future. It may rival Banana Boat Day as *the* definitive day in the cultural zeitgeist for many fans, being that it involved several more teams, as well as more star players, than that one did.
In a perfect reflection of its time, Monday was such an unabashedly ridiculous day that a few otherwise newsworthy headlines – Kyle Lowry challenging Ben Simmons to a fight; Russell Westbrook receiving an undeserving ejection before Carmelo Anthony defends him; the Hawks closing out on their (former) spiritual predecessors, the San Antonio Spurs; a second-tier Eastern Conference rivalry-in-the-making getting outstanding games from nearly all of its stars as the Bucks beat the Wizards; Memphis’ push to instill hope in Marc Gasol; Victor Oladipo’s revenge tour rolling over Utah; the Hornets winning a game(!); Cleveland literally shutting the hot water off on the preeminent team in the league, prompting Kevin Durant to call upon LeBron (the true owner) to fix things; the Knicks actually closing out a game over a winnable opponent – will get lost to history. No matter. The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers provided the kind of New York Post-worthy insanity to which only would-be kings and Kardashians aspire.
On the Waterfront (1954, Columbia Pictures)
“I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.” – Steph Curry, October 2015
So often, when assessing the circumstances surrounding a season and its participants, onlookers make the critical error without the proper framing. This is true of culture – Lemonade as the greatest work of artistic liberation this year, this decade or this century, let alone this week – but is dominant in sports. Conversations abound concerning Karl-Anthony Towns’ place in the all-time NBA player hierarchy with, now, nearly as much frequency as LeBron James’, if you look in the right places.
Rare is the situation that doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to have a definitive historical identity waiting in the wings. This season, the NBA gave us two, possibly three, teams whose historical contexts seem almost preordained. Rarer still is the fact that each team faces unique circumstances which are fascinating in a vacuum but even more so when contrasted with one another.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
The image of the gunslinger is one of classic American lore. A grizzled veteran of saloon shootouts and vigilante justice, he walks with a distinct swagger and carries himself with pride, knowing he is merely a poker game gone awry from coming face to face with his demise.
It seems that gunslingers will always dictate the history of the West. The barroom brawl that just concluded in Houston has left one team dazed and the other unfazed.
Yesterday, the NBA officially announced Wardell Stephen Curry II as the MVP, and rightfully so. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook during the second half of the season, nobody was more consistently electrifying than Curry, whose barrages of three-pointers and Vine-worthy displays of ankle-breaking handles impelled the Warriors to a league-best 67 wins. Curry’s play leaves you gasping for air, wondering if the sun rises simply to shine on the scrawny kid from Charlotte and his band of audacious musketeers.
Instead, however, I want to talk about another product of North Carolina, an injured point guard who never so much inspires gasps as he does head-nodding. He is the smartest on-court player in the league, perhaps its best backcourt defender, as polarizing as he is mesmerizing. On one leg, he may have just ended the greatest sports dynasty of the last two decades (“may have,” only because nothing is certain in San Antonio’s Fountain of Youth, and that sentence could’ve been written anytime from 2006-2013, with any number of slayers replacing Paul). The time has come to lavish praise, begrudgingly if you must, on Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in history.
Watching Russell Westbrook over the past two months has inspired a litany of think-pieces attempting to analyze what makes such a player tick, and at what point that tick becomes the soundtrack to a time bomb that goes off every 24 seconds. Westbrook is whatever you want him to be, and he isn’t; the love he attracts is in direct correlation to the immense hatred he inspires. His gallops to the rim, nonchalantly ignoring every open teammate while realizing that he has a better chance 1-on-5 than they do unguarded, are both crass and brave, simultaneously shattering mirrors and creating new ones. His playing style is iconoclastic (and his style is iconoclastic, for better or for worse), giving the middle finger to both old-school team devotees and disciples of statistical analysis. Basically, at his size and with the limited means at his disposal, what he’s doing should be impossible, but Russell Westbrook doesn’t share our reality.
Editor’s Note: NO DONALD STERLING THIS WEEK. If you want your fill of that, head to James Vasiliou’s post from April 30. But, and it really does go without saying, Donald Sterling is a supreme scumbag whose documented racism only reveals the tip of a much larger, more complicated iceberg that doesn’t have much to do with basketball.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I meant to make a post composed entirely of this gif much sooner because it is so perfect. It has everything: Blake Griffin, having fouled out of the first playoff game against the Warriors on April 19, looks positively incredulous at the scoreboard, such to the point that he forgets he’s got a full cup of water in his hand, which he promptly tosses on probably the only Warriors fan in the entire front row of the Staples Center. They share an exchange, which allows Griffin to live up to his marketable, likable persona. It’s pretty adorable, all things considered. Elsewhere, an Oklahoma City newspaper lambasted its anointed one, who angrily dropped 36 on Memphis that night. The Pacers have their backs to the wall, no thanks to their Hoya hero. Also, we’re reminded of the fact that this is Damian Lillard’s universe.
In a strange twist of events, the All-Star Game was the actual best part of this year’s All-Star Weekend. Kyrie Irving lit up the Crescent City, scoring 31 points and adding 14 assists in a record-breaking game during which both teams cleared 150 points. Saturday night’s festivities, long the most exciting of the break, failed to deliver. Elsewhere, the trade deadline passes, coming in like a motorcycle and going out like a tricycle. Also, the KD-LeBron dichotomy is heating (thundering?) up, though both just seem to want to play their own brands of basketball.
The halcyon days of Blake Griffin as “the world’s best dunk artist who just happens to play professional basketball” are over in Los Angeles. Without Chris Paul, Lob City has managed to go 12-6 without their leader and guide, Chris Paul, and Griffin’s magisterial performance in a losing effort against the Heat on February 5 was one of the most exciting and thought-provoking games of the season. Elsewhere, Dan Gilbert is doing his best not to foster a Steinbrenner-Martin relationship with Mike Brown, and the Lakers played out an near-video game scenario against those very same Cavaliers. Also, the Brow is an All-Star for the very first time, and Damian Lillard can destroy anything with a basketball in his hand.
The final installment of the TwH NBA preview brings us way out west, to the Pacific Division. Standing in the shadow of Kobe’s territory, the Clippers look to win over the Staples Center fans with one of the most appealing one-two combos in recent memory. The Warriors will be looking to firebomb opponents with 3-pointers from every angle, but will that reliance doom them come playoff time? Also, what about Steph Curry’s ankles? Boogie Cousins is one of the most polarizing figures in a basketball town with a history of polarizing figures (and some pretty good basketball). Can he keep a cool enough head to flash the Kings back a decade? And finally, will anyone willingly watch a Suns game who does not live in the greater Phoenix market?