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Thomas B. Shea/USA Today Sports

Early returns on the 2018-’19 NBA season have been extremely varied. That’s not to say the basketball itself hasn’t been good; between the paralleled excellence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, the ongoing development of LeBron’s Lakers Day Care, DeMar DeRozan embracing San Antonio, Steph Curry firing out of the gate and Klay Thompson one-upping his Splash Brother by nearly quadrupling the number of threes he’d made all season in a single night[1], there has been plenty to see, and not all of it has to do with the Golden State Warriors’ seemingly inevitable death march to their fourth title in five years.

Some of it has been a bit…strange, though. Some things are off, and it isn’t just Markelle Fultz[2]. Defenses are getting to Ben Simmons (or, rather, not getting anywhere near him, except in the paint). The Boston Celtics, who took LeBron to seven games in the East Finals last year and are now re-integrating two All-Stars into their lineup, have returned a maniacal defense but have been unexpectedly dysfunctional on the other end. Oklahoma City stumbled out of the gate. 50-point Derrick Rose? 50-point Derrick Rose. The Sacramento Kings have won four in a row and five of their last six! What is this world coming to?

In the midst of all the madness lie the Houston Rockets, who currently sit at 1-5 with matching bottom-five Offensive and Defensive Ratings. James Harden has looked all the MVP he was a year ago, and Clint Capela has continued to progress into a two-way force, but everything else is amiss. Mike D’Antoni and company have some ’splaining to do.

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NBA.com

Somewhere between Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in Game 5 and their dubious, NBA playoff-record streak of 27 consecutive missed three-pointers[1] in the second half of Game 7, the Houston Rockets lost the best chance any team was going to have of felling the Golden State Warriors. It was foolish for any of us to doubt them – not that all of us did, mind you, but some did – and now, the team which stands to define a generation sits four wins away from its second straight title and third championship in four years.

The proposition was always thus: beat the Warriors, a team with four current All-Stars, five probably Hall of Famers and a wealth of role players to fill in the gaps, four times in seven tries. Even after the Rockets won 65 games, grabbing the top seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, it was never a real possibility that Golden State would lose until and unless such a catastrophe actually happened.

After going down 3-2 and entering halftime of both Games 6 and 7 down by double-digits, Golden State calmly and mechanically worked its way back, outscoring Houston 64-25[2] and 58-38 over each game’s second half, respectively. As always, the Warriors were able to turn to all of their other stars if one didn’t shine so brightly. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.

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Oh, how quickly we forget. Or maybe it’s just about wanting to believe in something, anything, so much right now, surrounded by *gestures more broadly than any wingspan at the NBA combine could contain* all of this, that we can talk ourselves into believing in the most irrational things. Just look at [caters to your political leaning by making a correspondingly tactful reference to current proceedings]. Somewhere between Roger Daltrey and George W. Bush, however, we were supposed to have learned not to get fooled again. And yet, here we are, forcing ourselves into this dance once again like a spurned defender asking for a second helping of James Harden.

Are we really going to do this? We’re going to do this. Alright, fine, let’s do this: Houston had a problem, and then it remembered its own solution, and now the Western Conference Finals are tied 1-1. This doesn’t solve anything.

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Courtesy the AP, via the New York Post

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[1]; 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.

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Jose Orozco, Hombre de Fuego (Man of Fire), 1939

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.

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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.

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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Well well well. Here we are again. After a four-month period that felt like several millennia, the NBA regular season begins tonight with two games featuring four of this season’s expected biggest draws: at 8 p.m. Eastern, the new-look Boston Celtics face the relatively old-look Cleveland Cavaliers, and following that, the Chris Paul-James Harden era begins as the Houston Rockets take on the current proprietors of the universe, the Golden State Warriors.

The question isn’t “Did you miss it?”; it’s how much you missed it, and in an age in which every single day is a testament to human will, the slightest reprieve can provide the biggest impact. If everything is bad, fine, but there is some reason to believe the smallest hints of light can fight back all this darkness. Best of luck to all of these teams, except for the Warriors, whose organization’s luck[1] is such that two of its four (!) All-Stars could sustain injuries, and the team would still be favored. 2017 is such a crushing time. Unless you’re a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team, which everybody is. Congratulations: we’re all borderline Eastern Conference playoff teams.

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Akrotiri Thera Fresco, c. sixteenth century BCE

Likely dating back to the first interaction between civilizations of Homo sapiens from different geographic origins, the trade system is both as simple and complex as one wants it to be. An entity has something; another entity has another thing; each one wants what the other has, giving up as little as possible in order to gain it. With the exception of a few law-making scandals here and some ethical creativity there, that is all trade has ever been, whether it be Mycenaeans utilizing the Danube River, or your possibly drug-addled stockbroker gambling your retirement on the latest cryptocurrency.

Though the exchange of humans themselves largely, mercifully went out of fashion over the past two centuries, it remains a compelling means of business in the public arena of professional sports. We watch the games for a variety of reasons, but in the age of social media, reaction has become nearly as important as action. A team wins, and another loses. The former has to maintain its formula, while the latter has to figure out an antidote.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign was the coldest consolation prize for the first season since moving from Seattle spent without Kevin Durant. To paraphrase ESPN staff writer Royce Young, as eye-poppingly ostentatious as it was, for the Thunder to succeed with him, Westbrook’s 2016-’17 season can never happen again. The Monolith needed help, and on Tuesday, that help officially arrived.

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“Salieri pours poison into Mozart’s glass,” Mikhail Vrubel

The popular perception of Antonio Salieri, if the stage and film versions of Amadeus are to be believed, is that he was the unforgiving rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man who championed the Austrian composer publicly while attempting to derail his career privately, like a southbound A train without a supportive governor for assistance. The film, of course, used poetic license to an extreme in the cases of both Salieri and Mozart, suggesting that, while there was some sense of rivalry, there was also a begrudging respect, manifested in the fact that Salieri conducted a handful of Mozart’s works both while the composer was alive and afterward.

A physical specimen of uncommon stature, even by 2017 standards, Russell Westbrook is not the prototypical NBA player. He stands at a modest 6’3” and weighs an everyman-esque 200 pounds[1], yet he in his 6’3”, 200-pound frame has done more in an athletic context, pound for pound, than perhaps anyone else (a) not playing upper echelon European soccer, (b) not an NFL quarter- or halfback, if that counts, or (c) named Allen Iverson[2]. On Monday night, for his efforts this past season, one which was forgotten in June but will never, ever be forgotten, Westbrook was awarded this season’s Most Valuable Player.

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Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell (1960)

Today marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs, a most glorious time of the year when the basketball is noticeably better. In a season full of downright certainty underpinned by complete uncertainty, these playoffs are going to shock and surprise us in ways we can’t even imagine, because they almost universally do. Can’t hold anything back now, and all that.

For just a brief moment, however, it seems fitting to gaze back with awe on one of the more improbable regular seasons we are ever likely to see, one full of jaw-dropping individual performances. Specifically, and with the utmost respect, it is my duty to inform you that, unless you are one of the members of the media yet to reveal their MVP vote via a longform column explaining why you didn’t pick any of the other candidates instead, nobody cares about your choice for this year’s NBA MVP.

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