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Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

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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AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

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[1]. 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.

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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.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images via the New York Times

Alright, settle down. Have a seat, take a five. Can we just take a five, please? Put your feet up for a while and relax. Especially you, Kobe. You’ve had more than enough to last you a lifetime. Now that the NBA’s regular season has drawn to a close, we all have a moment to catch our collective breath and reflect on what has just happened, which: what has just happened?

The Golden State Warriors have reset our perceptions of what basketball is and what can be accomplished within its strict confines. In particular, Steph Curry has been a supernova among supernovas; along with seemingly every other forum featuring a human being, a pair of eyes, a computer and a relative understanding of the game of basketball, we have covered them both extensively here already. The single most emblematic action this team routinely commits is the very play setting the standard for the league as it is now, the three-point shot.

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Houston Rockets guard Pablo Prigioni steals the ball from Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin in Game 7 of the NBA basketball Western Conference semifinals on May 17, 2015.

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.

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