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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.
Lonnie Walker, with a fan/Kevin Hagen, AP
There are two incontrovertible truths about the NBA Draft, the 2018 edition of which occurred Thursday night, with which only the most high-minded blowhards and low-minded rubes refuse to agree: one, that it ought to be abolished entirely, allowing incoming rookies to enter a special free agency period before standard free agency; and two, that nobody knows exactly how players are going to pan out upon arrival to the league, all your Tracy McGrady and Darko comparisons be damned.
On the first, many others have pontificated in much better fashion than I could in this space, right now. It would be complicated to implement something like a rookies-only free agency period, particularly with the value of draft picks present and future as they are in the NBA, but it would not be impossible. Perhaps something like ratioed salary cap allowances, in which each draft pick is worth a certain amount of money under the salary cap, or even simply straight cash, homie, could do the trick, but I’ll leave that to those with more money and power than subway rats and their constituents possess.
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.
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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.
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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 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.