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; 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.
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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At some point, somebody was going to hit a bucket. Tied 89-89 for what felt like several eternities, because playoff fourth quarters contain multitudes, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors kept hurling rocks at windows several stories above, waiting for the sound of shattered glass. When Kyrie Irving finally shattered that glass to put the Cavs up 92-89, a pin dropping in Oracle Arena would’ve registered many more decibels.
LeBron going down with an apparent injury with just over ten seconds left gave him one more opportunity to lift up a city against the odds, but he’d done that all series. The first missed free throw was vaguely Starks-esque in its presumed defeatism, but then, defeatism doesn’t get you anywhere when you’re trying to win, and it doesn’t seem likely that anybody has ever tried to win harder than LeBron was trying to win Game 7. He did, as we know, and now he is a champion as a Cleveland Cavalier, for the first time and for all time.
Finally, the series we all assumed would happen for much of the season has arrived. In what many will call “a rematch,” NBA Finals begins tonight, with the defending champion (and Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™) Golden State Warriors once again welcoming the Cleveland Cavaliers to Oracle Arena. Calling it “a rematch” is technically correct insofar as the same two franchises representing the same two cities as last year return; however, what makes the Finals so apparently compelling is how much the circumstances surrounding these teams have changed since June 2015.
For all intents and purposes, the Cavs arrive in Oakland a different team entirely from the one that pushed last year’s Warriors to six games, though the chip on their shoulder carries more mass than that of the nearly 400,000 Cleveland residents combined. Golden State, meanwhile, has merely greased the wheels of its finely-tuned apparatus, defying every expectation except their own.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Election season kicks into full gear today with the Iowa caucuses, an occasion riddled with dispute, intrigue and the eternally raging debate of democracy’s precise place in this country. While the caucuses can be good indicators of a political party’s eventual Presidential candidate, they are by no means perfect, as peer pressure and community influence° can alter the outcome.
In this election season, it bears remembering that the purest form of democracy left in this nation, and possibly in the world, happens in sports. Leaving All-Star voting to the fans can cause some anomalies, not the least of which being that fans voted career enforcer John Scott to play in the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday. Unlike some of the new bosses we meet, who end up being same as the old boss, Scott did not disappoint the voters, nor did he leave any question about how deserving he was.
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On Sunday in Charlotte, a quarterback led his team to a 31-0 first half lead, one that team nearly squandered entirely, before securing a victory. The quarterback is his league’s MVP, and his team has been consistently – and rather quietly – the best in the league this season by no small margin. His celebrations have prompted equal parts resounding support and agitated ire, the latter of which hounds the player for his childlike enthusiasm, charisma-as-arrogance and, mostly, his stellar play, the likes of which the sport has never seen previously.
Meanwhile, on Monday night in Cleveland, a joyous band of star shooters thoroughly tore down the greatest basketball player of his generation in the arena in which they celebrated their championship seven short months ago. The centerpiece of that squad, a point guard from Charlotte, is his league’s MVP and, barring something unforeseen, will be again. Aside from a small pocket of rage which seemingly only comes from contrarian people with a noticeably absent agenda otherwise, the American public and media have resoundingly accepted this team for its childlike enthusiasm, charisma-as-arrogance and, mostly, its stellar play, the likes of which the sport has never seen previously.
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The 2014-’15 NBA season is now over, having come in like a lion and gone out like the exploding sun’s inevitable consumption of the Earth. The best team from the regular season capped off its run with a championship, and the best player in the world sulked away with a 2-3 record in the NBA Finals after posting one of the greatest individual series ever. LeBron James is the seminal figure in the movement which fell him in these Finals, and Golden State’s enthusiastic adoption of flexibility proved too much for Cleveland’s limited, defense-heavy rotation.
Shout out to the fan in the crowd wearing the USA jersey, because he knows who the real winner of this series is. (AFP Photo/Jason Miller)
This is a safe space. Here, you can feel free to admit that you had no idea how we got here, to a 2-1 Cavaliers lead through three games of the NBA Finals. You probably thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kevin Love became Kelly Olynyk’s personal Stretch Armstrong action figure. And you definitely thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured kneecap in Game 1. Sure, they had LeBron, but at 30 and in his fifth straight Finals, how much damage could he possibly inflict on his own? People that now say they knew the Cavs would be up 2-1 under these circumstances are liars. It’s alright, you can admit you were wrong. We all were.
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” – Ayrton Senna
Even more so than usual, I’ve been thinking about Russell Westbrook. Let me start over: I’ve been thinking about Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans’ uphill charge into the Western Conference playoffs. Standing in their way, of course, for most of the second half of the season has been the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have spent the majority of their injury-riddled season as presumed playoff participants. As Westbrook continues his quest to personally decimate everything in his path, Davis has led the Pelicans to the eighth and final spot with a week to go. New Orleans holds the tiebreaker but plays a much tougher schedule. The Thunder have Westbrook; does any team need more than that?