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.
Courtesy, I guess, of Absolute Entertainment
“One man. One bus. Three hundred and sixty miles of simulated post-apocalyptic desert, and the endless struggle between man and nature personified.”
So begins the description of the iTunes version of Desert Bus, a minigame which originated on Sega and the PC within the world of Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors and which has been hailed by some, including The New Yorker, as “the very worst video game ever created.” It is a testament to futility, yet one which allows for the possibility, however minimal and cockamamie, of victory. Drive the distance from Tucson to Las Vegas, in painstaking real time and with the bus constantly swerving just so to the right, and be rewarded with a single, solitary point. The game cannot be paused.
The metaphor you likely saw coming: LeBron James is the driver of this bus. Each game of these Finals is likely to be his own, personal trek to Las Vegas on behalf of a nation that unwittingly bought a ticket. We’re all aboard for the rubber match of a rivalry that is set to define this revolutionary half-decade of NBA basketball, a handful of years which will determine the course of the league, and its game, for a long while. But first, of course, must come the unmanageable task of the series itself.
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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.
Filed under “nothing we don’t already know,” playing with emotions is tricky. At a turn, it looks like Russell Westbrook punching through a brick wall of defenders at light speed, a grass-fed Novak Djokovic urging the crowd to get behind him or Mark Messier shouldering the weight of a cursed franchise, as well as his own guarantee. It looks like Chris Paul scoring 61 points for his grandfather, or Brett Favre throwing for four touchdowns on Monday Night Football. It also looks like Russian hooligans bringing their country’s soccer team to the edge of disqualification at Euro 2016 over fits of violence with other fans and the police.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, we saw two facets of this imponderably massive spectrum. Draymond Green’s inevitable suspension for extracurricular activity gave rise to stellar performances from the four biggest stars in Oracle Arena, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson dared each other into the best game of the series thus far. Whether this acts as fuel to Cleveland’s fire or simply delays the inevitable made it an altogether more compelling spectacle.
So, Canada. The stereotypes abound for our neighbor to the north, from being polite to the point of apology to a seeming national mandate to wear flannel and grow beards to an unconscious appetite for maple syrup and Molson. At the moment, the country’s greatest export is a former teen actor-turned-living PBR&B emoticon who has enough #VIEWS to spawn several generations of memes. Innocuous, vaguely socialist and definitely non-confrontational: this is the Canada we know and love°.
A nation with seven (7) NHL teams and only one NBA franchise has this season seen its hockey teams fail to produce a single playoff participant – when half the league goes to the playoffs – and its basketball team reach its final four. Thus far, the Toronto Raptors have played two seven-game series and are arguably lucky to have escaped both on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nevertheless, Toronto did make it, and though the spectre of the league’s most dominant player awaits them, it would seem foolish to write off the resident reptilians.
Jacque Vaughn’s time in Orlando has come to a merciful, if somewhat misguided, end. The Magic have parted ways with the 39-year-old former point guard who struggled to coax the NBA’s fourth-youngest roster at the start of the season to competitiveness in a historically feeble Eastern Conference. Elsewhere, the Eastern Conference named an entire starting five as its Player of the Month, and Adam Silver is reportedly open to changing the playoff structure.