Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
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.
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.
“I am Toronto.”
With these three words, and a reported $139 million, Compton native and All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan took his seat at the table of the NBA’s leader in latitude, the modern king of the midrange having found comfort in an uneasy Eastern Conference all the more unsettled by the various fluctuations that the summer of 2016 carried with it. DeRozan’s empathy for the frozen North made for great newspaper fodder, but it did not alleviate the worry that fans of his team, the Toronto Raptors, had at the time concerning their franchise’s future.
As has become the standard, that relief would arrive the following summer, when All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry inked his own $100 million deal to stay in Canada. Along with DeRozan, Lowry represents Toronto’s best chance at viability in an Eastern Conference long dominated by LeBron James’ regular season malaise giving way to humdrum playoff dominance. By seizing control of the #1 seed in the East, along with several high-profile wins, including those against Houston, Cleveland and a back-to-back drubbing of dark horse Process favorites the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto has edged its way into something like favorability, edged on by a modernistic offense and an ability to rise to the occasion.
Hello. What follows below the break is the climactic ending to the first Godfather film, but as an NBA basketball team.
You could almost sense it. A distant, long-forgotten feeling, far off on the horizon, was turning a black sky a deep shade of purple that, no matter how profoundly dark it remained, was nevertheless definitively lighter than before. At some point, it would shed its opacity and reveal itself, hope, in all its shining, youth-invoking glory. Its vessel? A 7’3” Latvian who could do things that no basketball court had ever seen.
Then, of course, came the reckoning, which every Knicks fan, and every basketball fan familiar with the Knicks franchise, should have expected. The purple faded back to black in cannonading fashion on Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, when, prior to his commandeering of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s soul, Giannis Antetokounmpo presented enough of himself in just the wrong area for Kristaps Porzingis to land awkwardly after finishing a dunk, something he has made routine, and tear his left ACL. The devil is always in the details, the wicked lying in the weeds.
I was in the midst of enjoying the end to a rare blowout victory by the New York Knicks over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night when a studio update, or some equivalent thereof, passed along the news, complete with accompanying video: DeMarcus Cousins had sustained some grave leg injury. Soon thereafter, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed the worst: that Cousins had torn his Achilles tendon and would miss 6-10 months, ending his season and raising questions aplenty for the present and future of his current team, the New Orleans Pelicans.
The film was predictably mundane, the perennial All-Star having gone to contest a rebound on his own missed foul shot against Trevor Ariza before crumbling to the floor. No gruesome, Gordon Hayward/Paul George/Kevin Ware-esque action, nor anything you would notice without the assistance of slow motion replay, struck Cousins, yet there he was, on the floor of an arena full of fans that had embraced him wholeheartedly since arriving from Sacramento during the All-Star break last year. They may have wished him their final farewell on Friday night, prematurely and unexpectedly.