Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
We all saw it, and we knew what it was when it happened. With a little over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 2 of the first round playoff series between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two plays in succession told us everything we needed to know. A team expected to, at the very least, physically challenge the Golden State Warriors has once again fallen flat in the playoffs, its back prone against the 3-1 deficit it faces, neither of its stars producing at the levels we’ve come to expect.
Down three, Russell Westbrook shoves his way into what he believes with all of his heart, an organ I have come to believe is ablaze within his chest at all times, is a foul against Damian Lillard. Dame waves off the non-foul and subsequent possession – in which Westbrook drops himself out before bricking a three-pointer – in order to literally hype himself up before, you guessed it, knocking down a three-pointer in a seemingly-disinterested Westbrook’s face from just in front of the gigantic Blazers logo at center court. At that point, you knew what was coming, against the dying of the light.
It is admittedly unusual for us to recap a single game from a first round playoff series. Even elimination games, which are so ripe for assessment and criticism, both in the immediate aftermath and as time wears ceaselessly on heading into every other team’s offseason. Free agency beckons; fresh wounds heal, but the scars can inform decisions for players and teams, altering the direction of the entire league.
As such, the Utah Jazz’s prompt dispatch of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games calls for some prompt discernment. Russell Westbrook is the center of the Thunder’s galaxy, and as such, he draws adulation and condemnation in equal measures. He deserves considerable amounts of both, to be certain, but context is vital. Collective blame is undoubtedly shared in Oklahoma City.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Russell Westbrook is not going to save us. He can barely save himself, and he had to turn out an all-time playoff performance down 3-1 on Wednesday night to do so. The man who captivated us for all of last season, his stat-stuffing bonanzas bordering on joyous incontinence, who posted a triple-double average again, proving that context actually does play into the MVP award, finally combined with Paul George (and without Carmelo Anthony) to sail past the Utah Jazz in one of the most remarkable second halves the playoffs have ever seen. Still, he faces imminent danger.
A year after capturing the basketball zeitgeist, examining it closely and then firing it directly into the sun, Westbrook has led a re-tooled, if not altogether “better,” Oklahoma City Thunder team back to the playoffs. For most teams, this is, at worst, a modest success, something upon which to build no matter the outcome. For a Thunder team that did exactly this a year ago and then went out and got Paul George and the Tupperware container inside which the rotten remains of Carmelo Anthony live in the back of the refrigerator, however, a second consecutive first round exit would be nothing short of disastrous.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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.
Subway 1934, Lily Furedi
“For when we have suffered a long time, we have great difficulty in believing in good fortune.” – Edmond Dantès, The Count of Monte Cristo
Of the myriad tectonic shifts that have changed the landscape of the NBA this offseason, one of the least surprising was always bound to be Carmelo Anthony’s departure from the New York Knicks. In fact, that it took so long, as well as where he ended up, is the most shocking aspect of the deal. While Anthony is headed for surely greener pastures, albeit with a presumably (and rightfully) reduced role, his time with the Knicks will always inspire conflicted reactions. Before looking ahead, we always look back.
Akrotiri Thera Fresco, c. sixteenth century BCE
Likely dating back to the first interaction between civilizations of Homo sapiens from different geographic origins, the trade system is both as simple and complex as one wants it to be. An entity has something; another entity has another thing; each one wants what the other has, giving up as little as possible in order to gain it. With the exception of a few law-making scandals here and some ethical creativity there, that is all trade has ever been, whether it be Mycenaeans utilizing the Danube River, or your possibly drug-addled stockbroker gambling your retirement on the latest cryptocurrency.
Though the exchange of humans themselves largely, mercifully went out of fashion over the past two centuries, it remains a compelling means of business in the public arena of professional sports. We watch the games for a variety of reasons, but in the age of social media, reaction has become nearly as important as action. A team wins, and another loses. The former has to maintain its formula, while the latter has to figure out an antidote.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign was the coldest consolation prize for the first season since moving from Seattle spent without Kevin Durant. To paraphrase ESPN staff writer Royce Young, as eye-poppingly ostentatious as it was, for the Thunder to succeed with him, Westbrook’s 2016-’17 season can never happen again. The Monolith needed help, and on Tuesday, that help officially arrived.
“Salieri pours poison into Mozart’s glass,” Mikhail Vrubel
The popular perception of Antonio Salieri, if the stage and film versions of Amadeus are to be believed, is that he was the unforgiving rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man who championed the Austrian composer publicly while attempting to derail his career privately, like a southbound A train without a supportive governor for assistance. The film, of course, used poetic license to an extreme in the cases of both Salieri and Mozart, suggesting that, while there was some sense of rivalry, there was also a begrudging respect, manifested in the fact that Salieri conducted a handful of Mozart’s works both while the composer was alive and afterward.
A physical specimen of uncommon stature, even by 2017 standards, Russell Westbrook is not the prototypical NBA player. He stands at a modest 6’3” and weighs an everyman-esque 200 pounds, yet he in his 6’3”, 200-pound frame has done more in an athletic context, pound for pound, than perhaps anyone else (a) not playing upper echelon European soccer, (b) not an NFL quarter- or halfback, if that counts, or (c) named Allen Iverson. On Monday night, for his efforts this past season, one which was forgotten in June but will never, ever be forgotten, Westbrook was awarded this season’s Most Valuable Player.