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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.
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.
“This is my lowest point as a Philly sports fan” was the first post I saw on Facebook after the news broke that Sam Hinkie had resigned from his role as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, it was a sincere post. I know because it was written by a close friend, one of many such friends and fellow Sixers fans echoing sentiments of pure anguish on my various social media feeds. To an outside observer, this type of negativity might seem out of place. Typically, change from top to bottom is welcomed by fans of a professional sports team that has finished near last place in the standings for three straight years. In that situation, any type of change could signify a much needed fresh start. It potentially marks the beginning of a so-called “rebuilding phase.”
This is similar to when a movie series reboots after a disappointing sequel. Reboots and rebuilds usually create a sense of hope that things will improve. Sometimes, that sense of hope appears to be the main impetus for the change, because hope can bring back fans who have given up on the team°. Of course, a large number of 76ers fans are atypical in this regard because they did not want change. They are even more atypical because they already had hope. Along with pride, hope might have been all they had.
Wake up, dust off your finest Jordans, throw on a pair of sunglasses and tell the world to deal with it, because the NBA is finally back on your television tonight. Three games featuring five playoff teams from a year ago, including the defending champion Golden State Warriors, return us to the hardwood. So much has transpired this offseason, it can be easy to get caught up in it. Such is life in the 24/7/365 NBA, if you allow it to be.
We can only say and think so much about basketball, however, without there being any games. Before the first tip-off of the season (Cavs/Bulls or, if you prefer, Hawks/Pistons, tonight at 8 pm), let’s spare a thought – not necessarily a prediction, though there will be more than a fair share of those – to each franchise, in alphabetical order. Some of them may be painfully obvious or extremely misguided, because I guess I don’t think about the Minnesota Timberwolves nearly enough. Anyway, best of luck to the following teams, especially the Knicks. Those dudes are gonna need it.
I know this gentleman’s sister. She also trusts the process.
Wikipedia pinpoints the start date of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour as June 7th, 1988. Since then, with a brief pause due to health concerns in 1997, Dylan has toured internationally almost non-stop, intermittently breaking to release albums. He alienates and enchants his fans, which has always been part of the Dylan mystique, but no matter what, he keeps our attention. As the self-proclaimed poet laureate of rock and roll, he’s earned that much.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when it became imperative to keep track of every movement in professional basketball, but my best guess is that somewhere in the last decade or so, ESPN, FreeDarko, statistical analysis and all which those entities begat made the NBA tab of the Bottomline like reading a daily newspaper. In the year-round NBA, we hardly have a moment to breathe.