Courtesy of Everclear
A circus comes to town, and you expect a few things. Maybe it’s a flame-eating swordsman, or a karate hero, or someone whose tattoos outnumber your hangers, or a lady with the high-wire abilities of your last boyfriend, struggling to explain why you need to make his share of this month’s rent. It happens.
What you end up expecting, though, is something magical, something surreal. It becomes something that you yourself do not think you could ever accomplish, even provided the time and, perhaps, physical ability to do what you are seeing. The Oklahoma City Thunder have become the NBA’s traveling circus. I cannot tell you how much it pains for me to describe them as such.
Courtesy Associated Press
Not that you were especially curious about my opinion, but being that we’re all curious about everyone’s opinions – only to the extent that we can then espouse upon our own, I suspect – let me be clear about what has happened over the past week: no, I have no idea what’s going on in the NBA, other than that players are doing whatever the hell they want, which is good for fans from an objectivity standpoint and bad for fans from a “We want a title at all costs!” standpoint.
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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.
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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.
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Let me begin by saying this, a sequence of phrases I never expected to type or read sequentially: this Martin Luther King Day will live in NBA Twitter infamy for the foreseeable future. It may rival Banana Boat Day as *the* definitive day in the cultural zeitgeist for many fans, being that it involved several more teams, as well as more star players, than that one did.
In a perfect reflection of its time, Monday was such an unabashedly ridiculous day that a few otherwise newsworthy headlines – Kyle Lowry challenging Ben Simmons to a fight; Russell Westbrook receiving an undeserving ejection before Carmelo Anthony defends him; the Hawks closing out on their (former) spiritual predecessors, the San Antonio Spurs; a second-tier Eastern Conference rivalry-in-the-making getting outstanding games from nearly all of its stars as the Bucks beat the Wizards; Memphis’ push to instill hope in Marc Gasol; Victor Oladipo’s revenge tour rolling over Utah; the Hornets winning a game(!); Cleveland literally shutting the hot water off on the preeminent team in the league, prompting Kevin Durant to call upon LeBron (the true owner) to fix things; the Knicks actually closing out a game over a winnable opponent – will get lost to history. No matter. The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers provided the kind of New York Post-worthy insanity to which only would-be kings and Kardashians aspire.
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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.