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It all seemed so futile, right up until it didn’t. When the Golden State Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, well-below-market value contract in the summer of 2018, it was as if the embarrassment of riches had itself become embarrassed. It is nice to have nice things; it is rude to flaunt those nice things so rabidly that the idea of not having any of it becomes offensive.
When Kawhi Leonard, the Board Man, decided it was his time to fell another dynastic squad, however, there was little that Golden State could do about it. Through an unreplicable series of transactions, the Toronto Raptors were able to beat the Warriors at their own game. On Thursday night, in the final NBA game ever at Oracle Arena, the Raptors became the world champions, bringing a title to the homeland of the sport’s inventor.
Rock’N The City – Ylli Haruni
You’re talking yourself into this, huh? You listened to Drake’s entire discography (again) after the Eastern Conference Finals, and now you think the Raptors could do this thing, the thing only LeBron James and co. have accomplished over the past five years – and even then, only once in four tries. It will take a distinctly 2016 Cavs-esque effort, and perhaps some of the similar circumstances, for the Toronto Raptors to fell the Golden State Warriors.
Finally, after months of three-game road trips, Kia commercials and the proliferation of the phrase “load management,” we have arrived. The NBA Finals begin tonight, pitting two teams on different trajectories in a truly international showdown.
“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.
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Inevitability in sports is simply an extension of the existing tension between favorites and underdogs. What seems inevitable at any given time in any given sports is that which the rest of the sport attempts to topple. A certain pursuit of destruction of the status quo keeps the standard-bearers honest and the rest earnest. What is remains; what will be, will be.
For so many reasons, both external and internal, the Golden State Warriors have seized the NBA’s current moment. What LeBron James is to the Eastern Conference, the Warriors have become to the entire league, the defining signpost any opponent must pass on the way to a championship. Once a seemingly burgeoning dynasty, however, the Thunder isn’t here for the noise. Now, after a franchise-altering trade and a series upset of the NBA’s most consistent team, nothing is inevitable in Oklahoma City.
Watching Russell Westbrook over the past two months has inspired a litany of think-pieces attempting to analyze what makes such a player tick, and at what point that tick becomes the soundtrack to a time bomb that goes off every 24 seconds. Westbrook is whatever you want him to be, and he isn’t; the love he attracts is in direct correlation to the immense hatred he inspires. His gallops to the rim, nonchalantly ignoring every open teammate while realizing that he has a better chance 1-on-5 than they do unguarded, are both crass and brave, simultaneously shattering mirrors and creating new ones. His playing style is iconoclastic (and his style is iconoclastic, for better or for worse), giving the middle finger to both old-school team devotees and disciples of statistical analysis. Basically, at his size and with the limited means at his disposal, what he’s doing should be impossible, but Russell Westbrook doesn’t share our reality.
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“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln
At this point, we have become accustomed to superstar injuries in sports. For every Cal Ripken, Jr., there are dozens of Paul Georges, each shining intensely before falling at a most inopportune time. In the cases of players like George, who can be the only contributor in specific areas most of the time, the team surrounding the star can only do its best to plug the gap and hope for a miraculous turnaround time. For those teams, season-altering injuries often spell disaster, leaving bloated pundits and defeated fans to point fingers.
What’s happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder should by no means be largely season-altering, nor should the loss of reigning NBA MVP and scoring champion Kevin Durant cause immense concern for the long-term prospects of the team. The operative word in that sentence is “should,” twice over, because what we may witness is an opportunity seized on the parts of both head coach Scott Brooks and the man who will dictate the Thunder’s fortunes for at least the next six to eight weeks, point guard Russell Westbrook. How Oklahoma City responds to the temporary loss of its hero may unlock the door to the Western Conference and reveal the true potential of one of the league’s most talented and divisive players.
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Paul George, the do-everything swingman whose up-and-down season has mirrored the fortunes of his Indiana Pacers team, suffered a concussion in Game 2 against the Miami Heat. Early pessimists pinned him as missing the rest of the series, but now it appears as though he will be ready to play Game 3 on Saturday night in Miami. Elsewhere, Serge Ibaka is facing a similar situation, and his return couldn’t come soon enough for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who face an 0-2 deficit to the all-conquering San Antonio machine. Also, Cleveland wins the draft lottery for the third time in the last four years, prompting questions of faith and critical reason in the city by the lake.