Where did it all go wrong? Now you ask yourself: what restaurant, effects pedal, celebrity-ish person, institution, soda, social platform update, person that you and I somehow both know, beer edition, automation technique, ideology, golf tournament, city that you never knew, or relative am I talking about?
Some people may already know that time as most of us understand it is the result of the work of an Islamic scholar; the rest of you will blame aging on him, despite Aristotle. No matter, in any case: this is about the 2021-’22 Los Angeles Lakers, eliminated from postseason play Tuesday night against (fittingly) the Phoenix Suns, and the amount of pushing a rock can possibly do against a solid-state presence before retracting against every will in its lifeless form.
When the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul, it seemed to be an opportunity, albeit a misguided one: the aged Point God would arrive and, just as he had in OKC before, impart some majestic secret knowledge on the youths, a Gnostic arriving to guide things just enough, to the point that they would be able to grow beyond his available measure upon his departure. He would never be at peace, but if this was his role at 35, Paul would be charitably useful. Only then would he again elevate everyone around him, and so far, he has exceeded that.
Did I think this year’s edition of the Phoenix Suns was that team? Not necessarily, but they had a lot more juice than many previous editions of Chris Paul Teams, with or without the State Farm sponsorship. Despite their youth and various fears, here they are: the orbs whose mascot and logo cause so much consternation, and yet a team whose continued excellence brings a familiar chill to anyone daring themselves to watch following his time with the other Hornets, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder. Finally, now, Chris Paul is in an NBA Finals.
It would be negligence to suggest that Paul’s presence alone turned a team that went undefeated in last year’s abridged bubble – and still missed the playoffs! – into the Western Conference representative this year. Paul is and remains the Point God, perhaps now more than ever, but we’ve already talked that over, so it seems fair and fitting to bestow some glory on the rest, the co. in CP3 and Co.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Spanish Armada, that enduring example of royalist hubris in which King Philip II of Spain attempted to brandish the world’s greatest navy in 1588 before his ex-sister-in-law, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, in an invasion of her country but wound up embarrassing himself when that navy failed to defeat its opponents as it wound a curious route around the British Isles. England readily disposed of Spain, and a family feud had turned into an international conflict. Habsburgs, amirite?
Except, well, that’s not quite how that went. More central to the collapse of the Spanish navy seems to have been the weather, especially in the Bay of Biscay. It had essentially dilly-dallied its way into misfortune, the Grande y Felicísima Armada, and England had been prepared enough to take advantage of a weakened fleet at that time.
What you don’t often hear about is the English counter-Armada of 1589, a more catastrophic defeat for the aggressors. The original Armada, while a shocking defeat and failure for Spain, did not noticeably loosen Philip’s grasp on the Spanish crown, nor did the counter-Armada force Elizabeth into ceding control of the English Channel or her advantageous trade relations with the Netherlands. Eventually, there was a peace treaty, and that was that.
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.
With Andre Roberson closing quickly, Brook Lopez launches a three, early in the shot clock but with enough space to give it a chance. The ball clanks off the front of the rim, kisses the backboard and falls into the left hand of professional basketball’s most perplexing genius, to rapturous applause from what should be a hostile crowd. It is the latter’s tenth rebound of the night, and after adding two more, combined with his 25 points and 19 assists, the intensely focused scientist sits, his team all but guaranteed a victory they would soon officially claim, his 33rd triple-double of the season secure.
Thunder doesn’t only happen when it’s raining. It was in the middle of March, in the midst of an overhyped blizzard, that the Brodie came to Brooklyn.
“This isn’t looking good.” One of the people I was watching with was referring to a spilled glass of red wine on a hotel bed in Chelsea, but he may as well have been talking about the shot Steph Curry had just made with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter to put the Golden State Warriors up 90-79 on the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time, it felt like the final nail in the coffin, and ultimately, it was. In between, the Thunder bothered to make it interesting, drawing the 11-point deficit to four before finally succumbing to the Greatest Regular Season Team Ever™.
Game 7 was a perfect microcosm of the series as a whole: frustrated at a lack of belief in their team, Oklahoma City shot out to a surprising, sizable lead on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before Golden State roared back, jumping ahead on (what else?) a Curry three-pointer midway through the third quarter and never looking back. For all their efforts, the inevitable remained the inevitable, and now the Thunder face a summer of potentially franchise-altering uncertainty. Meanwhile, the team by the Bay, gold embodied, continues basking in its own sunlight, on the way to another NBA Finals.
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.
“I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.” – Steph Curry, October 2015
So often, when assessing the circumstances surrounding a season and its participants, onlookers make the critical error without the proper framing. This is true of culture – Lemonade as the greatest work of artistic liberation this year, this decade or this century, let alone this week – but is dominant in sports. Conversations abound concerning Karl-Anthony Towns’ place in the all-time NBA player hierarchy with, now, nearly as much frequency as LeBron James’, if you look in the right places.
Rare is the situation that doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to have a definitive historical identity waiting in the wings. This season, the NBA gave us two, possibly three, teams whose historical contexts seem almost preordained. Rarer still is the fact that each team faces unique circumstances which are fascinating in a vacuum but even more so when contrasted with one another.
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.
The image of the gunslinger is one of classic American lore. A grizzled veteran of saloon shootouts and vigilante justice, he walks with a distinct swagger and carries himself with pride, knowing he is merely a poker game gone awry from coming face to face with his demise.
It seems that gunslingers will always dictate the history of the West. The barroom brawl that just concluded in Houston has left one team dazed and the other unfazed.