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weak in review

Learning To Live With The Inevitable In The NBA: David Roth's Weak In Review

It's a long season, but this week Golden State and Cleveland showed why it's reasonable to expect that it will end the way the previous two did. So now what?

by David Roth
09 December 2016, 10:25pm

Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It's not the sort of thing that anyone would bother being bothered by, at least provided there were anything else more interesting to talk about. But that is not the world we live in, and so the radio guy was upset. The context is that the Cleveland Cavaliers' most important players were all on the bench, at Madison Square Garden and at the end of a brisk and casual dismantling of the Knicks in front of a national television audience. The further context, I guess, is that for a while—before they got into the mannequin challenge and (I'm guessing now) "turtling" and "The Fudge"—high school kids had a thing that involved flipping a water bottle and getting it to land, standing, on its end. And so it was that we came to learn, at the end of a game that otherwise mostly revealed that the Cleveland Cavaliers are once again significantly better than their notional peers in the NBA's Eastern Conference, that high school kids are a lot better at The Water Bottle Challenge than Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

If there were any basketball lesson to be taken from the game beyond the fact that the Cavaliers are a much better team than the Knicks at this moment, we can assume that the radio guy would have taken it. There wasn't, and LeBron and his teammates were indeed goofing around with a water bottle right where everyone could see them. And so the radio man tweeted, "LeBron can no longer talk about his reverence for MSG ever again. That sophomoric act on the bench now makes all those quotes empty." Some people retweeted the sentiment and some larger number quoted it for easy jeering, but there wasn't a lot of electricity in any of it. The grousing was wan and resolutely room temperature; this was a basketball player goofing around during a blowout, not a basketball player spray-painting BABA BOOEY on the Wailing Wall. But there was a deeper shrug under this facile taking of offense. It's just December, and already there is the sense that, in a broad but very real sense, we are running out of things to talk about.

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Some of this—the stern silliness of the complaint and the lingering whiff of insignificance—has to do with the fact that the tragicomic Knicks were the offended party. The complaint vanished quickly enough into the swirl of offhand upset that surrounds the Knicks in general—the barnacle-encrusted grumperies their chief executive steers towards any open mic, the perpetual sense that at any moment the team is poised to make an unforced and extremely expensive mistake—and which naturally follows a loss like this. But the Los Angeles Clippers, who endured an only slightly more dignified pantsing by the Golden State Warriors immediately afterwards, didn't take it much better. If the reactions seemed overheated, especially given that this NBA season is now only barely into its cold weather portion, it has more to do with the winning teams in these games than the losing ones.

The Los Angeles Clippers are a very good basketball team, and the New York Knicks look like a very much improved one; it's a good bet that fans of both teams will have a decent amount of fun watching them this year. But in their attempts to step up against the NBA's dual dynasts, both the Clippers and the Knicks looked...well, jarringly and distressingly like most every other team that's tried over the last two years. The NBA has, in its long history, never seen the same teams play each other in the NBA Finals in three straight seasons—not at the apex of the Reagan-era Lakers/Celtics renaissance, not in the smaller and more static league of Bill Russell's administration, not during the prehistoric epoch when Fort Wayne and Syracuse and Rochester were NBA cities. This surely means something, if only for another little while. But while the consensus is that it would be surprising if the Warriors and Cavaliers didn't meet in the Finals for a third straight season, there's less consensus on how to feel about it. The calendar says that it is too early to care about this. Everything else is telling us we might as well go on ahead.

This all seems like it should be a problem. It doesn't exactly feel like one in the moment, though, if only because of what these teams are doing is so dazzling moment by moment. The Cavaliers have never been beautiful in the ways that the Warriors are, although there's plenty of inspiration to be found here, individual and collaborative/collective. They are playing comfortably and very well, and they have already shown that they can win a championship playing that way, if also that they lack a certain knack for staying comfortable over the long term. They're interesting, and if they're not alone in that in their conference—the Eastern Conference has been both better and worse, but arguably never deeper in teams of profoundly off-angle weirdness—there is also the sense that they are, in a real way, alone atop it.

When you think it has a decent chance of going in. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And the Warriors are the Warriors, if maybe slightly more so than anyone remembered. They are once again playing a joyful and totally vicious basketball, with the team's stars trading virtuosities as the circumstances demands or as the spirit moves them. Klay Thompson scores 60 points in three quarters and it feels somehow normal, like a thing that might happen on any given night for the rest of the season or forever; Draymond Green and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant orchestrate some astonishing futuristic moment of synthesis and the dreamlike weirdness of seeing all these stars working in concert is already sublimated to the clock that is already ticking down towards the moment when they'll do it again. This is all very beautiful and brilliant to watch, moment by moment, and if it's perhaps more enjoyable when served in discrete portions—in highlights, or one improbable looping Vine after another—than when enjoyed banquet style, it would be unfair and incorrect to say that it isn't delicious.

But watching the league's best teams reduce one opponent after another to elegant little small-plate servings of competitor tartare, for all its obvious and undeniable satisfactions, lacks a crucial element of dynamic tension; these are great shows, for sure, but not necessarily very good basketball games. This is not to say that the NBA should try to do something about this, and not just because Managing Parity is a fool's errand best left to the butterfingered managerial authoritarians of the NFL. It's just to note that, sooner than usual, the NBA has stratified into two leagues, with one notably bigger than the other. In one, teams are fed to the reigning dynamos and either fight bravely or wind up slack-jawed in the background of someone else's poster, or both. In the other, teams play basketball against each other in games that, if lighter in pyrotechnic effects and generally played closer to the earth, feel a little bit more like basketball games.

Because of its spongy militarism and unearned sanctimony and general blank and overwhelming dumbassery, the NFL far outpaces any other sports league for reflecting the failures of the culture in which it's situated; the NBA, which is an altogether lighter and more pleasant place, is not remotely in the same universe of dysfunction, in terms of its product or overall ambient vibe. But there is, in the NBA's creeping inevitability, something that echoes in a way that's familiar and unsettling.

For all the many joys of watching the Warriors and the Cavaliers in the last two NBA Finals, the sense that we are counting the days until another rematch doesn't really throw off a lot of happiness or heat in the present. This is not to say that the games played in the larger and more level rest of the league aren't thrilling and worth watching, because they are; the league's good teams are very good, the fun teams are fun, the weird teams are appealingly enigmatic, and on any given night several of those teams are likely to be playing each other. But in this looming and portentous national moment in particular and in a broader world that seems somehow to be both slowing towards a crushing stasis and ripping itself apart, inevitability is not what anyone really wants from their sports; we all have more than enough of it already. To find that foreclosure creeping into a game that otherwise offers not just escape but basketball's visions of collaborative transcendence and individual flight casts a familiar and disheartening sort of chill. It's also one that everyone living in and working through this world knows how to manage. The only thing to do with it, this season and in every other, is to find the beauty where it is, in the moments where it is, and to enjoy it on its terms and while and wherever we can. Only one team wins the last game of the season, yes. But that's just one game.

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