A few seasons back, in my capacity as an occasional reporter, I was covering the Portland Trail Blazers’ first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers for the Willamette Week. In case you don’t recall that 2016 series, the Blazers were supposed to slip into the lottery, having lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, and Robin Lopez the previous summer. Instead, they snuck into the playoffs behind Damian Lillard’s excellence and a breakout year from C.J. McCollum. They were decisively happy just to be there.
The Clippers, on the other hand, were on their like, fifth straight year of being a playoff team that missed the conference final, and so they wanted to win very very badly. After they took a 2-0 series lead, it looked like they were heading for a confrontation with the 73-win Warriors.
But then, out of nowhere, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the team’s best two players, both went down to injuries, leaving the squad to depend almost entirely on DeAndre Jordan and the playmaking ability of Austin Rivers to bring the series home. They did not manage to do this, and lost the next four games.
After Game 6, I watched Rivers, who had a 21-point, eight-assist performance that night, give a press conference. He had 11 stitches in his face and an insanely nasty black eye (the video doesn’t come close to doing the swelling justice) after taking an elbow from Al-Farouq Aminu in the first quarter.
Seeing Rivers on that stand, clearly distraught over the result of the series, over his own limitations in the face of the Blazers, pus swelling up in his eyeball, I felt bad. Because, and there’s no way around this, I had written some awful things about Austin Rivers for money, made fun of him on Twitter, dragged him and his family for his continued presence on NBA courts, and generally afforded him no respect as a professional or as a person. In that moment after Game 6, I quietly said to myself, “Never again.” This was a human being, a vulnerable vessel with feelings and hopes and dreams, just out here trying to live his best life. Was he maybe a substandard player who only got a second chance because his daddy helped him? Sure! But he’s still a human, he bleeds, he hurts, he deserves my…
...eugh boy. That’s the thing, man. I try to separate myself from the moment of watching him botch something or other on court and not get yanked by his daddy. I try to recall when I saw him broken and depressed and victimized by fate, to see this dude as a human being and spare him the small boot heel of my mockery and disdain and I JUST. CAN’T. DO. IT.
I mean, watch this over and over. Let it burn into your brain. Picking up J.R. Smith in transition is CLEARLY Rivers’s responsibility here, even if Smith isn’t his specific cover, and he shirks that duty to, quite literally, wipe his nose at half-court while his team is down one with three minutes remaining in overtime. Watch him slowly realize what’s happening. He sees J.R., assumes he is someone else’s cover, wipes, spins around to jog back on defense—which is when he realizes that, right underneath his nose, J.R. has managed to beat him off the dribble, even if he wasn’t totally sure he was in a position to GET beaten off the dribble. He juts his hands up into the air, fully aware of his gigantic fuck-up, and boom, there goes 32-year-old J.R. Smith streaking across the court, past Lou Williams and Griffin and right to the rim for two points.
The Cavs announcer loses his shit: “SOMEONE TELL THE CLIPPERS WE’RE STILL PLAYING IN OVERTIME!” The camera catches Rivers in the wake of his embarrassment, his hands rising for a second, as if to say, “This appears to have been my fault,” while also maybe not really KNOWING that fact.
And he’s probably right? Surrendering a late-game layup in transition when half your squad is past the half-court line really is a colossal team fuck-up, the kind of mistake that, truly, only a village could manage.
But Austin Rivers’ curse—and his blessing, I suppose—is that no matter what happens behind him, he’s still the dude wiping his nose, the Duke malcontent who was going to wash out of the NBA until his career was saved by, quite literally, his daddy. No matter what he does, he will be a magnet for blame. His humanity, his struggle, his unluckiness—none of that shit matters when you’re watching. Nature and God themselves have conspired to make him an eternal scapegoat. Denying their providence just because you sometimes feel bad is, simply, not what we are designed to do.