NBA Playoff Update

Historically outflanked by the Lakers, with whom they share an arena, the Clippers have no true fan base and no real reason for existence, except to satisfy the unquenchable narcissism of Los Angeles, which needs all the teams.

There was a kind of spiritual unity in Mike D’Antoni’s mustache and Steve Nash’s bad hair.

James Harden (with beard). Photograph by Keith Allison.

Harden Without Beard

I recently googled “Harden without beard” and was shocked by what I discovered. It is clear that before he grew a beard, James Harden was a different person. Big cheeked and chiclet-toothed, his eyes laughing and kindly rather than mirthless and single-minded, Harden underwent a transformation that can only have been wrenching, a Walpurgisnacht of the soul. Out of that witches’ sabbath emerged the bearded Harden, possessed of some uncanny peripheral sense for even the slightest motion of an arm approaching his body. The Houston Rockets shooting guard knows exactly when to fling his arms upward, which lets him draw the dozens of barely-reach-in fouls that he tallies every night. Bratty in his foul-seeking, still something of a liability after years of being a Vine sensation for his trancelike failures on defense, he nonetheless plays an eviscerating, hyper-efficient offensive game, slicing through the lane with every manner of Eurostep and fake, and lobbing heedless threes from deep that he often makes. His court vision is faultless—except when the other team has the ball.

It was a fortune of the basketball season that Harden and Russell Westbrook, the leading candidates for MVP, faced each other in the opening round, though it turned out not to be much of a contest between their teams. Harden was good, but the drama belonged to Oklahoma City’s Westbrook—divested of the immortal Kevin Durant, marooned on a team devoid of compensating teammates, scrambling and flinging himself around the court, his springy, Ninja Turtle-like frame seemingly in every corner at every moment. Westbook inhaled rebounds when no one else pulled them down, and might have tallied more assists had his comrades known how to dribble the ball. Taking a breather in Game 2, Westbrook cringed as the backup squad squandered a comfortable lead in a few seconds and surged from the bench, encased in sweat, seething as he shouted put me back in, to no one in particular.

Humorless and lacking self-possession in critical moments, Westbrook drove himself into frenzies of messianic play that left him spent when he was most needed. His antagonist on the Rockets, the peerlessly evil Patrick Beverley, knew him better than he knew himself, goosing Westbrook into every bad gamble, every idiotic foul, every stupid shot. But was there any other choice? The loneliness of Westbrook on his shitty team turned the series into a long spectacle of desperation, more endless in memory than in actual hours played. Difficult though it is to imagine Harden without beard, it is harder still to imagine the exhaustion of Westbrook, having this year put forward one of the monumental efforts of his or any life, facing the summer and the possibility of another friendless season.

D’Antoni Agonistes

The pathos of basketball is that many its most influential figures have never garnered championships, while less influential others have them in abundance. Kobe Bryant, the sub-Jordan whose time had passed even while he kept winning, has five. Chauncey Billups, the tedious Pistons guard with only passable numbers, managed to filch a championship from Kobe in the dog days of the early 2000s, which now seems like a weird, unmemorable interregnum before the rise of LeBron James.

Meanwhile, Steve Nash, the needling, searching, game-altering point guard has zero (though he tried to get one in an ill-starred partnership with an aging, irascible Kobe). Nash was overrated, receiving two back-to-back MVPs—two more than he deserved. (Shaq should have won in 2005; Kobe should have won in 2006.) But he was a critical exponent of Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less,” the frenetic model—more attitude or mindset, really, than system—of constantly exploiting temporary mismatches and gelatinous transition defenses to garner easy baskets in quick time: along with the primacy of the three ball, acknowledged to be a major basketball innovation of our time. To watch Nash gave the same feeling as doing an Altavista search in the ’90s—the excitement of a technical advance whose potential was still unrealized.

With Nash, D’Antoni had the early visionary he needed; and there was a kind of spiritual unity in D’Antoni’s mustache and Nash’s bad hair. Were it not for Robert Horry, who on a critical play in the 2007 conference finals pushed Nash into the scorer’s table, starting a chain reaction of fights and ejections that ultimately led to the Suns losing to the Spurs that series, Phoenix might have had their ring, or at least contended for it. D’Antoni spent the years that followed in the wilderness: mired with Carmelo Anthony in New York, trapped in the lurid Dwight Howard psychodrama in Los Angeles. In 2015, out of sheer masochism, he accepted a job as an associate coach with the tanking 76ers. It seemed like his time would never come. Then, last year, he took the helm at the Rockets and shaved his mustache. In the Beard he found the superior Nash, and Houston became the league’s best offensive team.

On Monday, D’Antoni’s Rockets marched into San Antonio and massacred Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. So swiftly did the deficit ratchet up that it was unclear whether the Spurs even had a chance from the opening tip. At one point the score read—so improbably that you had to rub your eyes—73–39. The Spurs, a fantastic team, spent the first five minutes of the third quarter scoreless. It ranks among the craziest blowouts in the annals of the game. Rigorous, without joy, it was like watching—in a time-lapse montage—a frictionless robot industry surmount in an instant the crumbling remains of Fordism. The look on the Spurs’ coaching staff—a concentrate of horror, bafflement, anger and fear—reflected the unprecedented situation.

Like clockwork, Harden would hover around the arc, wait for the pick, get the mismatch with David Lee on the switch, and easily pummel into the lane for a bucket, or—if the mood suited him—toss it out to nearly anyone for an easy three. Under the repeated onslaught, no one looked more pathetic than LaMarcus Aldridge, an otherwise fine power forward, who was unable to adapt or adjust. Every moment he found himself guarding Harden was a moment to shut your eyes. He missed one easy put-back after another; every time he had the ball he lost it or tossed it away, apparently in shame. His was a psychosocial meltdown, difficult to watch.

D’Antoni’s victory was the triumph of pure basketball ideology, at last given the form it always needed. If D’Antoni achieves nothing else—and San Antonio is a resilient team, it is very possible he will not—this cosmic hip-check to the Spurs deserves to be more than a footnote in his career.

The Clippers Disaster

Historically outflanked by the Lakers, with whom they share an arena, the Clippers have no true fan base and no real reason for existence, except to satisfy the unquenchable narcissism of Los Angeles, which needs all the teams. Still, their rise in recent years, on the talents of Chris Paul, possibly the best point guard since Magic, and Blake Griffin, a streaky four who in moments of pure Csikszmentmihalyi flow can seem like the second coming of Tim Duncan, has been a reliable source of pained admiration for many. Pained, because the admiration is always vitiated by some intervention—freak injury or unaccountable loss of nerve—that sidelines the team before they can get to the true test of the Western Conference Finals.1

Two years ago, the Clippers played a historic first-round series against the Spurs, culminating in a Game 7 where Chris Paul, stumbling, grasping at injured hamstrings, tossed up a wild bank shot to clinch the series. In the next series, against Harden’s Rockets, they pushed themselves to 3-1, before botching the next three. That was the moment when the revelation of some critical missing psychic element should have led to a team reset. But instead we got two more years of “. . . maybe the Clippers?” Their superfluity as a franchise matched the overproduction of “maybe the Clippers” talk, and their loss to the merely adequate Utah Jazz put the lid on the empty and vain Clippers delusion for another year.

Westbrook is young and has years of greatness before him; the possibility of an ultimate victory is real. But Paul is stranded in his treacherous thirties, unable to exercise his considerable gifts, and with no clear path to a championship. Overwhelmed with charitable activities and insurance commercial gigs, the compact Paul has hardened as he has aged into a grating know-it-all, always shouting orders at shrinking teammates. This is a bad look for Paul, who deserves to go out gracefully, and with a ring on his finger. If next year he chooses to leave the Clippers—Paul is a free agent—he deserves every obsequious contract offer. There should be room in basketball for second chances.

  1. The modest ascendance of the Clippers, it’s worth remembering, comes from a historic path-not-taken, with Paul’s planned trade to the Lakers in 2011 being nixed by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, for “basketball reasons.” The white-paternalistic, union-busting Stern feared the loss of competitive balance in the league, and felt that the alliance that Kobe wanted with Paul would signal to other players that they actually ran the league. The Clippers should never have become more than a pretext for cheap seats when a good team comes to town. But thanks to the casuistry of basketball reasoning, they did—prompting the defection of untold thousands of Lakers fans, disappointed in their declining team, to a depthless cause. They deserve their annual comeuppance. 

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