Jimmy Butler’s at the line with six seconds left in the game and the Wolves down one. He’s been fouled on a three-point attempt and already drained the first two free throws. As Butler is steeling himself, waiting to receive the ball from referee Leon Wood, Reggie Jackson hollers behind him and takes a few steps toward the stripe to pretend to instruct Stanley Johnson to, like, box out or some such. Johnson makes like he’s picking up a phone that hasn’t rung and hangs out in the lane for a couple seconds. What’s that, Reggie? Oh, absolutely. Definitely. Great point as always. Wood hustles Johnson back to his spot. While all of this is going on, Butler shoots a look immediately legible as the universal symbol for c’mon, dude at Jackson. Wood bounces him the ball. He clanks the final free throw. As the Pistons celebrate after the final buzzer, while both of them are ensconced in a happy Andre Drummond hug, Jackson taps Johnson’s dome and then points to himself. They laugh and exeunt.
And whatever. It was an entertaining Sunday night contest between two pretty good teams. The Pistons are 11-and-6. The Wolves are 10-and-7. Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is. Any given NBA season is composed of long-tailed narratives—young teams emerging, coaches losing their grips on locker rooms, MVP candidacies emerging and foundering—that play out over weeks and months. This tends to be the stuff we talk about most in the present and remember best years later. I can’t recall any particular performance from Dwight Howard’s final season in Orlando, but the faces he made while lying in that infamously awkward post-practice presser are seared into my brain, because Orlando's 11-12 season was, more than anything else, The Year Dwight Forced His Way Out. Basketball Reference tells me he also scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a four-point March win over the Raptors. I’ve either forgotten that happened or didn’t pay any attention to it at the time, as is the case with ninety-nine percent of all things that transpired that season. You can only carry around so much in your mind.
But it’s the specifics of sports that make them so compelling. While broad narratives provide stakes and context and inform our enjoyment of games in some oblique fashion, we’re here, at the most basic level, for the visceral pleasure of watching people perform difficult tasks with improbable skill and bracing invention. There is all the historical heft that makes LeBron James’s championship-saving chasedown block on Andre Iguodala such a fascinating event to meditate on—which is why Nike built a ninety-second ad around it—and then there is the simple, bracing thrill of watching it in the moment, and swearing to yourself aloud as you admire the replays a minute later.
This isn’t to say watching sports is some saintly activity and blathering about them is sacrilege, but at our worst, we too swiftly breeze past the former to get to the latter. You can hear this in games when the (usually bored) announcers are actively narrativizing what’s going on in a contest before it’s over, and you can see it on Twitter, where every third thing captured by cameras sweatily becomes About Something. The implicit argument behind this is that the games are not enough for us. Which is true in some cases—feed a man nothing but Nets-Bulls and he’ll starve—but most NBA basketball is more interesting than basically anyone’s real-time thoughts about it.
Any critic worth a damn is at least a little bit in awe of the art they’re taking on, even if it’s ordinary. There are exceptions to that rule, but it takes immense talent and care to violate it and come off as brilliant as you think you are. This doesn’t mean you break down and weep in the face of The Accountant or, again, Nets-Bulls, but you try to let the thing you’re analyzing finish its thought before you get on with your own. And sometimes you allow yourself to be a delighted idiot and share that delight with the rest of the world. You put down your bubble pipe and squeal.
Maybe this is easier to do with sports because, while their outsize cultural relevance means they necessarily jostle against politics and state and municipal economies and celebrity, the games themselves are very obviously frivolous to anyone with an ounce of perspective. The narratives we build out of and around them are merely elaborate ways of finding something to talk about. It’s the least essential pursuit in the world.
So, anyway: Jimmy Butler at the free throw line. The best thing about his Reggie Jackson-directed glower is that he’s not all enmity. He’s deeply annoyed, but he’s also just a little bit entertained, in a game-recognize-game sense. Everybody involved in that mini-drama knows what Jackson is doing, and that he’s doing it to Butler, and Butler, who is well within his rights to be miffed about it, sees the humor in it, the goofy Art of War-as-translated-by-middle-schoolers strategery at work. He’s not fully appreciating it right then and probably doesn’t appreciate it at. flipping. all. after his shot his the back iron and rims out. But for a half-second there, Jackson is screwing with him, and he’s playing his put-upon part perfectly.
It’s the best moment in what was a rollickingly fun game. It bears no great significance, but perhaps that makes it particularly worthy of celebration. After all, importance doesn’t correlate with quality, and this is the sort of minutiae that memory’s fog swallows in time, the small and peculiar occurrences that make an NBA season most of what it is, even if we forget nearly all of it. That’s a lament, but it also speaks to the reward for the blessedly pointless endeavor of following basketball closely: there’s more good than we can capture and so much of what is good is beyond words that all we can do, sometimes, is hit it with a spotlight as it dances away.