Timid and virginal, the Milwaukee Bucks crawled into their first serious basketball game in weeks on Sunday and got slapped around by the Boston Celtics. It had been since Giannis Antetokounmpo decided to be a center for a game and bully Joel Embiid that the Bucks had needed to take the court with an edge—that was the night Giannis likely secured the MVP award. Their first-round scrimmage against the Detroit Pistons, it appeared, had done the Bucks no favors, and The Value Of Playoff Experience suddenly seemed like a hammer that Boston could wield against them cruelly and without hindrance.
Tuesday night's Game 2 changed all that, as the abuse the Bucks had endured was returned in much larger volume. Al Horford no longer appeared to be Bill Russell as Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and all those other young Buckos returned to the nuclear-thrust offensive that had terrorized the league all season. Heavyweight fights often see both fighters fall hard and early before they meet each other with more subtle parries, and so two haymakers kind of even out, and do not on their own give us too strong an indication of what’s to come. But if Giannis and his buddies are able to keep playing in the key they riffed on with great precision all season, it’s difficult to imagine much more dignity for the other side.
Kawhi Leonard has been the best player in this year’s playoffs. No other NBA professional, when guarding him or when being guarded by him, during this postseason, has appeared like they are an adult. It’s pretty sad, honestly, and all the more so when Leonard’s footwork is too algorithmic, his countenance too stoic to appear emotionally engaged on any level. We have all had struggles with machinery, shouting profanities at our appliances as if they were human, as if we could stain their psyches, like they were not mere unrefigurable mechanisms of force and gravity and inevitability. Leonard reduces All-Star talents to this kind of flailing protest.
In the second game of his Toronto Raptors’ series with the Philadelphia 76ers, though, Philly showed that while they have no umbrella for Leonard’s avalanche, they can mitigate everything else that Toronto does. Following a dismaying loss in the first contest, the Sixers hit the Raptors with a slew of matchup adjustments that, when taken with the bludgeoning overall size and skill of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Jimmy Butler, made for a kind of chaos that the upstart big boys were able to thrive on. For the first time in Embiid’s and Simmons’ careers, the Sixers beat a Leonard-led team, evening up the series and heading home with a new sense of possibility.
The Houston Rockets don’t have a fifth man. They are also engulfed in a self-imposed shame, perhaps the most preposterous cultural affliction of professional sports postseason history, because of an ill-advised “audit” the Rockets did of his team’s loss to the Golden State Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals. In this lil’ report leaked to the media, Houston alleged that NBA officials favored the Warriors and effectively “denied the bid” of the Rockets to enter the Finals. A formal, year-late performance of outrage that, all things considered, can only be accurately compared to HBO’s hate-watch classic “The Newsroom”; pedantry taken to the quantum realm.
The substance of this operatic whining is not *completely* wrong, as the Warriors—like all dynasties and mega-celebrity teams before them—do enjoy preferential treatment from the referees, and this is a weird, largely underscrutinized, rich-get-richer institution of the NBA. Once a player or team achieves a certain level of sustained transcendence, there is no denying that the league’s justice squad assists them in staying there. But no one ever got a goody bag from a cop by airing out their dirty laundry, and the Rockets would be better served by focusing on their own performance. The problem with that, though—as we saw in both opening games of the 2019 rematch between the teams—is that the Rockets don’t have a fifth man. With Trevor Ariza gone, they lack a counterpoint to the Warriors’ famed death squad (elsewhere known by a nickname that is never spoken by those with respect for the human race), and, honestly, filing hurt-feelings reports is about as good of an idea as any in this reality. After completing my audit of this series, this is the conclusion that I have reached!!!!
The Western Conference antidote to the lobbying-instead-of-playing, cynicism-inducing geohell of Warriors-Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets have engaged in a series that promises to be an exhibit that basketball nerds will speak of in tiny rooms, loudly, for years to come. Bereft of both the global celebrity and rings-or-bust pressure that weighs down more network-television-friendly matchups, Nugs-Zers started off with dueling blasts of sweet, uptempo, unencumbered scoring inflation led by the league’s doughiest star (Nikola Jokic) and one of its sharpest (Damian Lillard), respectively.
Their styles provide a pleasant contrast in the genre of hardwood candy—Jokic, the slow savant seeing and taking everything at a basketball buffet with no one but the laterally challenged Enes Kanter to guard him; Lillard, on such a mean streak after destroying Russell Westbrook that he may just humiliate every young Denver guard into life lessons and austerity. The teams are fighting for the honor of being dismissed by the Warriors in the next round which is, actually, quite the blessing. It means that the walls of this series are less penetrable by the hot takes and dynastic psychoanalysis of High Pressure Moments and all of those other intolerable needles that puncture our joy for the game. This is the fun one.