No one picked the Celtics to win it all, not the way they’d been playing and certainly not after Jaylen Brown went down. They got swept gentlemanly by the Nets, stealing their one game narrowly on Jayson Tatum’s resplendent 50, and fell in the rest of the contests more or less like you’d figure, by double-digits, with what you can credulously call a big three performing like blue chip stocks in the 90s. You don’t get a proper sense of the vertiginousness, because they are already so high and climbing at such a steady ripping speed. James Harden had 23 points and 18 assists in Game 4, and it was like: sure. (The Bucks seriously screwed up not taking the first tilt of their series with The Beard on the bench, but there’ll be plenty of time to talk about that over the next week or two.)
The Lakers were supposed to defend their title, if not successfully then a whole lot better than this. But these things happen. Well, not these things in particular, because a team has never wrapped up its triumphant playoff run in early October and gone back to work in late December, but stars get hurt and role players falter. LeBron on an ankle that looked, you know, alright when they needed absolutely all of him and Anthony Davis, sometimes curiously passive at 100 percent, more timid than ever coming off his winter-long Achilles issues and barely operational after a groin injury that probably won’t totally heal until around the time the—let’s say—Nets and Clippers are squaring off in the Finals. Dennis Schroder was get-this-guy-outta-town bad. Kyle Kuzma was worse. Trez Harrell barely played and Andre Drummond shouldn’t have. The plan didn’t come together, didn’t come close. Chris Paul was floor generalling with an arm-and-a-half and the Suns cruised in the end.
We don’t have to dwell on the Knicks. Non-contenders like the Celtics, though considerably more charismatic, the Knicks are a famous franchise, not a famously good one. You see they aren’t among the final four and ask what year is it? any of them? But they’re out of the running now too, Reggie Miller’d by Trae Young. In fact, actually, it took Reggie seven games in 1995. Trae’s feat was less dramatic. He put New York away comfortably.
Iconic is a word for choking on these days—a reality-flattener, nothing can be special if everything is—but those are three iconic outfits sent packing early. (I am absolutely not about to talk to you about ratings potential here.) What remains: Utah, the other L.A. team, Philly, Milwaukee, the other New York team, Phoenix, Denver, and Atlanta. Not good or bad necessarily, just a hodge-podge of small-market stalwarts and finally ascendant rebuilds, superstar conglomerates with no real identity. (To be fair the Lakers are also like this, but a rich long history binds them and LeBron is his own tome.) The playoffs have entered a disorienting space. I’ve believed since the spring that it’s the Nets, all the way, but you’re never quite so certain about this stuff when you haven’t seen it done before, and Harden’s hammy is balky, and his mind tends to melt in big games. Whether that happens again, and whether it matters, we’ll see.
Perhaps this is the proper outcome, a ghostly depressive season in which it was hard to know what to take seriously dissolving toward the end into streams of information we don’t have the time to weave together. (Wait, the Sixers are already down 1-0?) We’re prepared for it, in a way, coming off five years of the Warriors in the Finals, four of those clashes against the Cavs, the interregnum of a tremendously fun but flukey, injury-aided Raptors title, and the Lakers taking control again last season. Before that, it was four years of Miami in the Finals. (As ever, LeBron’s a huge part of this.) For the first time in a long while, the title race is wide open, without even familiar laundry to look for. You tell me you’ve got Suns-Sixers in the last showdown, I wouldn’t put money on it but I find it plenty plausible. We’ve all got roughly the same sense which way this is going to go, which is to say we’re working off hunches.
There were these moments in the latter two games of the Clippers-Mavs series where Kawhi would just decide to score two or three times in a row. You know how Kawhi is, it’s so undemonstrative as to seem almost independent of his will. Like he got the call from upstairs and is now simply carrying out the will of the universe, you’re not sure he’s even particularly pleased to be doing it. Gimme the ball and cross, cross, drive, feint, bang. As great as Luka Dončić played, he didn’t have that in his bag, the impression of strolling across a crowded highway untouched. (He also had considerably less help. The Mavs’ second-best player was… Tim Hardaway Jr.?) These Kawhi-dominated spells were comforting, they allowed you to connect this place in time with others. We’ve seen him do this in San Antonio, seen him do it in Toronto. Ah, right: the mode where Kawhi becomes inevitable. That’s something you can trust, something to look for, as you’re guessing at what’s going to happen next and thinking, well, you don’t really have a good idea what Devin Booker might do in a Game 7 or if anybody can slow the Nets down.
But Kawhi’s doing what he’s always done in Los Angeles, alongside Reggie Jackson (notoriously flighty), Marcus Morris (six fouls), Luke Kennard (Duke). We all like the idea of Paul George, but he has yet to stand up and be counted when it actually matters. It’s a rickety operation, as tenuous as any other, surging forward into the blinding future with the rest of us in tow—wondering, speculative, lying about our convictions. Knowing only that what we’ll see won’t match with what we’ve already experienced. Except in strobing instances of deja vu, we’re helpless. Happily enough, at least that’s how I feel.