With Round 1 off and running, a few more totally legitimate and not-at-all made-up awards for the return of playoff Paul George, playoff Kyrie Irving, and an eerily quiet Mike Conley. (And more.)
Biggest Heart of All
We have no idea what’s in Isaiah Thomas’s heart or mind right now. What he’s going through is unthinkable and his decision to play through it is, in a sense, unfathomable. At the risk of untoward speculation, maybe he feels a sense of duty and wants to make good on the trust placed in him by teammates and the city of Boston. There’s probably comfort in this for him, a reminder of mutual trust and support that represents some of the most redeeming qualities sports (and specifically fans) have to offer. Working can be therapeutic. And Thomas has overcome such long odds at every turn that one suspects he sees all adversity—perhaps even tragedy—as challenges thrown by him by life that he can’t help want to overcome. Thomas isn’t just resilient, he’s downright pugilistic when the world tells him to turn back. Yet with Boston now down 2-0, his defiance itself has become cause for sympathy. Thomas would be the inspirational story of the playoffs. Instead, we’re watching the Celtics falter and Thomas’s efforts go wasted. The pain of others is fundamentally opaque and only Thomas knows what’s best for him. And yet there’s something uncomfortable, even painful, about his playing on for this. — Nathaniel Friedman
The Postseason Surge We Didn’t Know We Needed
Kyrie Irving is different in the playoffs. That’s not a knock on Irving, a perennial All-Star who is arguably the deadliest one-on-one player in the league. But something happens to Kyrie when the postseason rolls around. So far against the Pacers, he’s averaging 30 points nearly 50 percent shooting from the floor. He’s sharper, more precise, and confident in a way that seems to demand the ball on every possession. Irving’s hairpin shifts in direction feel less like improvisation and more like grand designs, as if—like his teammate LeBron James—he’s already played out the entire possession in his head. We often talk about stars who thrive under pressure or rise to the occasion; with Kyrie, it’s not just about crucial junctures in the playoffs. He’s in his element throughout, a player who in hindsight—again, like LeBron—may have been biding his time. Kyrie Irving has grown over the years to the point where his regular season play is beyond reproach. And yet the return of Playoff Kyrie is one of the most welcome events in basketball. We haven’t been waiting in the lurch. We’re just happy to welcome him back.
Greatest One-Man Show
Surprisingly, this one doesn’t go to presumptive MVP Russell Westbrook but to Paul George. That the Pacers nearly stole Game 1 and came dangerously close in Game 2 is almost beside the point; to paraphrase LeBron, the Cavs know how to win one way or another. George, who has complained about his teammates on two occasions, is looking awfully fatalistic at the podium. But on the court PG has been nothing short of sublime, loudly announcing on the national stage that he’s still one of the league’s elite. Saying he’s compared favorably to James isn’t hyperbole; George is playing the best all-around ball of his career, finally putting to rest the talk that he hasn’t been the same post-injury. If anything, his game has deepened and grown more refined, as evidenced by his playmaking (7 assists a game) and three-point accuracy (over 50 percent from beyond the arc). Supposedly Boston—who now sure look like they could use George’s help—stood pat at the deadline because of concerns about George’s long-term value. He’s now reclaimed his reputation; it would be a pitch-perfect redemption story—were it not for the fact that George is also greasing the wheels for his 2018 free agency. — N.F.
Award for Least Aggressive Follow-Up to a Coach’s Rant
I think Mike Conley might be too nice for his own good. Being nice isn’t usually bad, but when your coach storms out of a press conference after saying that you don’t get any respect from the referees, before telling reporters to “take that for data!” and slamming down a pen—a very nice pen at that!—you have to, have to, back him up in some way. You can’t let that man walk into a $25,000 fine on his own. Especially when it’s on your behalf.
When asked about David Fizdale saying that he didn’t get proper respect from the referees, Conley said: “As far as getting to the free-throw line? No, but they respect me as a person, I feel like. But when it comes to the game, I’m not sure.”
Mike Conley is like the Fix-It Felix of the NBA world. He’s like a basketball playing version of Chris Evans’ Captain America. At this point, he should really think of changing his name to Mike Stark, since he can’t help being nice even in the face of injustice. The Spurs are going to “rook” him and the Grizzlies. Fizdale knows that Conley is nice. He even suggested that it was the reason why he doesn’t get calls, but you have to think that he was a bit disappointed and annoyed that the man he went to bat for couldn’t even muster a little bit of anger to defend his coach. Not even an active statement. At that point he just comes off as meek. — Zito Madu
Annual Grim Reminder That Time Waits for No One and Death Is Certain
One thing that will always weird me out about the NBA is anyone beyond 35 is considered a fossil. Unless you’re lucky enough to take nightly bubble baths in Vince Carter’s private Lazarus pit, Father Time can slink up from behind and whisper “Hey” in your ear whenever he pleases. And during Game 1 of the Bulls vs. Celtics over the weekend, this happened to occur at an extremely rude moment for Dwyane “D-Wade” Wade, who attempted what should have been an easy breakaway dunk, and failed.
Which, when coupled with this…
…makes you realize the book will soon close on the legendary 2003 Draft Class. Two quick things: (1) It’s been pointed out before, but especially in the context of his ’03 peers, LeBron’s durability season-over-season is kind of insane, right? (Safe to say that the $2 million he spends a year on his body is worth it.) If James ends up going down as the GOAT, his big picture longevity is what will give him the edge him over M.J. And (2), this might just be me, but doesn’t it feel like the stars are aligning and there’s a less-than-zero chance the Banana Boat Crew realize their dream and play together on the same team before all is said and done? I’d be shocked if Melo didn’t already have a few Zillow listings for Cleveland McMansions in his browser history. As J.R. Smith will tell you, Cleveland ain’t bad! — Chris Gayomali
Most Transcendently Joyful Human Who Happens to Play Defense Very Well
Draymond Green, Golden State’s grinning, swaggering, do-everything head goon, loudly made his case for Defensive Player of the Year on Sunday, notching three steals and swatting five weak-ass shots in the Warriors’ Game 1 victory over Portland. What we’re really here for, though, is the celebrations he unleashed each time the announcers yelped his number. Here he is brilliantly stonewalling Noah Vonleh on a 2-on-1 break and then immediately acting like he just broke his frat’s eighty-year-old kegstand record in the middle of the quad.
Here’s Green delightedly spiking a sad Damian Lillard dunk attempt and turning a Shawn Kemp-style staredown into a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag into a giddy Usain Bolt-after-another-Olympic-gold salute to the adoring masses. Such range!
If you are able to take half as much joy in anything as this man does in meeting dudes at the rim and then turning them away emphatically, I implore you to teach me the secrets of your sublime happiness. For good measure, here he is at the other end, adding a triumphant, hula-esque hip wiggle to his trademark post-and-one bellowing biceps flex. The playoffs, apparently, are the time to step all aspects of your game up.
Show me a person who doesn’t want Draymond Green on their team, and I’ll show you a dumb, bad liar who hates fun. — Jay Willis
Provider of the Most Pristine Moment of Collective, Dubiously-Earned Confidence
Imagine playing for the Utah Jazz. It’s been five seasons since your team made the playoffs, and even this year, your grim dearth of national TV appearances means that most fans would be hard-pressed to ID even your best players if they saw them on the street—other than the fact that, you know, Rudy Gobert is a giant. Yet in a tied-up Game 1, with less than ten seconds to go, on the road, are you nervous? Do you panic? You are not, and you do not, because your man Iso Joe Johnson has the ball isolated on the left side. And you are positively giddy about it.
Look at these guys. This is the face you make when the wily old guy is on your pickup team, and you know that the newcomer checking him has no idea that his man never misses that 17-foot set shot off glass. It’s your expression when, even though you’ve seen the clip a million times, you know you’re about to see Richard Spencer get punched in the face all over again. The euphoria comes not from the actual result—though Johnson’s patient, methodical game-winner was masterful. Instead, it comes from the fact these dudes they knew how this would end, and got to share a gleeful, fleeting moment of inevitability because of it. Where you just saw Joe Johnson, who at this point is old and mediocre and boring as hell, his teammates just saw buckets. — J.W.
Steph Curry Plays H-O-R-S-E with some high school kids
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