Now to the basketball game.
Remember basketball? The sport with the dribbling and the passing and defense, in which Stephen Curry buries shots from all impossible angles, and Kawhi Leonard earns comparisons to Michael Jordan with minimal scoffing from a certain generation of fans who hold His Airness in the same regard as any deity? The NBA Finals, between the back-to-back defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors, who are representing Canada in the championship series for the first time, begin on Thursday.
You might have forgotten about this opening tip, given that all anyone wants to talk about these days, it seems, is the off-court drama involving a bad team that’s decidedly not in the Finals.
You can almost imagine Draymond Green, Golden State’s extremely extroverted forward, waving his hand from Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, as if stranded at sea. “Hello! Hello! Look over here. We’re playing.” He might add an expletive.
But on ESPN Tuesday night, during a program supposedly meant to preview the championship series, former Los Angeles Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, man of the hour, was responding to an ESPN story in which current and former Lakers employees accused Johnson of bullying behavior during his two-year front office tenure, which ended with his resignation hours before the team’s final game of the regular season. Johnson denied the accusations. But once again, the bureaucratic shenanigans of the Lakers — a franchise that’s won 16 NBA championships, currently employs LeBron James, and is one of the most storied teams in American sports — were stealing all the headlines.
This wasn’t the first time the NBA’s off-court machinations, much of it involving the Lakers, have overshadowed the actual basketball. A little more than a week ago, during the conference finals, Johnson caused a conniption when he declared, during another ESPN interview, that current Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka backstabbed him. (Pelinka, in an attempt to motivate LA’s players, also reportedly fabricated a story about his client Kobe Bryant meeting Heath Ledger for dinner, after Bryant saw The Dark Knight. Bryant, according to Pelinka, wanted to pick Ledger’s brain about his intense preparation to play The Joker. Ledger, however, died six months before the movie’s release. So yeah, the Lakers have some issues.)
Earlier this year, news that New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis had requested a trade, with the Lakers as a possible deal partner, trumped the Super Bowl — the Super Bowl — as a sports TV talking point.
Jerry Seinfeld once joked about one of the oddities of sports fandom: we love athletes when they wear our favorite uniform, then loathe them when they switch jerseys, due to a trade or desertion in free agency. At the end of the day, we’re getting all worked up about laundry.
In the NBA, the laundry beat is red hot.
Which has its benefits. Leagues strive to reach young people in the sped-up digital news cycle. The trades and firings and backstabbing accusations keep basketball in the social media conversation, in effect acting as a marketing tool for the NBA. But the on-court product needs its hype too. NBA Finals ratings have slid a bit the last few seasons, which is largely due to Golden State winning in relatively easy fashion: the Warriors beat Cleveland Cavaliers in five games in 2017, and they swept Cleveland last year. And for the first time since 2010, James isn’t playing in the Finals. With the NBA’s biggest celebrity sitting this one out, will as many fans tune in?
They’ll miss some great basketball if they don’t. The Warriors are the Warriors, always an aesthetically pleasing team that moves without the ball, makes all the right passes, and sinks all the timely shots. The team hasn’t lost a playoff game since Kevin Durant left Game 5 of Golden State’s second round series, against Houston, with a calf injury. Durant’s potential return — he’s out for Game 1 but traveled with the team to Toronto — could mess with Golden State’s winning formula. The offense runs just fine through Curry. But the Warriors have an 8-1 record in NBA Finals games with Durant. He could render them entire unbeatable.
Toronto, however, finished with a better regular season record than Golden State, giving the Raptors home court advantage — something LeBron’s Cavs never enjoyed the past four years. Leonard, who’s averaging 31.2 points per game in these playoffs, might not be as good as Jordan. But he plays like him, with relentless energy on both ends of the floor. His build, his athleticism, his desire to take the big shot all call to mind His Airness.
Leonard’s supporting cast is strong. Kyle Lowry has appeared in five straight All-Star games. Pascal Siakam, a rangy 6’9″ forward, had a breakout year; he’s a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Big-man Marc Gasol, who arrived in Toronto via a mid-season trade, might not be putting up the type of All-Star numbers we once saw in Memphis. But he’s a still a talented veteran hungry for his first title. Off the bench, Fred VanVleet found his shooting touch in the conference finals against Milwaukee.
Today’s NBA is obsessed with “load management” — the hip term for managing a player’s minutes to prevent fatigue. Toronto coach Nick Nurse, however, has employed a tight playoff rotation featuring only eight players, reminiscent of times when a player’s post-game recovery routine consisted of beer. Three Raptors — Leonard, Lowry, and Siakam — lead the NBA in post-season minutes. Will Toronto wear out?
The Finals schedule, however, does Nurse some favors. There are two off-days between all the games, except between Games 3 and 4 in Oakland, which has one off-day. Plus, Nurse held Leonard out of 14 games during the regular season, for “load management.” He’s certainly played fresh these playoffs.
These Finals feature an additional wrinkle: an entire country rallying behind one team. Cities around Ontario have planned to replicate “Jurassic Park,” the raucous outdoor viewing area outside Toronto’s home arena, in their own town squares. Even fans in Vancouver, which lost an NBA team to Memphis back in 2002, are filling sports bars on game nights to cheer the Raptors. A title would be a long-time coming for Canada. After all, Dr. James Naismith, creator of the game, was born in Almonte, Ontario.
Whether Golden State pulls off the rare three-peat or Toronto waves the Canadian flag after clinching its first title, these Finals will give hoops fans something to remember. And then forget, once free agency picks up this summer. Will Durant stay or go? Will anyone sign with those Lakers?
Stay tuned. There’s more laundry to unload.