What we’ve seen in the playoffs so far this year is the end of one era and the beginning of another. In the summer of 2007 the Boston Celtics built their team around a core of all-stars—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen—and the next season they won a championship. It’s been three years, but the franchise model inaugurated in Boston has slowly begun to take effect. Teams once content to build their rosters around a single star have become more ambitious. This summer the Heat acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh to go along with Dwyane Wade; during the season the Knicks shipped out their young talent so they could get Carmelo Anthony to help Amar’e Stoudemire. But there are some important differences between what the Celtics did four years ago and what the Heat and Knicks are trying to do now. The Celtics combined three great players whose skill sets complemented each other – a big man, a balanced scorer, an outside shooter – and then surrounded these players with an able coaching staff and a supporting cast. By contrast the Knicks and Heat seem satisfied to bring in bigger-name stars who aren’t particularly compatible and let the rest sort itself out. Over the next few seasons more changes like this can be expected, with available all-star free agents migrating in waves to select teams in big markets. The league is changing, possibly for the worse.
In this sense, the Memphis Grizzlies–Oklahoma City Thunder series represented a hearkening-back. Here were two small-market teams, well coached and youthful. Both seemed to have benefited, thus far, from their opponents’ diminished expectations. In the first round the Grizzlies dismantled the Spurs, the best regular-season team in the West. The series went six games, but it wasn’t close. The Grizzlies played fiercely on defense and shared the ball on offense. The Spurs looked like they had fallen into a geriatric stupor. (And, indeed, the average age of their three big stars was 32.) When the Grizzlies won they won easily, as if the outcome were inevitable; when the Spurs won it seemed flukish, a miracle, a back-from-the-dead victory willed by the charismatic Argentinian Manu Ginobili. In 2008 the Thunder won only twenty-three games in the regular season, making them one of the worst teams in the league, but they had been on one of the great draft runs in league history—four spot-on first-round picks in three years—and by last season they were in the playoffs. They completed their transition at the end of this season by convincing Celtics President Danny Ainge to take their two worst players, the abysmal Jeff Green and the not much better Nenad Krstic, in exchange for Kendrick Perkins, who hasn’t done much for the Thunder but has added a lot to the team by not being Green and Krstic. Watching them on the court now, it’s alarming to see how disciplined they are, how fast they play, how much they feed off of each other’s energy. Their oldest starter is only 27, but their style of play, while up-tempo, is also regimented and machine-like. They play older than they are.
The series so far had been nasty, a scrum. Almost none of the games were particularly close. The team that dominated one game was then dominated the next, and so on, pretty much alternating each of the first six games. The most exciting contest was game 4, the only close one of the series, which went to three overtimes. It was exhausting to watch. Neither team seemed capable of winning but neither seemed to want to lose, either. Finally in the third overtime the Thunder won a game they really needed, evening the series at 2-2. They split games 5 and 6. Now, game 7.
During warm-ups both teams seemed young and nervous, which they were. As the game started it became increasingly clear that whatever was in store was going to be painful to witness. The basketball we were seeing was not the smooth crisp type both teams were capable of playing, the ball carried fast up and down the court, a few quick clean passes and then an open jump shot. Instead it was a basketball of the nerves. Each team’s offense sputtered, stuttered in its execution. The players’ movements were jittery and inelegant. Turnovers abounded. When the ball went in the basket it was as if by accident. Before our eyes youth was being transmuted into experience. Growth was happening. It wasn’t pretty. After the first quarter the score was an anemic 21-17, Oklahoma City on top. Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s biggest star, was 2 for 9 from the field.
Durant was the main reason the Thunder had been such heavy favorites in the series. He had been drafted after his freshman season at Texas, where he had been utterly dominant. But he seemed too skinny to play in the NBA. When LeBron came into the league he was only 19 but he was built like a man; Durant is svelte like a boy. One worried about Durant among meaner, more muscular opponents. Would they eat him? But Durant has made his skinniness an asset. He is slippery, difficult to pin down. He sheds defenders with minimal effort. “Where’d Durant go?” They can’t see him. He insinuates himself into implausible places and positions. It helps too that he is six-nine, agile, and a brilliant outside shooter (he is an .882 career free throw shooter)—a rare combination. Nobody can get a hand in his face. Last season he became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history. Success in the league has turned Durant a little eccentric though. He has begun wearing a backpack to postgame press conferences. Nobody knows what he carries in it, what the bag holds. Analysts are baffled.
In this postseason the Thunder have been a particularly vexing team to root for because of their point guard, Russell Westbrook. Another burgeoning talent, Westbrook has all-star skills but isn’t good enough to carry the Thunder on his own. In the first round he took thirty shots in a single game, and the Thunder lost – it was twelve more shots than Durant took. “Did he take too many shots?” the Oklahoma City coach, Scottie Brooks, said after the game, trying to quell controversy. “Absolutely.” The next game critics accused Westbrook of pouting because of his coach’s comments, not giving a full effort. He went 3 for 15 from the field and looked a little slower than usual, but the Thunder won anyway.
In the second quarter of the Memphis game, the Thunder started to play better. Russell Westbrook stayed within himself, passing the ball to the open man, creating opportunities. He sublimated his frustrated wish to shoot the ball into a series of monstrous offensive rebounds, leaping above two, sometimes three taller players to snatch the ball from the glass. With seven minutes left in the half, the Thunder nursing a five-point lead, Westbrook raced down the court and into the teeth of the Grizzlies’ defense, three players who managed to get back in time to stop him from taking an easy layup. Instead of pulling up near the free-throw line and hoisting a shot, as he’d normally do, Westbrook faked a behind-the-back pass to Nick Collison, one of the Thunder’s backup forwards. It was a quick movement—a gesture that was hard to pick up even as you watched the game on television—but all three Grizzlies defenders saw it and collapsed toward Collison, and just when they did the ball was out of Westbrook’s hands, hurtling toward Durant, who was standing unnoticed in the corner of the court, behind the three-point line. Durant rose and fired, nobody close to him. Three points. At the end of the half the Thunder were up eight points, 42-34. The game was still hard to watch but something seemed to be taking its course. The Thunder appeared confident and the Grizzlies were a little shaken.
It was improbable for the Grizzlies even to have made it this far into the postseason. They are an assemblage of misfits, outcasts, losers. Marc Gasol, their center, was known before the playoffs chiefly for being the doughy younger brother of Lakers all-star Pau Gasol. The Grizz’s shooting guard is O. J. Mayo. At one point Mayo seemed like the surefire future star of the franchise, but after some erratic play last season, and a positive test for steroids earlier this year, he was forced to watch from the bench as his once bright future grew dim. In January, it was reported that Mayo had lost a lot of money playing a card game called bourre with defensive stopper Tony Allen on a team flight. Mayo refused to pay and screamed at Allen for a while, until Allen decided to end the argument by punching Mayo in the face. Mayo sat out the next game with “bronchitis,” his face hugely swollen. The Grizzlies were so tired of Mayo that they actually traded him right at the trade deadline—and then forgot to call the trade in to the league office until the deadline had passed. This bit of incompetence turned into a lucky break when the Grizzlies’ star forward, Rudy Gay, got hurt, and they turned out really to need Mayo in the playoffs. The postseason gave Mayo new life. A streaky shooter, he started taking fewer shots, and the shots he did take seemed to be going in with a greater frequency. The range on his jump shot allowed the Grizzlies’ big men more space to maneuver in the paint.
The Grizzlies have one real star, though: the lovable and irascible Zach Randolph, or Z-Bo as he’s called around the league. He is one of the ugliest players alive. I mean this in two ways. First, Z-Bo is an unattractive man, physically. Sometimes watching basketball we can forget that it’s a sweaty sport, a game that involves dripping, moisture and armpits. But if we ever forget how bodily basketball is, all we need to do watch Z-Bo at work. He helps us remember. It’s not really the amount of sweat Z-Bo excretes but more its quality. Halfway through a game he looks like he’s been slathered in melted butter. Z-Bo is ugly in a more profound sense, too. The way he plays basketball is ungraceful, lacking in style. When he gets the ball near the rim he throws his heavy body around, clearing just enough space to lift his arms and spastically flip the toward the basket. The rare moments when his game somehow slips into beauty—like when he releases a mid-range jump shot, soft and sweet—only really serve to remind us of how ugly his game is otherwise. What’s surprising is how effective Z-Bo’s play is overall. Even when he wasn’t a star, he was always known as a scorer, a me-first brawler who could get things done. In the playoffs this year he was a revelation, unselfish when he got the chance and dominant when he needed to be.
The second half was a blowout. For the first time this postseason Durant and Westbrook worked in complete harmony, reading each other’s faces for secret inner thoughts. On one offensive possession, Westbrook hovered around the top of the three-point arc, bent over and dribbling the ball low, squinting his eyes as he probed the Grizzlies’ defense for weaknesses. At some point he and Durant saw each other, it was unclear how – a piece of information was exchanged between them, without anyone noticing – because just when it looked like Durant would run past a screen and curl out to the perimeter, suddenly he was back at the rim, now in the air, and Westbrook had found him with a line drive pass, the ball shooting through the defenders’ outstretched arms, and Durant had plucked the ball from the void and lowered it with both hands peacefully into the basket. Final score: 105-90. Thunder advance to the next round.
There they will encounter the Dallas Mavericks. The most shocking thing about the Mavs’ victory last week over the Lakers was how fast it happened. The Mavs looked like the best team in basketball, and the Lakers were miserable, not a two-time defending champion but a moribund franchise. The Mavs were so good, the series was over so fast, that it’s not entirely clear how well they’ll play against the Thunder.
Most of the attention the Mavs receive goes to Dirk Nowitzki. The attention is well deserved. There is something inexorable about Dirk’s game, when he drops his proud leonine head, shoulders his way into the paint, draws contact then falls backwards, catapulting the ball in a slow high arc toward the basket. At first it seems like it won’t work out, that it can’t work out, and then it does. But really, the reason the Mavs have been so great this postseason is their bench. In the final game against the Lakers, which the Mavs won easily, three of their bench players combined for seventy-five points. Together Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry, both veteran non-starters, made 15 of 16 three-pointers. The team’s most exciting player is their backup point guard, J. J. Barea. Barea is listed at six feet but there’s no way he’s taller than five-ten. The way he handles the ball—lulling opposing defenses to sleep at the top of the arc before cutting fast and hard into the paint, then passing to an open man for an easy bucket—is mesmerizing. According to Wikipedia he dates Miss Puerto Rico. This is unsurprising.
For the Thunder to beat the Mavs they will have to follow the same formula they did in game 7. What makes the Thunder such a compelling team is their youth and vitality and their team chemistry. They are the anti-Miami Heat. The Thunder organization, operating in a small market, has brought together a group of talented young players and then developed these individual pieces into a coherent whole. There is something organic about the way the team has grown and developed into itself. The other big-name franchises in this year’s playoffs feel engineered. They are great precisely because they come from big markets, because they play in big cities. They are expected during the off-season to make blockbuster trades and throw down large sums of money to attract established free agents. Some see the Heat-Bulls series as a meeting between two opposites, and on some level this is true. The Heat have two indisputable stars and little else; the Bulls have one indisputable star surrounded by a cohort of solid role players. But on another level there isn’t much distinguishing how the two franchises operate. The Heat managed to get LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the same team last off-season; the Bulls had the money to land either LeBron or Wade to go along with their star, Derrick Rose, but for other reasons it didn’t work out. So instead they settled for Carlos Boozer.
For now it seems like the big-market franchises are the ones that will dominate the NBA’s future. The superstars that make up these teams will attract other superstars, and the more superstars there are on a single team the more other players will want to join too – glue guys whose job it is to hold the superstars together, to make sure the superstars can coexist with one another. These are the teams that will compete for championships over the next decade, elbowing out everyone else. The Thunder represent a competing model. They are a team capable of restabilizing the league, of restoring some of its harmony to the little guys. The greatest threat to the Thunder is not from outside but from within. If Russell Westbrook subordinates his own will to the will of his teammates then the Thunder can go far. If he doesn’t, the Thunder will have two dysfunctional stars, struggling to become a functional unit. They will have become a worse version of the Heat, in short. But maybe a better version of the Knicks.