The Playoff Diaries: Round One is Over

John Atkinson

Drake NBA Playoffs

After catching a bit of the Wizards finishing off the Bulls—Cap City!!—I’m joined by a crew of six or seven hoopsbros to watch the evening’s epic Western Conference grudge matches at the solidly sports-friendly Hyperion Public. All are very engaged, articulate heads, most are present or past GMs in our fantasy league, and all moved out here (LA) from New York within the past few years (or months in some cases). Here’s a little ‘secret’, Brooklyn buddies—we’re not just trying to get you to move to LA out of our deep, genuine concern for your quality of life, we’re trying to get you out here because it seems easier than making friends with the… more LA-ish Angelenos.

April 29: Grizzles vs Thunder / Clippers vs Warriors

Anyway, the evening is full of chatter and pitchers of beers and no taking notes. The Grizzlies do their thing where they grind out a lead over the first three quarters and then completely stop scoring for six minutes, allowing the Thunder to send the game into overtime on a steal-and-dunk by Russ—typically epic behavior from a man whose charitable foundation is hilariously appropriately called “The Why Not? Foundation”. This was also hardly a surprise because IT’S THE FOURTH GODDAMNED OVERTIME GAME IN A ROW. Good Lord.

Then, thanks to the sublime Joey Crawford (see also; toad) keeping order—and there is no sound from this game in the bar, so we are really fucking lost in terms of what the hell dude is doing when he pulls one of history’s trolliest icejobs on Durant—Mermphis holds on to win by the absolute slimmest of margins. This buzzer-barely-non-beater is classic #BASEDGODSCURSE material:

The Clippers game is weirdly unexciting, despite the ostensible drama of their first ‘post-Sterling’ game at Staples. The “We Are One” chants and black socks are generally inspiring, as is the plain relief on Chris Paul’s face that the Sterling Problem has been ‘solved’—or, at least, shoved into the background for the time being… kind of… maybe.

But, in basketball terms, I’m mostly just missing Andrew Bogut, in whose absence DeAndre Jordan is running wild, looking like a 13 year-old playing against 11 year olds. The game is weirdly close, and Steph Curry threatens to break out a couple of times towards the end of the game, but the Clips never seem in serious danger of losing this one. The Warriors are doing impressive work under the circumstances, but it’s hard to see them advancing without some truly miraculous games from the Human Torch.

April 30-May 1

It’s been kind of a tougher-than-usual couple of days for your loyal, hoops-addled correspondent. The Santa Ana winds have turned the usually-mellow paradise of LA into a furnace, raising temperatures into the high-90s and tempers into the realm of the irrational. Even more annoyingly, I accidentally delete my diary entry drafts for these two days, surely a byproduct of the mind-melting heat. Listen to the resigned refrain “here come those Santa Ana winds again,” from Steely Dan’s classic LA anthem “Babylon Sisters,” if you want to catch the flavor:

I’m not gonna bother trying to reconstruct all of the action, but here’s a few things I was thinking about:

– Even after the Nets got their asses kicked by the Raps for three+ quarters, I did not give up hope. It’s the 2014 NBA playoffs. Anything can happen and sure enough it did, with the Nets electrifying comeback from 26 down, and then their somehow even-more unbelievable failure to finish the deal.

– While Jason Kidd had good reason to be pissed at the no-call on Livingston’s rebound… honestly, what the hell is Andray Blatche doing on the floor instead of Kevin Garnett in that situation?? I love Dray Live as much as the next guy, probably more even, but you deserve whatever you get if you put him in a crunch time situation and expect him to make correct basketball decisions. If Nets lose this series, Blatche’s pass will be remembered alongside C.J. Watson’s blown dunk against the Bulls last year as the two most defining fuck-ups of the Brooklyn era.

– I love Patrick Beverley. Dude is making a heroic effort playing through a 100+ degree fever:

— …Also, this excerpt from a generally illuminating Sports Illustrated piece on Beverly is wildly moving: “[Beverly] is partial to slow songs, like Whitney Houston's “Count On Me,” a duet about friendship that he recently played five straight times.”

– Really enjoyed the mini-outbreak of Linsanity on Wednesday night! Dude is still definitely better than Raymond Felton. James Harden, meanwhile, is still looking like total garbaggio.

– I’m starting to feel pretty bad for the Pacers and especially Roy Hibbert, but I was laffin at this tweet pretty much all week:

– Vince Carter! What an unexpectedly graceful ager.

– Jermaine O’Neal on Glen “Big Baby” Davis taking out his already-creaky knee in Game 6: “… Either he has terrible balance as a pro athlete, or that was a dirty play. God don't like ugly.” Coming from one of the famously-religious Warriors, and in reference to one of the most grotesquely-proportioned players in NBA history, this quote is extra gold.

– Now that you mention it, that Clippers/Warriors Game 6 was just UGLY in general. Sacrilegious in the midst of such a holy playoffs!

May 2: Brooklyn vs Toronto

I go with a couple of roommates—ex-Brooklynites, all of us—to Hyperion Public to watch the Nets try to rebound from Game 5’s brutal not-quite-comeback defeat. Like I said, it’s been a distinctly non-paradisiacal week in Los Angeles, so we need this almost as much as the Nets.

We don’t have the game audio in the bar, so it’s hard to tell if the fans at Barclays are any more amped after being challenged by the Nets’ “in-house” journalist to match the Toronto fans’ energy—really, a sadly impossible ‘ask’ for the… still-under construction Brooklyn fanbase—but at least someone’s apparently out there bringing legit NY-style star-hating into the mix.

One thing that really irks me about LA sports fandom is the total lack of negative reinforcement—how are your guys gonna know how to play right if they don’t get mercilessly booed every time they fuck up?

Anyway, regardless of how full Barclays was at game time or how many people wore the hastily-conceived Game 6 t-shirts, Brooklyn delivers a commanding, focused performance on the court. The Nets come out blazing, outscoring Toronto 34-19 in the first quarter and really never looking back. And other than a nasty fall that had me filled with dread for an entire commercial break, D-Will has a great, leaderly game. I’m a damned fool but I’m still holding out hope that dude is gonna change the narrative about his disappointing tenure with New Jersey/Brooklyn.

May 2: Houton vs Portland

I’ve got to go directly from the Nets game to a highish-brow gig—I’m performing a Steve Reich piece alongside former Dead Science drummer (and fellow recentish LA transplant) Nick Tamburro at a Cabinet Magazine-sponsored event that also features talks by a historian and an ethnomusicologist. It’s a great crowd, I learn some shit, I get paid, and I’m done by 10 PM—truly a grown-ass gig!

I’m planning on watching the sure-to-be-bonkers Houston vs Portland game afterwards, but make a grave tactical error in suggesting going to (the awesome hot mess of an Echo Park bar) Gold Room for post-show drinks, forgetting that the hoops will probably still be on. Sure enough, it is, and I unsuccessfully try to suggest we go somewhere “less crowded.” There are about three minutes left in the game and out of politeness to my non-hoopslife friends—OK, out of my desperate desire to avoid spoilers—I try and totally ignore the game. This works for awhile, with the jukebox and general noise and chaos of my favorite Echo Park dive drowning out the action.

But halfway through my drink, the energy of the bar suddenly and audibly coalesces, and people start shouting. I stay facing the wall, focusing on the non-basketball conversation in front of me… And then, about 30 seconds later, the bar absolutely explodes. I manage to maintain my self-imposed spoiler shield for a few minutes, and this brief achievement of self-denial is exquisite.

And yet. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a white (and thus Blazers) jersey being interviewed in the postgame, and the spoiler shield collapses. To be honest, I could kinda sense the Blazers win from the crowd, too—after all, why would anyone, especially die-hard Lakers fans (i.e. genuine Angelenos) that tend to congregate at Gold Room, be cheering for Dwight Howard and the Rockets? Some kind of cover, or like some techno version (??), of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” plays on the always-unpredictable jukebox, and I struggle with deep emotions—some in the key of life, because, fuck, this song—but at least half from knowing I’d missed a classic 2014 playoffs moment (and actually the first playoff series-ending buzzer beater since 1997?? FUCK):

Fortunately, I’ve still got an unspoiled Dallas/San Antonio game to look forward to when I get home. As I’ve said, I’m genuinely unsure of my rooting interests in this series, but that only means one thing—Dallas must win. There. Must. Be. More. Games.

And they do, and there will be! San Antonio keeps it close but Dallas pulls away down the stretch on the strength of the hugely-redeemed MontAY Ellis, the youngest and maybe most intriguing resident of Dallas’s island of misfit toys. Despite scary clutch threes from Danny Green and Patty Mills to keep it close, the Mavs hold on to win, ensuring we’ll get two game 7s on Sunday.

May 3: Indiana vs Atlanta

But first, an unprecedented three Game 7s on Saturday!

As Indiana starts pulling away in the second quarter, I realize that, underdoggery be damned, I’m rooting for the Pacers here. Specifically, I realize it while watching Lance Stephenson catching a breather in the crowd:

…I want more Lance. I want more playoff Lance, especially. I want more Frank Vogel. And, although I really enjoyed that burning-house tweet, I really like Roy Hibbert and his monocle and his Muppety voice! And no professional basketball player deserves to go 128 minutes of on-court time between field goals (that is a REAL Roy Hibbert stat from Game 4 to Game 7). Maybe most of all, IF the Nets make it past the Raptors and IF the Heat make it past the Nets, I still want to preserve the possibility that they’ll have to go through a brutal round against the Pacers to make it to the Finals.

Over the course of the game, the Pacers also seem to start remembering who they ‘really’ are. Paul George is playing up to his early-season hype, LANCE is flexing, the Hawks start missing threes in bunches, Hibbert blocks a shot, and a manner of order is restored to the massive-but-shrinking universe of the 2014 playoffs. Looking forward to seeing these guys get tested by the mobile, three-point-happy yung Wiz!

May 3: Memphis vs Oklahoma City

So, Zach Randolph is out for this game due to a ‘punch’ of Steven Adams in Game 6—which was legit more of a ‘closed-fist face-push’ than a ‘punch’, per se . It’s some bullshit for our brave underdog Grizz, and even though I’m usually the last guy to suggest conspiracies, the concurrent suspension of ZBO and non-suspension of Paul George (for getting on the court during a scuffle in Game 6) kind of makes it feel like the fix is in with regards to the league’s ‘superstars’.

Speaking of which—if Blake Griffin didn’t get cutesy ‘accidentally’ dumping water on that Warriors fan at the end of Game 1, and instead just, like, threw a cup of ice water at a fan in anger, how many games would he be suspended? …And how many would he be suspended if he was ZBO? Just saying, I’m watching this game under fucking protest. #FREEZBO

Anyway, the Grizz come out brawling, with an expanded role for Marc Gasol, who—fortunately—can do everything that one might be called to do on the basketball court. Memphis goes up as much as 10 in the second quarter, but they go into their customary ‘can’t score for five minutes’ routine earlier than usual, allowing the Thunder to tie it up late in the second and go up three on a Kevin Durant three-pointer.

It’s a bad sign, as the Thunder go on a big run to start the third, going up 15 after a barrage of KD threes. When both Westbrook and Durant are shooting north of 60 percent, with Russbro triple-doubling and KD going five for five from three, OKC is a tough team to beat, and it’s a demoralizing second half for Grizz Nation. The only positive thing I can say about Oklahoma City is that I really like Caron Butler’s ‘telephone call’ three-point celebration. Who’s he calling? Russ picks it up at the end too.

Ugh. RIP Grizz 2013-2014, and RIP to my plans to visit Mermphis for Semi Finals action + the international BBQ competition. Also a tragic loss: the opportunity to see ZBO chokeslam Blake, which I was kinda hoping would become an annual playoff tradition. I’m cautiously on #teamblake in general, and based on his comedic chops I feel like he’s “probably a cool guy,” but I also feel like the wrath of ZBO is a Great Test in his narrative and I feel cheated out of what might have been the greatest episode yet. Pour one out for ZBO while watching this compilation of the Top 5 ZBO-Griffin fights, including epic violence from both the 2012 and 2013 playoffs. Unfortunately the NBA seems to have removed all official evidence of last year’s iconic chokeslam, but I’ve got you:

May 3: Los Angeles vs Golden State

I’m watching this one alongside a typically deep Warriors fan—is there any other kind?—and… the deepest Clippers fan I know. So the viewing is focused, but the early action is sloppy, fast, and furious, with lots of turnovers on both ends but some hopeful signs for Golden State, including two early splashes from Klay and a couple from Iggy in the second. Everyone looks gassed though, everyone is doing crazy shit, Steph is scoring a ton and missing even more, and no one is breaking away.

But the Clippers get just enough separation down the last two minutes to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with CP3 showing that he’s still the best point guard in the game with expert clock management and a near-total smothering of Steph down the stretch, and DeAndre and Blake sealing the deal with classic Lob City action. (If the Clippers do finally get sold, can they finally do a much-needed rebrand? And if Blake and DeAndre are still around, how about the LA LOBsters?? Get it?)

I’m sad to see the always-potentially-entertaining Warriors go, but mostly sad for my seemingly-legion devout Golden State fan amigos, whose absence will make these next rounds of the playoffs a bit lonelier. Still, this was a pretty fatally flawed team without Bogut, and Clippers vs Thunder will be a much juicier basketball matchup.

And hey, Yankee Fan-In-Chief Billy Crystal is psyched, which makes me happy! If the Clippers are good enough for Billy Crystal to adopt, maybe they’re good enough for me after all…

May 4: Brooklyn vs. Toronto

10 AM PST is dauntingly early for the most important basketball game of the year for my Nets, but here I am, drinking a pulpy Vitamix morning juice and working out my nervous energy on an exercise bike. Amir Johnson is getting anything he wants in the paint in the early going, but the Nets counter with a polished, balanced attack. Garnett and Pierce are looking alive and lively, Shaun Livingston and Marcus BUCKETS Thornton are making big contributions off the bench, and Joe Johnson leads the way, as he has all series.

After some back-and-forth through the first quarter, the Nets methodically begin to open up what becomes an 11-point lead by the half—no, fuck! an eight point lead, after DeMar DeRozan’s buzzer-beating corner three-pointer at the end of the second quarter. Which is enough to spook me. After last year’s humiliating, gutless loss to the Bulls in the first round, as well as years of previous experience rooting for doomed Nets (and Knicks) teams—not to mention all the mind-bending twists and turns of the playoffs so far—I’m expecting anything including and especially the worst.

But for the next quarter and a half, the Nets remain firmly in control, extending their lead to double digits and playing tight, turnover-free basketball. The Amir Johnson onslaught is stopped when he picks up his fifth foul early in the third and heads to the bench. Kevin Garnett is looking legit GOOD, active on defense, draining jumpers from the elbows, and racking up his first double-double of the playoffs… I’m trying not to get ahead of myself here, but catch myself wondering if Kevin Garnett still has some vintage KG performances left in the tank that he’s been saving just for Miami.

And Joe Johnson is in gloriously, unabashed Iso-Joe mode, dominating the offense and bullying his way into an endless series of post-ups, scoring 11 consecutive Nets points in the fourth. Neither the Raps nor their annoyingly impressive fans are giving up though, and as the Iso-Joe routine starts getting stale about halfway through the fourth, the lead begins to inexorably dwindle. Amir fouls out, adding more fuel to the raging fire of Toronto’s ref-persecution complex. The lead is down to 5 with 2 minutes left… Down to four with a minute left… Down to one with 25 seconds left…

(Why the hell did I drink that second cup of coffee? If the Nets lose, I tell myself, at least I’ll avoid actually dying of a heart attack during a series against Miami…)

AND YET. After an excruciatingly prolonged series of Raptors layups, Nets foulshots, and commercial breaks for timeouts, the series ends the way it started—with an incredibly clutch Paul Pierce moment:

Unreal, this is gonna be known as “THE BLOCK” in the Brooklyn Nets history books. I’m whooping like an idiot and fielding multiple “are you watching this live?” text messages, which I appreciate! Even my parents out in New Jersey, normally a baseball household, are pumped.

I have pretty mixed feelings about Mikhail Prohokov’s Steinbrennerian approach to player development to say the least, but I gotta give him and Billy King credit: they got us our shot at the champs, and considering we went 4-0 against them during the regular season, we’ve got at least a puncher’s chance. And really, what more can any GM promise during this dark era of Miami’s reign?

Also, this is an utterly insane and apparently real stat I just read: over the course of their four regular season games and seven first round playoff games, the Nets and Raptors each scored exactly 1730 points. Unbelievable. Respect the Raps! Give T-Ross and Valanciunas another year or two to ripen and these guys might be seriously scary.

May 4: Dallas vs San Antonio

God, did we need this one or what? After all the insane drama of the past two weeks, the Spurs are determined to close the first round out on a reassuringly predictable note, crushing the Spurs by 20+ in maybe the least dramatic game of the playoffs so far.

The unexpectedly hard-fought series against Dallas has clearly warmed up the defending Western Conference champs, and in this must-win game they look as Spursy as ever. Tony Parker in particular is absolutely shredding the Mavs defense and reminding me how every post-season we will be reminded that Tony Parker is secretly one of the top PGs in the league. Never sleep on the Spurs.

I can’t believe how much damned hoops I’ve watched in the past couple of weeks, nor how much of it was so relentlessly, exhaustingly exciting. I’m gonna miss some of these teams—Memphis, you’ll always have BBQ! And God bless you, Warriors—but it’s gonna be a relief to be able to focus on ‘just’ four series for the next two weeks… Assuming the Nets vs Heat series doesn’t actually give me a damned heart attack. Am I ready for this?

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