The Thunder-Rockets game Wednesday night was a perfect distillation of the Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden MVP conversation that’s been loudly happening since about the midpoint of the regular season. Every single piece of every argument for (or against) each player had a counterargument. You had:
- Russy putting up a 50-point triple-double, which had never in the history of the playoffs ever, ever, ever happened. (INCREDIBLE!)
- Russy missing 26 shots, tying the record for misses during a postseason game, including 14 in the fourth quarter alone, which hadn’t been done in at least 20 years. (WHOOPS.)
- James Harden putting up 35–4–8 (RUSSY’S NUMBERS WERE BETTER!), and doing so while shooting nine fewer shots than Westbrook missed. (RUSSY’S NUMBERS WERE BIGGER BUT WORSE!)
- The Thunder being minus-15 for the game without Russy on the floor (RUSSY IS MORE VALUABLE BECAUSE THE THUNDER ARE AWFUL WITHOUT HIM OUT THERE!), while the Rockets, who were plus-2 without Harden, hummed along fine when he sat. (HARDEN IS MORE VALUABLE BECAUSE HE HAS EMPOWERED HIS TEAMMATES UNLIKE RUSSY, WHOSE NUCLEAR-POWERED HEART SIPHONS AWAY HIS TEAMMATES’ POWER!)
- The Rockets winning the game. (YOU PLAY THE GAME TO WIN!)
- The Thunder losing the game. (THEY’D HAVE BEEN BLOWN OUT WITHOUT RUSSY’S HEROICS! but also HE SHOT THEM OUT OF THE GAME!)
It was a great game. And that’s a fun and good conversation to have. There are lots of big conversations like that happening right now in the playoffs. (Will we get Cavs-Warriors 3? Can the Celtics recover? Is this the beginning of Giannis’s walk toward eventually taking LeBron’s spot as the best player in the East? Do we have to wait until David Fizdale retires to put him in the Hall of Fame or can we just do it right now? Things like that.) But there are also smaller, sneakier conversations happening. Conversations behind those initial conversations.
Second Conversations, if you will.
Some of the Second Conversations happening:
- Who’s the best backcourt in the playoffs right now? (I’m so happy that this is a real thing worth talking about.)
- Who won’t Paul George blame? (Nobody.)
- Did you know that the Hawks are still in the NBA? (They are.)
- Have you seen Kyle Singler’s hair? (Yes. Bravo.)
- I’m confused: Did the Celtics’ championship window open or close this year? (How differently would things look if they had been able to pull off that Jimmy Butler trade we were all trying to mind-force into existence?)
- I’m confused: Are we at the point where we can say that one-superstar teams have no chance? (On the one hand, Paul George’s Pacers, Russell’s Thunder, and Isaiah’s Celtics are all floundering. On the other hand, Harden’s Rockets look great, and so do Kawhi’s Spurs.)
- What’s going on with these new coaches? (This is one of my favorite ones. Jason Kidd and Fred Hoiberg and Scott Brooks look a lot like they know what they’re doing, which is pretty great to see. That said … )
- Did you know Brad Stevens, a darling, is 2–10 in the playoffs? (He is.)
- Did you know JaVale McGee is shooting almost 91 percent from the field? (He is.)
- Are the Warriors secretly the most disrespectful team in the playoffs? (Speaking of the Warriors … )
- Let’s say — God forbid — that KD ends up sitting out the rest of the playoffs because of fears about the long-term effects of rushing back from his injury. Do you think he’d feel like his move was validated if the Warriors end up winning the championship? (I honestly don’t know.)
- Is this the last year for Kyle and DeMar? (Please say no.)
- Is this the last year for the Clippers? (Please say no.) (But for a totally different reason than the “Please say no” for the Raptors.) (That reason mostly being that I enjoy a good basketball disaster as much as the next person.)
- How far do the Jazz have to make it in the playoffs to guarantee that Gordon Hayward won’t leave? (Speaking of …)
- Which All-Star is going to be on a new team next year? (There’s no way that Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Kevin Love, Paul George, CP3, and C.J. McCollum will all be on the same teams that they’re on right now. Someone’s going somewhere. Who is it? And speaking of …)
- How many more seasons do you think we have before Chris Paul revs up the David West Express Train and begins his someone-please-get-me-a-ring tour? (I think we’ll see him join up with, like, the Cavs or some shit in two years tops.)
That’s 16 Second Conversations. Let’s grab three of those and stretch them out:
1. Are the Warriors secretly the most disrespectful team in the playoffs?
This is one of my favorite Second Conversations.
In the third quarter of Wednesday night’s Game 2, Damian Lillard, hoping to kick-start a run to get the Trail Blazers back into a game they were losing by 16, fired up a deep, deep 3. It banged off the rim, and Steph Curry grabbed the rebound and hustled up the floor. Then — and I have to believe this was not an accident or a coincidence — Steph pulled up and shot it from almost exactly the same spot that Lillard had just shot it from, except on the Warriors’ side of the floor.
The ball splashed in, Steph anti-smiled, the Blazers moped, and the arena went bonkers. It was great. It was one of those situations where you watch it and you’re like, “He definitely did that as an eff-you to Lillard.” Steph let only six seconds pass before he made Lillard pay for trying to embarrass him, even though Lillard definitely was not trying to embarrass Steph, and even though Steph would never admit that the only reason he shot that shot was to poke Lillard in the eye. It’s a thing that the Warriors do a lot — that subversive, sneaky, disrespectful thump in the nose.
It actually happened four times in the game Wednesday night. Moe Harkless missed a 3 in the first quarter and Klay Thompson hit one just six second later. Shortly after that, Steph stole the ball from C.J. McCollum and then hit a 3 five seconds later. Then you had the one I just mentioned above. And then you had the one where Damian got his dunk blocked by Klay Thompson and then watched as Klay sank a 3 immediately after. So I don’t know if the Warriors are secretly the most disrespectful team in the playoffs, but I do know that they’re leading everyone in those quick-strike eff-you plays. The answer to this question is Yes.
2. Are John Wall and Brad Beal the best backcourt in the playoffs?
First: I really like the name Brad Beal. I propose that we begin moving away from Bradley Beal and toward Brad Beal. It sounds so strong and so slick. It sounds like the name of a character in a John Grisham novel. If Bradley Beal started going by Brad Beal, it’d probably be two, maybe three weeks before he started averaging 37 points per game. It’d be like when Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace between the 2011 season and the 2012 season and then averaged fewer points and fewer steals, shot worse from the free throw line, shot worse from 3, and also missed more games, except the opposite.
Second: Yes. As of this exact moment, they are the best duo in the playoffs. The top five goes: John Wall and Brad Beal > Steph and Klay (I anticipate this will change by the end of the next round) > James Harden and Pit Beverley (since we’re changing names, I’m going to go ahead and reinforce the idea of changing Pat’s name to Pit) > Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum > Russell Westbrook and Russell Westbrook.
Couple of stats: Wall and Beal and LeBron and Kyrie are the only teammate pairs in the top 10 in playoff points per game right now. Wall and Beal also combined to score 20 of the Wizards’ final 21 points in their Game 2 victory, which gave the Wizards a 2–0 lead over the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the last time they made it in. Also, John Wall dunked on Dennis Schröder and then asked him, “Fuck is wrong with you, boy?” afterward. (It’s my new favorite time a Wizards player was caught cussing on camera, beating out when the Wizards played the Raptors in the 2015 playoffs and Beal was hollering that Kyle Lowry couldn’t “fuck with” him.) Also, and this isn’t specifically a right-now thing, but they’re 10–1 in playoff first rounds. (If you want to point out that Beal has not had that great of a shooting percentage during the first three quarters of playoff games so far this year, that’s fine, but I’m going to point out that he’s scored 28 of his 53 total points in the fourth quarter.)
3. How far do the Jazz have to make it in the playoffs to guarantee that Gordon Hayward doesn’t leave?
Here’s something strange: I think, at least with respect to whether or not Gordon leaves, the Jazz got at least a tiny break with Rudy Gobert going down with an injury in Game 1. If that doesn’t happen and the Jazz still lose to the Clippers, you certainly have a harder time convincing Gordon to stay (given that Utah fans are worried that he’ll split town). Since Gobert’s hurt, though, there’s a little bit of room there. There’s space to be like, “Well, we’d have definitely beaten them with Gobert.” The prospect of hope is powerful.
That said, let’s say that part doesn’t matter. Let’s say the only thing that matters is the result. And let’s say that there’s a benchmark in Gordon’s head that will persuade him to stay if the Jazz get to it. What’s that benchmark? Do they just have to make it out of the first round? They can definitely do that. So is that the mark? Or is it higher? It can’t be to get out of the second round, right? That can’t be the case. They’ll play the Warriors if they make it to the second round, and that series is just gonna be a big plate of terror spaghetti for the Jazz if it happens. So is it one game? Two games? Do the Jazz have to win two games in the second round of the playoffs for Gordo to stick around? Is that the Jazz’s version of a championship this year? Is that what they’re shooting for? And if so, can they get there? And if not, are we watching Gordon Hayward in a Celtics jersey next season? And if that’s the case, is anyone upset by that beyond Jazz fans? Do Jazz fans ever get to be happy?