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The Mixed Blessings of the NBA Playoffs

Here’s why it’s secretly a good thing that the Spurs lost Kawhi’s masterpiece, and other playoff surprises

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s crazy that I am even about to write this, but: Had Rajon Rondo not broken his thumb during Game 2 of the Celtics-Bulls series, it’s likely that the Celtics, the no. 1 seed in the East, would either (a) already be out of the playoffs, or (b) be on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs. Rondo was fantastic in Games 1 and 2 (11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10 assists), which was surprising, given that most of us were under the impression that he’d secretly retired from basketball in January.

Now, of course, duh, Rondo DID get hurt, and so all of a sudden the Bulls are bad again and have lost the past two games and it looks like the Celtics are going to advance to the next round, but that’s not the point here — or, at least, it’s not the whole point here. The whole point is that the Celtics got a thing that looked like it was good (the no. 1 seed), then immediately found out it was actually bad. (The saddest moment of the series was right before the end of Game 2 when it was clear the Bulls were about to take a 2–0 lead, and the camera zoomed in on the Celtics bench and it was like you could see them all thinking, “Man, f*ck. Why didn’t we just stay the 2-seed? We could’ve been playing the Pacers right now.”)

Let’s do more of those from the playoffs: more situations where a thing looked like it was good but it was actually bad, or when a thing looked like it was bad but it was actually good.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

BAD, but Actually GOOD: The Pacers Getting Swept by the Cavs

It’s bad because it means that Paul George is probably looking at homes in Los Angeles as you are reading this, and Paul George not being on the Pacers isn’t something I’m ready for. But actually Indiana getting swept is good because it means we’re all only a year or so away from getting at least one full season of the Pacers being Lance Stephenson’s team, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been more excited about anything than the prospect of watching Lance Stephenson’s Pacers vs. Dion Waiters’s Heat four times next year. It’s going to be like when Wilt and Bill Russell would face off, except more prestigious, or like that LeBron and Kobe Finals we never got, except more prestigious, or like when Pacino and De Niro finally had that scene together in Heat, except more prestigious, or like when Vin Diesel and the Rock finally fought each other in Fast Five, except more prestigious.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

BAD, but Actually GOOD (but Actually It’s Just BAD): Blake Griffin Missing the Remainder of the Playoffs

Blake Griffin will miss the rest of the playoffs because he injured his big toe while accidentally stepping on the foot of a teammate (this is the second-most–Blake Griffin–y sentence anyone could ever write[1]). It’s a bad thing because he’s their second-best player. But it’s actually a good thing because when the It’s Time To Blow Up The Clippers conversations start happening after the Clippers get eliminated this year in the playoffs[2], Doc can point back to how they had tied the series against the Jazz before the injury as a defense that they should be kept together. But actually it’s just bad because it’s sad and I don’t understand why the universe will never give us the Full Strength Clippers vs. Full Strength Warriors series we have all been trying to get since 2015.

1. The third-most–Blake Griffin–y sentence anyone has ever written was when the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Clippers’ Blake Griffin breaks his hand punching a team employee and will miss another four to six weeks.” And the most Blake Griffin–y sentence anyone has ever written was when NewsOK wrote, “Blake Griffin says yaaas to ‘Broad City’ cameo.”

2. The Clippers will be eliminated from the playoffs in one of only two ways. They’ll either make it to the second round and get Goldberg-ed by the Warriors, or they’ll lose to the Jazz in some stunningly devastating fashion. My best guess: It’s Game 7 and there’s four seconds left and the Jazz have the ball down one. Gordon Hayward drives to the rim hoping to win it with a layup. He gets past his defender, and so it looks like it’s going to be an easy shot, but then DeAndre Jordan comes flying in at the last possible second and makes some miraculous volleyball-spike block, only when he spikes it down it bounces off the top of Chris Paul’s head up into the air and then falls through the rim at the buzzer.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

GOOD, but Actually BAD, but Actually GOOD, but Actually BAD, but Actually … *Forever*: Kevin Durant Winning a Championship With the Warriors

Kevin Durant is a basketball genius. He deserves to win a championship, and I would love to see him win one, definitely. But if he gets it this year, what’s that going to feel like? Will it feel right? Will it feel good? Or will it be like the thing they do in movies where a guy rigs a competition or cheats on a test and then when everyone is celebrating he’s just sort of there like, “... Thanks”? Is that option even in play? Or will it just be total vindication for him? Will the Warriors win and then he’s just there, smiling, laughing, holding his Finals MVP trophy like, “See? I told y’all”? I hope it’s that one, and I think it will be. I don’t know, though. Whatever he feels will be the exact right thing. I just hope he tells us which one it is.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

BAD, but Actually GOOD: Rudy Gobert Getting Injured

I touched on this one in last week’s column. Rudy Gobert going down in the first few seconds of Game 1 of the Clippers-Jazz series with a knee injury that kept him out until Game 4 was obviously a bad thing for the Jazz for several reasons:

  1. He’s a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
  2. He’s a legit potential All-NBA selection.
  3. He’s the best rim protector in the NBA (he led the league in blocks with 2.6 per game).
  4. He’s the best rebounder the Jazz have (fourth in the league with 12.8 per game).
  5. He’s the most efficient offensive weapon the Jazz have (he shot 66 percent from the field during the season).
  6. He’s super cute, but cute in a way that an alien trying to blend in as a human is cute, which is to say, in the most interesting way possible that someone can be cute.

Gobert being out, though, was actually good for one big reason: Same as the Clippers with Blake, it gives the Jazz a built-in excuse if they happen to end up losing the series, which they could use to persuade Gordon Hayward not to leave when he decides to see what free agency looks like. “We would’ve won that series if Rudy had been healthy the whole time,” the Jazz execs can say. “Remember when Gobert came back for Game 4? He was 6-for-6 from the field and had 15 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks ALL IN JUST 24 MINUTES,” they can say. “Imagine if he’d have been 100 percent healthy? We’d have beaten the Clips, for sure,” they can say.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

BAD, but Actually GOOD: The Spurs Losing Game 4 of Their Series Against the Grizzlies

This whole situation is a big picture/little picture thing.

  • Small-Picture Bad: Winning it would’ve have put the Spurs up 3–1, which is considerably better than 2–2.
  • Small-Picture Bad: The Spurs losing Game 4 of the series was bad because it means that they wasted an all-time great, all-caps KAWHI LEONARD PERFORMANCE (43 points, eight rebounds, six steals).
  • Small-Picture Good: The Spurs losing Game 4 of the series was good because it ended with Marc Gasol hitting a game winner over LaMarcus Aldridge, and any time I can watch someone poke LaMarcus in the eye is good. (Here’s a fun line: LaMarcus had only two points in the first half and shot only one free throw and grabbed only two rebounds the entire game. Two rebounds. For the entire game. TWO. He played 42 minutes. And got two rebounds. He’s 6-foot-11. And he played 42 minutes. And got two rebounds.)
  • Big-Picture Good: It’s just perfect that the best game of the playoffs so far featured heroics from Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley, the two most invisible players in the league.
  • Big-Picture Good: I was very sad when the Spurs lost that game because a big part of me thought it meant that Kawhi’s brilliance was devoid of meaning. What’s the point if they didn’t even win? is what I was thinking. And in a sense — a small sense — that was a true thought and a true statement. But in a grander sense, it’s definitely not. In a grander sense, it’s a situation where Spurs fan will look back at it and say, “That was it. That was the moment. That was the night when there was no more doubt that Kawhi Leonard was the piece and the person and the player we were all hoping he was.” He scored 16 straight points to force overtime (and would have outright won it were it not for Mike Conley’s own brilliance). Then he hit back-to-back 3s in the final minute of overtime to tie the game with just seconds left (and then Marc Gasol LOL’d in LaMarcus’s face). And that’s to say nothing of his transition over to guarding Conley late in the game, similar to what we saw LeBron James do to Derrick Rose when the Heat played the Bulls in 2011. Kawhi is the guy. There’s no way to deny it anymore; no reason for doubt. Even if the Spurs lose this series, it’s fine. They have Kawhi.
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

GOOD, but Actually BAD: The Raptors Remembered That They’re Actually Better Than the Bucks

It’s good because they’re the better team. They should win this series. They should be the ones playing the Cavs in the next round. That’s going to be a fun series.

It’s bad because, I mean, come on; we all want to see Giannis and LeBron stare each other down. Imagine Giannis dunking on LeBron or LeBron dunking on Giannis (we’ve all watched LeBron play for long enough to know that he would absolutely search that moment out, and that when he got it it would be 100 percent devastating, like when he dunked on Kevin Garnett in the playoffs, or when he dunked on Rasheed Wallace in the playoffs). Imagine LeBron getting a chase-down block on Giannis. OH MY GOD IMAGINE GIANNIS GETTING A CHASE-DOWN BLOCK ON LEBRON. LeBron jumps the passing lane and picks off a Brogdon pass, turbo-jets his way down the court, gets to the rim, rises, and then, just before he dunks it, there’s Giannis, his giganto-hand swooping in from behind the play to slap the ball into the stands. Giannis would sneer so hard that his teeth would fall out of his head, and that would be sad, but actually it wouldn’t even matter because if he did that to LeBron he’d have a line of Milwaukeeans outside his house each night volunteering to chew up his dinner for him.