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All Hail the Martyrs of the NBA Playoffs

Everyone can’t be a winner. Among the many who fall short, we reserve a special place for those who go out in an audacious blaze of glory. Here, then, a toast to the inspiring losers of the postseason, present and past.

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

Basketball is wondrous because it is truly beautiful to watch, whether it’s LeBron James taking off for a chase-down block like a multistage moon rocket or Steph Curry flicking basketballs onto the heads of pins from 35 paces. The sport is also backed up by hard data, generated from an ever-deepening pool of analytical measurements: points per game, PER, on-off numbers, and so on. And at the end of every season, the last fig leafs of subjectivity are stripped away, and someone just flat-out wins. Michael Jordan flew above the court like a figure out of the Sistine Chapel and averaged 32 points per game on 51 percent shooting for his career (not counting his time as a Wizard, because why would anyone do that?). But he’s the capital-G GOAT because he won titles.

In basketball, as in life, not everyone can be a winner. The vast majority of players in the NBA playoffs will not win the title, i.e., will lose. This is compelling. Most of the experience of being alive is about improvising ways to deal with losing things, large and small.

In basketball, too, there are gradations of losing. The best kind combines style and a certain intransigent fuck-you-ness in a way that’s inspiring and audacious. We remember the defenders of the Alamo because they lost the battle in a way that rejected the binary concept of winning and losing. At the same time, elite basketball losers have to retain just enough of the statistical rigor to support the argument that, under different circumstances beyond their control, they could have won. Playoff losers who come up short, again and again, by flying unswervingly into the sun are capable, despite being ringless, of capturing the imagination. These are the Playoff Martyrs. It’s been a good year for them. It will get better still.

Some quick ground rules:

  • Players, coaches, and even whole teams can be considered playoff martyrs.
  • However! The prospective martyr must be at, or past, the midpoint of their primes. This is not a list for young players with the best years of their careers ahead of them, or Brad Stevens. Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t be a playoff martyr. Not for a few years yet. His performance, even in a loss, yields hope, not inspirational sadness.
  • Candidates must have a recognizable and easily definable style, and they must go down without ever deviating from that style, to be considered for martyrship.

Here are your 2017 (so far) Playoff Martyrs:

Russell Westbrook

Moment of Martyrdom: Game 2, Thunder @ Rockets

What he died for: The culture

As Ringer EIC Sean Fennessey recently wrote, “Westbrook is everything all the time.” He’s also the greatest playoff martyr of all time. He is the alpha and omega. A self-destructive creator. Against the Rockets in the first round, Russ preached his gospel of high-usage, double-middle-finger triple-doubles, leapt on the cross like it was a banana boat, hammered the nails into his own hands, died for his sins, then came back to life to do it all again the next game. His style was excess. And his numbers spoke for themselves with the trumpeting boom of Stephen A. Smith reading from the book of Revelations.

Westbrook’s playoff averages: 37 points on 30 shots per game; 11.6 rebounds; 10.8 assists; and a 47 percent usage rate, 57 percent in fourth quarters. Russ started games by getting his teammates involved. He ended them by turning the final minutes into a karaoke performance of “I Will Survive.”

His style of play leads to questions about whether his supporting cast is any good. And when that question popped up in a postgame presser, he blocked it, Mutombo-like, into the front row of the arena.

I think Westbrook’s play stifles his teammates. Not all the time. Just when he could most use their help. I feel reasonably certain that Westbrook will never win a title. I don’t blame him. I put that mostly on GM Sam Presti — who lost two MVP-caliber players in four years, gave Enes “Can’t Play Kanter” Kanter the max, can’t seem to surround Russ with players who can score and defend, and yet remains strangely insulated from all criticism. That said, I don’t care! Teams lose in the playoffs all the time!

The Thunder, by any objective measure, aren’t even good enough to make the conference finals. If Oklahoma City is going to lose, I want a show. I want to see a guy do literally the most. I want to see Jimi Hendrix burn his guitar. I want to see a dude go 51–13–10, on 43 shots, then pull down his signature True Religion jeans and take a shit on the postgame podium. I want to see Russ.

Memphis Grizzlies

Moment of Martyrdom: TAKE THAT FOR DATA!

What they died for: Memphis

The Grizz are a rare kind of team because maintaining their singular relationship with their fan base is more important than anything else. Their Grit ’n’ Grind brand persevered despite head coach David Fizdale’s pace-and-space-inspired changes. Call it space-and-grind. Memphis launched 2,169 3-pointers this season, right around league average, up from 1,521 the previous year. The pace, though, was actually a notch below the lurching concrete mixer of the year before. Which makes sense. All the post–Seven Seconds or Less philosophies in the world won’t turn Marc Gasol and Z-Bo into lean-muscle sprinters or make Vince Carter not be 40.

If anything, it was Memphis’s under-everything veteran culture — understated, underrated, underappreciated, underdogs — that influenced the coach. After Fiz erupted into his now-iconic rant over the officiating in Game 2, Memphis rallied to him almost as if they’d actually won the game.

His outburst was in perfect harmony with the Grizz’s core values in the grindhouse era: ferocious work ethic, having your team’s back over everything, and a perversely parochial pride in not being as good as the other team. This feels strange to write, but the Grizzlies winning it all, which I think would be awesome and fully support, would be almost off-brand. It would be weird if Mike Conley were a widely appreciated superstar. It would be weird if Chandler Parsons were healthy all season. It would be weird if the Grizzlies were a favorite in a series, or if they were getting the benefit of the whistles, or if their coach wasn’t pounding the table in frustration or weeping at the doomed-blues musical lyricism of his team’s effort.

Chris Paul

Moment of Martyrdom: “You’re not ending your career in Utah.”

What he died for: A chance at a ring

You either die the Point God or live long enough to see yourself become annoying. Chris Paul is one of the greatest point guards of all time and among the handful of mind-blowing backcourt players in the post-Jordan era. Possessing crafty handles, an all-world midrange game, a genius basketball IQ, and lockdown defensive instincts, he’s more than good enough to be The Man on a championship team. Even at age 31, in his 12th year in the league, Paul continued to improve. This season he shot 41 percent from 3, a career high. And yet it’s looking increasingly like Paul, barring a dramatic change in scenery, will never reach the mountaintop. He averaged 25 points, five rebounds, and 10 assists in the postseason against the defense-centric Utah Jazz, carrying the Los Angeles Clippers to a seventh game despite the loss of Blake Griffin after Game 3.

Mike D’Antoni

Moment of Martyrdom: Every NBA postseason he’s coached thus far

What he died for: Small ball

D’Antoni and the Rockets are very alive. Ask San Antonio. D’Antoni’s martyrdom is a carryover from his years of postseason frustration with the Suns, mostly at the hands of Pop’s Spurs. Those playoff defeats, and fallow years with the Knicks and Lakers, frayed D’Antoni’s belief in his own system. Tweaking the formula to allow for plodding, post-up bigs (Shaq), and dribble-and-jab ISO guys (Melo, Kobe) only exacerbated the widely held perception that D’Antoni was a one-trick pony whose fortunes would forever be linked to Steve Nash. In the intervening years, though, the Heat and then the Warriors proved that D’Antoni’s concepts can win rings. Now it’s Mike’s turn.

Here are some historical martyrs through the years:

Brandon Roy

Moment of Martyrdom: Game 4, 2011 first round vs. the Mavericks

What he died for: Hoop dreams

Brandon Roy was only 26 in 2011. He was a dynamic and skilled guard, but he was cursed with knees that creaked like haunted houses. He had arthroscopic surgery on those ghostly joints in 2010–11 and played only 47 games. His career looked to be over before it could get started. He scored only two points off the bench, total, in the first two games of Portland’s first-round series against Dallas, the eventual champions. In Game 3, he his stroke returned — 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field.

In Game 4, with the Blazers trailing by 21 with seconds left in the third quarter, Roy exploded. He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter on a series of post-ups, juking drives, and bent-leg fallaways. For one quarter, we glimpsed the player he might have been.

Tracy McGrady

Moment of Martyrdom: Game 6, 2008 first round vs. the Jazz

What he died for: Yao Ming

T-Mac is famed among the hoops intelligentsia for his revelatory talent and his frustrating sloth. He seemed to have been designed in a laboratory — 6-foot-8 and long of limb, he could score from anywhere on the floor, rebound in traffic, and create for his teammates. He just didn’t practice particularly hard or work out with any kind of purpose. Perhaps that shortened his career. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, T-Mac, even in decline, could put up stupendous numbers in a short period of time.

Often he did so in service of a losing cause. Game 6 of Houston’s 2008 first-round series against the Jazz is a perfect example. McGrady’s line is bonkers: 40 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, and five assists. At one point, he spun baseline and executed a double-clutching, Jordanesque reverse layup. The Rockets won 55 games that season. And the Jazz crushed them by 22 points in Game 6. It was never close. The Rockets were eliminated, and T-Mac wouldn’t pass the second round of the playoffs for another five years, and then only as a worn-down hitchhiker attached to a great Spurs team.

Allen Iverson

Moment of Martyrdom: Game 1, 2001 Finals vs. the Lakers

What he died for: Philadelphia

The 2001 Lakers were the most dominant playoff team in NBA history. After a middling regular season, Phil & Friends flipped the switch and chainsawed their way to three straight sweeps and the NBA Finals. Awaiting them was the Philadelphia 76ers, a custom-built, six-man butler system for supporting the habits of Allen Iverson. It would take four of the best games of Iverson’s life for the Sixers to beat the Lakers. They got one. But it was one for the ages.