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What’s Streaming: A Movie for Every NBA Playoff Series

James Harden, meet Daniel Plainview. Here’s a cinematic complement to every one of the first-round matchups.

Getty Images/Paramount/Ringer illustration

Let’s face it, if you are reading this website, you are probably spending most of your free time these days watching NBA playoff basketball. But on the off chance that you find yourself cruising around your various streaming services, and you’re looking for a movie to watch, What’s Streaming has some recommendations for you: one movie, for every first-round playoff series.

(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Washington Wizards

The Kidnapping of the President (DirecTV)

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my hometown Raptors’ unprecedented 2-0 series lead over the Wizards than a story in which Washington, D.C.’s most famous resident gets abducted while visiting Toronto. A few years after playing Deep Throat, Hal Holbrook got promoted to commander in chief for this vintage political thriller. William Shatner—still trying at that point to live down Star Trek instead of leaning into its legacy—plays the Secret Service agent trying to rescue his boss from a Carlos the Jackal–style terrorist. Toronto residents will appreciate all the shots of the city’s downtown, although at that point in 1980, neither the Air Canada Centre nor the adjacent space known as Jurassic Park had been built yet (the only movie I can think of shot at the ACC is The Love Guru, which is worse than if no films had been shot there at all).

I thought of this movie mostly because none of the president’s men are very good at defense, and neither is Washington’s basketball team right now: The Raptors have scored 244 points in two games, which is a lot. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, but if Toronto wins the NBA championship, I highly doubt the Raptors will visit the White House, so the president can come here if he wants to shake Dwane Casey’s hand. Yes, it’s all falling into place perfectly.

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks

Dogtooth (FilmStruck)

Look, I know the story here is that Boston has won both games—the first one just barely, the second one pretty convincingly. The Celtics have done without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are good. Terry Rozier is good, even if Eric Bledsoe doesn’t know who he is. The Bucks are most likely done. But it’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo’s fault. He’s scored 65 points on 63 percent shooting while playing all but eight minutes in two games. So I wanted to honor the NBA’s Greek Freak by throwing to something by his similarly freaky countryman Yorgos Lanthimos. Before he enlisted Colin Farrell to consider lobsters and kill sacred deer, Lanthimos basically reinvented Greek cinema with Dogtooth. It’s a vicious, surreal little fable about a family whose young-adult children live under the thumb of their incestuous, megalomaniacal patriarch. In order to keep them close to home, dad tells the kids lies about the outside world that they’re too sheltered to see through. Essentially a black comedy about the mind-warping power of language and disinformation, Dogtooth was one of the most significant international breakthroughs of the 2000s; it’s violent, ugly, and cruel, but so was Game 2.

(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Miami Heat

RoboCop (Showtime)

“You’re going to be a bad motherfucker,” says Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton to Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) just before the latter is reactivated as a half-man, half-machine law enforcement officer, doling out justice from behind a sleek steel visor. There are a lot of ways to look at Paul Verhoeven’s still-brilliant ’80s action classic: as Reaganite satire; a lament for American heavy industry; a religious metaphor (the director said that his hero was an “American Jesus”). At its core, though, the film is a sci-fi gloss on a superhero myth: after getting beaten down, a guy puts on a mask and kicks ass. The mask that protected Joel Embiid’s broken face during Game 3 was more MF Doom than OCP, but the Process went full RoboCop in his return. The long fadeaway 3-pointer he hit late in the fourth quarter to seal Philadelphia’s win was the basketball equivalent of Murphy walking across water to stab Clarence Boddicker in the neck.

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Indiana Pacers

The Host (Hulu)

I had a natural thought after watching LeBron James rampage through the first quarter of Game 2 against Indiana: This guy is a monster. So it actually makes perfect sense to complement this most Midwestern of first-round series with a Korean film (you’ll see where I’m going with this, I promise). Since 2003, Bong Joon-Ho has been arguably the most consistently excellent genre filmmaker in the world; he’s made police procedurals, psychological thrillers, post-apocalyptic science-fiction movies and his own anti-capitalist/pro-vegetarian version of E.T. But the single most spectacular sequence on his résumé is the opening set piece of his great monster movie The Host, where a gigantic, amphibious mutant emerges from the Han River in Seoul and destroys everything in its path. It’s a great way to start a film because it makes it seem like the monster is going to be unstoppable, and then you wait around to see if the rag-tag group of heroes can band together to take it down. LeBron is the monster; the Pacers are the good guys. I’m here in Toronto hoping that the series turns out the same way the movie does.

(1) Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves

There Will Be Blood (Amazon Prime)

Paul Thomas Anderson based the production of his 2007 oil-field epic in Marfa, Texas, because it’s where George Stevens shot Giant. PTA knows his film history and nods to his masters whenever he can. But even if There Will Be Blood hadn’t been shot in Texas, it would be the right movie for this series because at its core, it’s a movie about a mismatch. Circumstances pit the capitalist Daniel Plainview against evangelist Eli Sunday, but it’s never a fair fight. “I’m older than you and I’m smarter than you,” shouts Daniel, shortly before bludgeoning his younger, dumber opponent to death with a bowling pin, and that’s what we’ve seen so far between the Rockets and the Timberwolves. The Rockets are not just more experienced and better coached, but, like Daniel, they have something to prove (tell me you can’t see Chris Paul threatening to cut somebody’s throat for suggesting he can’t handle his business). James Harden went 2-for-18 in Game 2, but he’s still the Third Revelation. Meanwhile, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins look like false prophets. [Daniel Day-Lewis voice]: They’re finished.

(2) Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs

The Group (FilmStruck)

There are a few ways we could go with this. Down 3-0 to the defending champions, the Spurs should probably remember the Alamo (and there are plenty of movies about the Alamo). Thinking about the ankle injury suffered by Kawhi Leonard last year in the playoffs—and its effects on his team’s fortunes—could make it a good time to rewatch Misery. But the story of this series is not even so much Kawhi as it is his “group,” as Gregg Popovich has called them—a shady collective of doctors, advisers, and family members who seem to have driven a wedge between the NBA’s model franchise and its apparently model star. (To quote Shea Serrano: what the fuck, Kawhi?) So, who is this group, and what do they want? Do they have uniforms? Do they speak in unison? These are important questions, and they have nothing to do with The Group, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s classic novel about a group of female friends sticking together and falling out after college. A best-seller in 1963, McCarthy’s book was at once a satire of the author’s experiences as a student at Vassar and a cultural flash point, bringing questions around second-wave feminism into the mainstream. The film was less acclaimed, although it’s notable for being a rare case where Lumet—one of the great alpha-male directors from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon—focused almost exclusively on female characters.

(3) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans

The Best Man Holiday (FXNOW)

A confession: I haven’t seen The Best Man Holiday. I’ve seen The Best Man, which is a charming and enjoyable romantic comedy from 1999 in which Taye Diggs chooses Sanaa Lathan over Nia Long and the two live happily ever after. I’m assuming that in the sequel they’re still happy but that more stuff happens to them and their friends. The reason this movie is here is because its title is completely accurate in terms of this series so far. Jrue Holiday is the best man. He has arguably been the best point guard in the playoffs so far, and certainly the most dominant in terms of his two-way play. Holiday sealed Game 1 with a block and cut the Trail Blazers off for good in Game 2 with a dagger. Is what he’s done so far worth $131.8 million? It’s certainly more than expected, anyway. Before this series, people were talking about Portland as a sneaky dark horse in a wider-open-than-usual West. Now the Blazers are in a deep hole in New Orleans thanks to Jrue the Damaga.

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz

Right Now, Wrong Then (Fandor)

This series is split down the middle: OKC won Game 1 by eight points, while Utah came back and took Game 2 by seven. Paul George briefly transformed into Playoff P, but the nickname didn’t stick. Ricky Rubio couldn’t buy a 3-pointer, and then looked like a stringier Steve Nash burying five triples. The two games were eerily similar, but different—slightly distorted mirror images with opposite outcomes. In Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s wonderful 2016 film Right Now, Wrong Then, we see the same story—a film director tries to pick up a young painter—play out twice with minor variations. The humor lies in spotting where the second version diverges from the first. The moral of Hong’s witty, intricately written experimental comedy is that situations can go either way, which is also true of what feels like it might be the West’s only seven-game first-round series.