One of the pleasures of the N.B.A. playoffs is watching talented but complicated basketball teams continue to become who they are. The four remaining teams this year—Thunder, Warriors, Raptors, Cavaliers—have trudged or glided through level after level, inching their way toward the video-game boss that is the Finals. In doing so, two of them have undergone—and continue to undergo—a process of distillation: their characters keep clarifying. The other two, for better or worse, keep showing us who they’ve been since November.
The Toronto Raptors are in the latter category. Especially now, without Jonas Valanciunas, the big Lithuanian who doubles as the team’s only locus of unpredictability, the identity of the team is fairly fixed. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan continues to back, juke, and twist his way into wobbly mid-range jumpers, and point guard Kyle Lowry keeps slow-rolling, sometimes crookedly, into the paint. Watching the team, you shrug. Its rocky and protracted road to the final four—seven games each against the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers—reflected the Eastern Conference’s perennial mediocrity as much as it did the team’s perseverance or gathering ability.
But the Raptors’ lopsided windmill-tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers—may it be mercifully swift—is intriguing, because the Cavs still seem to be discovering something. This is partly because LeBron James has entered, maybe for good, a weird, compartmentalizing stage of his career. During the regular season, he tries, but not too much, and, off the court, he rewards his teammates and coaches (often his fans, too) with a passive-aggressive bouquet of lectures, groans, eye-rolls, and complaints. In the playoffs, though, he’s still a marvel. One of the most jarring aspects of these playoffs has been the gradual resurfacing of James as a Magic Johnson-like model teammate. In Game 1 against the Raptors, he clapped and laughed and high-fived with the other Cavs, who, after two convincing series sweeps and the promise of another, have earned their way back into his good graces, for now. And, on the court, where he simply declined the opportunity to miss shots, and otherwise flipped through his entire Cheesecake Factory-size menu of passes—no-look, one-handed, behind-the-back, full-court, shovel, flip, lob, you name it—he seemed to say to the basketball world, so enamored of minor miracle Steph Curry, “Hey, remember me? I can do everything.” When, toward the beginning of the second quarter, he darted along the baseline, through the Raptors’ consistently permeable interior defense, and up toward the rim for a shot put of a dunk, he roared, and you knew it was personal. The others followed suit: Kyrie Irving dribbled his defenders into dizzied agonies; Kevin Love (apparently emboldened by his coach Tyronn Lue’s confidence in him) became the Swiss Army knife his team thought it was trading for back in 2014. You get the sense that the team will arrive in the Finals having finally memorized a new choreography, one that might take James back to the mountaintop.
A similar counterpoint pertains to the vastly more competitive proceedings between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last night, I watched the series-tying second game between the teams at a bar, with a friend, and, at some point in the first half, our bartender slipped into a brief rant. “I’m going for the Thunder,” he told us, as he poured somebody else’s beer. “I can’t stand these bandwagon Warriors fans. They’re all like, ‘I’m from the Bay,’ but you just know they weren’t watching the Warriors five years ago. I promise you that.” I don’t think he was really as irritated—with the team or with its fans—as he thought he was. After a year of unanimous, rhapsodizing praise for the Warriors, and for Curry, it’s hard to avoid a kind of anxiety whenever the team comes up. We know exactly what the Warriors can do: upend the laws, probabilities, and aesthetics of the game. These days, when Curry crosses half-court, hops around and away from his defender, and hoists a shot, we’re still amazed, but never surprised, when it drops through the net. He pats his chest and points upward, the rest of us chuckle, world without end, et cetera. The only open question is whether his team will win it all again and force a rewriting of what we mean by “best” in basketball. Everything until then is a kind of restlessness.
The real life of that series is the Thunder, whose game-to-game unpredictability—personified by Russell Westbrook—is exciting in exactly the way we want sports to be. The team’s victory, last round, over the San Antonio Spurs felt like a revelation, as did its Game 1 victory over the Warriors. On some level, the Thunder’s playoff run—and, really, its entire existence since 2012 or so—feels like the working out of what would otherwise be a simple question: shouldn’t the team with two generational talents be a good bet to win? But if the Warriors’ excellence bends the old logic of basketball, Westbrook’s rips it up and throws it away. As Bethlehem Shoals pointed out in a recent column for GQ, the Thunder’s id of a point guard is a “total anomaly,” joining Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace, among others, in a lineage of stars who have strained toward a kind of self-expression, if not always victory. To watch Kevin Durant during last night’s second quarter, all calm, efficient restraint, loping his way into three-pointers and alley-oop dunks, was to wonder how he and Westbrook, so constitutionally opposed, might ever make something coherent together. Shoals’s conclusion, that they won’t, is probably right. The most interesting Finals matchup would be the one we probably won’t get, Thunder vs. Cavs—two still-developing entities, working things out for all of us to see.