Last night the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in 5 Games in the Second Round of the Western Conference Playoffs. A few hours before, the depleted Chicago Bulls were also dispatched in 5 games and whisked off the stage by the Miami Heat. So far, these playoffs seem as defined by the players sitting on the sidelines as by those actually playing the games.
Derrick Rose has now been absent from two straight playoffs. Russell Westbrook missed most of this year’s affair, and James Harden was playing for the Thunder’s Round 1 opponent after perhaps one of the most foolish trades in NBA history. This year’s games are starting to feel less and less like a series of physical contests and more a like a never-ending string of what-if’s. This year the contests are not being played out team-against-team, but rather within the mortal frames of athletic gods.
Injuries are so vexing in sports because they rob us of the narratives we set up in advance and spend the entire regular seasons eagerly awaiting. Derrick Rose and the hard-nosed Bulls were supposed to be the Heat’s truly legitimate rival in the East. The Thunder were supposed to be the dynasty in the making in the West. James Harden was supposed to be superfluous because Westbrook was already the ball dominating point guard and Serge Ibaka’s was the more rare skill set.
When things happen outside the confines of the games themselves we have a tendency to discredit them for being beyond man’s control. The Bulls didn’t really lose to the Heat, they were unfairly dealt a bad hand by Rose’s lingering ACL injury. The Thunder didn’t really lose to the Grizzlies, they lost to Patrick Beverly’s overly aggressive pursuit of the ball while Westbrook was trying to call time-out. At some point, we need to acknowledge that the frailty of the human body is not some statistical outlier that we can sweep under the rug and excuse away. Sports have always been about the spectacle of pushing the body as far as it will humanly go, and often far beyond. Sometimes ligaments snap and bones break; that’s what happens when you strive beyond limits.
I often lament football’s domination of the American sports landscape, but at least football does a better job than any of the other sports of incorporating the potential for injury into the logic of its structure. In such a violent and gruesome game, injuries are the expectation, not the exception. In football team’s aren’t lamented for their bad luck, but celebrated for their depth and foresight. The only player on a football team that is more or less irreplaceable is the quarterback, which is why so many rule changes have been put in place to try and keep the golden boys on the fields. The problem with basketball is that each starting player is as integral to a team’s success as a quarterback in football.
As we saw with LeBron in Cleveland and Durant this season, no man can do it alone in basketball. We speak of Bird vs. Magic, but we speak equally of McHale and Robert Parish vs. Kareem and James Worthy. Jordan was the consummate transcendent individual, but any good child of the 90s can rattle off the crucial supporting cast he had around him from Scotty Pippen (a legitimate Hall of Famer in his own right) all the way down to Steve Kerr. Right now it seems a toss-up what is more threatening to the Heat’s title defense: the Grizzly’s one-two low post punch in Z-Bo and Gasol, or the health of Dwyane Wade’s knee?
In football we would never give a team a free pass for an injury to anyone other than a quarterback, but in basketball we can’t help but see the ghost’s of injured players haunting the games themselves. The second most enduring image from last year’s playoffs behind the ear-to-ear grin on LeBron after winning the title was the late period Charles Foster Cane solitude of Derrick Rose watching the games alone up in a Private Suit. In basketball we anticipate the scores always settling themselves upon the floor, but when it comes to injury the only adversary to seek retribution upon is either an implacable fate or the code’s hidden within one’s own DNA. Sports are supposed to be the one place where causes and effects are clearly delineated. The Knicks are doomed not because of the actions of a taciturn God, but because Carmelo Anthony is incapable of playing team basketball. LeBron won in Miami and lost in Cleveland because he finally had someone else to help him shoulder the load.
While injuries to Rose and Westrbrook (and the trading of James of Harden) have left us with nothing but a never-ending series of what-if’s, other point guards on other teams have risen to the occasion, and filled the voids left in our preconceptions by those all-to-human knees. Where we thought we’d see Westbrook and Parker dueling for the Western Crown we now have Mike Connelly and the transcendent Seth Curry stealing the headlines. Like in football (or the movies), the show must go on. Rather than dwell on what could have been for the Thunder or Bulls, we should instead fixate on the here and the now, and let the magic of those amazing shooting performances of Seth Curry do what sports have always done and will always do: allow concrete realities to settle themselves upon the court, once and for all.
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