Tell yourself you love basketball as a beautiful game, to watch the ball ping around the court as a team’s collective hive-mind hunts the best available shot. Then watch the last week of the NBA playoffs and see if you can stick to that conviction. Between Lou Williams’s rash of perverse leaners on Monday night and Jamal Murray’s brief emergence as the final avatar of Vishnu, it’s clear that professional basketball also offers bloodier, sicker, more defiantly individuated pleasures.
For playmakers, it’s no longer enough to put on a passable imitation of Steve Nash, responsibly distributing the ball and dutifully taking good looks as and where they appear. The job description has been updated with a bullet point, something like “Must show willingness to find and kill god.” Every worthwhile lead guard in the NBA now is an unconscionable freak, willing to shed any last speck of respect or prudence when the moment requires, creating and making shots that would have been unthinkable five years ago, and I love it. None of these new weird stars delivers a more gratifying spectacle than Damian Lillard, whose 29 points, four rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks more or less put to rest Game 2 of Portland’s series against Oklahoma City after three quarters.
Russell Westbrook is a thrill ride unto himself, but sometimes a fan and a team both need to see the ball actually go inside the basketball ring, as Westbrook’s 5-of-20 brick toss drove home on Tuesday. Game 2 clearly displayed the Venn diagram on which Lillard and Westbrook do and don’t overlap, and it was revelatory in a way that flattered Portland’s star. Dame’s floor-stretching and decision-making and easy way of splitting defenders came out superior, even if he can’t quite go 0-to-100 on the break or sky for stray boards like his counterpart. Despite his pocket-size stature, he’s a peskier defender, too. He stole Westbrook’s lunch straight-up on one occasion and generally badgered him to the point of rage. Dame is just better, and has been for a little while now. Westbrook might never learn this one trick, and the faster his other gifts fade, the more he’ll covet it:
James Harden is better than both, sure, but Lillard’s dissection of a defense has none of the cheesy, button-mashing feel of watching Harden at work. When Dame hurls himself into a crash of bodies and emerges with fresh points on the board, the sense is more that he eluded all of the defense’s traps than that he lured them into one of his own. None of it’s easy, of course, but Lillard always seems to be dancing on knife’s edge, and is more thrilling as a result.
And Steph Curry is better, duh. But when you root for Dame you don’t have to resign yourself to rooting for an insolent little Pikachu. Dame of course has none of the Golden State stink on him, fighting instead for a postseason underdog that labors under Jennifer’s high expectations and lost its wonderful big man to grotesque injury. More than that, Dame at his best feels authentically heroic, where late Steph Curry works like a deus ex machina. Dame can’t just walk out there and rely on being the greatest shooter that ever lived. He’s a mildly undersized and supremely scrappy fighter making do with merely all-world athletic gifts, just like uh you and me.
Lillard and Kyrie Irving is a comp that comes closer to working, at least in the sense that they present an eerily similar on-court product. Kyrie claims the edge for pure improvisational iso ability and sharpshooting, on Dame and just about everyone else in the sport. But if we’re tallying it up, we need to grant Lillard the point for health (he’s played 51 more games over the past four seasons than Irving) and various intangibles (more convincing pep talks, less day-to-day grappling with the fabric of reality), and then see how the math shakes out. It’s close, but Dame might still be the pick. If he can steer these Blazers deep into the postseason, that conclusion might come clearer. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll go out in a blaze. Either way, it would be stupid not to watch.