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The Innocence and Experience of Luka Doncic and James Harden

I have been fighting, these past few weeks, to hold on to a measure of cynicism about professional basketball. Wariness about the enterprise is warranted, I think. The N.B.A. came back into our lives to finish off its dormant 2019-2020 season in what looked like a fit of stubbornness, willful and acquisitive in equal measure. The league set up its notionally protective “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort, in Florida, plopping down scores of the world’s best athletes in a state where, in late July, when the season restarted, coronavirus-infection rates were on the rise. The protests that began after George Floyd was killed by police, in Minneapolis, were still raging; the N.B.A. chose to address this by allowing players to choose from a pre-approved list of “social-justice messages” to display on the backs of their jerseys, and by painting “Black Lives Matter” on the courts in Orlando. Tested daily for COVID-19, the players were set up in hotel rooms and made to enact a kind of hyper-sophisticated, dystopian summer camp. Hotel cleaning staff and food preparers were expected to travel into and out of the bubble without the peace of mind that daily rapid testing would provide, and without the hundreds of millions of dollars that the N.B.A. and its media partners—including ESPN, which is owned by Disney—stand to recoup by restarting the season.

Watching basketball is a compulsion I developed as an elementary-school kid. I associate it, even now, with my dreams of a heroic and morally lucid adulthood. Now, irritated at corporate hypocrisy and worried about epidemiology, I found it less a means of escape than a simple bummer. I was reluctantly happy to see the N.B.A. back; hoops on TV is a kind of comfort food. But I couldn’t relax.

It was strange, then, this past Sunday, to find myself standing alone in the middle of my living room, dressed in shapeless sweats, yelling like an unharried preteen about a game-winning shot. By far the most eventful playoff series of the brief bubble era so far has been that between the Los Angeles Clippers and the young, impatient Dallas Mavericks. The Clippers are favorites to win not only the series but perhaps the N.B.A. championship. After their offseason additions of the forwards Kawhi Leonard—who, last year, led the Toronto Raptors to the title—and Paul George, their ascendance seemed a foregone conclusion. This matchup against the Mavericks was supposed to be a spirited warmup for later series, especially against their home-town rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.

But the Mavericks, led by the Slovenian twenty-one-year-old Luka Dončić—the dynamo responsible for my brief descent into mania—have given the Clippers problems all series. In Game One, they looked ready to push the Clippers to the last minute, until their second-best player, the center Kristaps Porzingis, was ejected. They won Game Two, then lost Game Three after Dončić sprained his ankle so badly that he seemed barely able to walk.

Dončić’s game is all stops and starts, unlikely angles and flashes of insight. Sometimes he attacks the hoop in straight, barrelling lines, and sometimes he floats obliquely, in artsy feints. On Sunday, before Game Four, he was still walking tenderly, and, when the game began, he looked a bit slower, but no less precise or aggressive. For one bucket, in the middle of the first quarter, he dribbled for a moment out near the three-point line, then quickly reversed course for a smooth, unexpected drive to the hoop that ended with one of his teardrop-shaped layups, which are angled perfectly to soar above the arms of even the tallest defenders and drop cleanly through the net. Later, in a more fanciful mood, he flitted into the paint, flashed the ball in front of George’s face, and then, Euro-stepping joyfully, scooped it up and away and into the basket.

The Clippers, nonetheless, stayed ahead for much of the first half, leading by as much as twenty-one. But Dončić’s passing, as much as his scoring, helped close the gap. These days, with the geometry of the basketball floor expanded by the emphasis on the three-pointer, the best passers often dive inside only to kick the ball outward, toward the three-point arc, and Dončić is a maestro at this maneuver. Once, toward the end of the third quarter, he rushed into the heart of the paint, and, nearly toppling out of bounds, reached around a defender and flicked the ball to Tim Hardaway, Jr., waiting in the corner. Hardaway casually sank the three, almost an afterthought. The Mavericks pulled ahead.

The Clippers, though, tugged forward by Leonard, kept the game close. Leonard is like a boulder, always rolling somewhere, steadily and without any evident gusto. He seldom fails to get where he’s headed. If you’re watching him disinterestedly, his game gives off a mild and easygoing thrill. When you’re hoping for a younger, flashier star to pull off an upset against him, he becomes a kind of excitement-extinguishing horror: the embodiment of natural limits, the force of reality closing in. He kept muscling to the wings and hitting sixteen-foot jumpers, looking the way he presumably does in practice, or when picking up the groceries. Near the end of the fourth quarter, his teammate Reggie Jackson saved the ball from going out of bounds and flung it to Leonard, who took a dribble with the energy of a sigh and drilled a three.

The game went to overtime. In the final seconds, the Mavericks were down by a point and had the ball out of bounds, after a timeout. Leonard’s consternation notwithstanding, the game felt like a referendum on Dončić—and there’s nothing more exciting than watching a young star achieve protagonism in this way. He had already scored forty points, to go along with seventeen rebounds and thirteen assists—it isn’t too much of an embellishment to say that each point his team scored bore the imprint of his whim. He caught the inbounds pass and took a couple of dribbles, to feel out Jackson, who was left guarding him after some clever screening by Dallas had pushed Leonard out of the play. Dončić took a dramatic step forward and a gentler step back, with the easy rhythm of a bachata dancer. The second step gave him the space he needed to let it fly. As I watched it on TV, the ball hung in the air, and the huge, clunky screen loomed behind it: because no spectators are allowed in the bubble, a group of fans are beamed into each game, as if teleconferencing for work. For a split second, I was distracted, and felt a pang of reservation about watching this silliness at all. Then the ball fell through, and my adolescence took over. I howled.

The next night, still hungover from the incredible finish, I watched the Houston Rockets take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Clippers, the Rockets are favorites having fits with an underdog. The Thunder are a young group led by the canny veteran and ex-Rocket Chris Paul. The Rockets had won the first two games and lost the third. Their star, James Harden, is often cited as a point of comparison for Dončić: both have kegs for torsos, giving them the aspect of overgrown little brothers; both spend copious amounts of time with the ball in their hands; both are nifty passers; both just plain love to shoot. (Dončić has also, less convincingly, been compared to Larry Bird, mostly because he, too, is white. But both Harden and Dončić share a more obvious stylistic debt to the recently retired Argentinian Manu Ginóbili.)

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