There’s a truth about sports that is hard to understand, but I barely completed what people would call “some college”, so I figure I’ll take a shot at it.
When it comes to all sports, games do not matter. Not really.
I know this seems contradictory to the very nature of why we, as a nation, love watching sports, but here’s the truth: we love sports moments and we love sports stories, and everything else is just a way to service those two things.
One of the best baseball games of all time is the Game 7 of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. That’s an indisputable fact, unless you’re talking to the most diehard of White Sox (or Cardinals) fan, but the reality is that most of that game is extraordinarily boring because most of baseball is boring. It’s a lot of pitches that don’t put the ball in play, routine ground-outs or fly balls, and pitching changes that take minutes to deal with. Any baseball game is good because, in a two hour game, there are maybe 90 seconds of plays that make in amazing. People love sports moments, and that game has lots of great moments.
But what makes that game so special is that besides the great moments, it’s also the culmination of a great story, and that’s the other thing people love about sports. That game is not nearly as entertaining unless you know the whole series of events that got us there. You needed to know that the Indians hadn’t won a series since 1948, and that the Cubs hadn’t won the World Series in over a century. All of that futility and hopelessness needed the time to fester and build to create the perfect story to get us there. It’s what made that game so special: it was a series of amazing moments that helped us get to the end of a great story.
Games are, somehow, both too long and too meaningless to matter when it comes to the historical context of what makes sports so great. However, last night was one of the most special nights we’ll ever had in the history of sports. Because, in back to back games, we got one of the greatest sports moments the NBA has ever seen followed by the end of another chapter of what could be one of the greatest sports stories.
If you’re not enjoying the 2020 NBA playoffs, then you just don’t know what makes sports special.
Let’s start with the great story that happened last night, as the Denver Nuggets kept shocking the sports world and officially became my favorite nugget right ahead of “Chicken Mc”.
The Denver Nuggets are a fun team to watch and going to be a very good team in the Western Conference for a long damn time. They’re currently built on the 1-2 punch of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, and when the two of them are on the court together, get some popcorn and a soda because they’re going to put on a show.
If you haven’t watched a game of basketball in a while (living in Chicago, there are a ton of people who have not watched since Derrick Rose played) and were asked to describe what an NBA superstar looks like, you would probably think of a player like Jamal Murray. Born in Canada, the 23-year old guard has what could be described as the traditional basketball skill set: he’s a tough defender, is quick off the dribble, and a lights out shooter from anywhere on the court.
Jokić, a Serbian national, is a wild card that makes the Nuggets unpredictable. Besides setting 2-3 screens every play down the court, he’s a 7-foot center who is lethal from behind the three-point stripe and is a crazy hustler when it comes to getting back on defense, though it is always hilarious to watch his giant frame lumber down the court.
People say that they don’t play basketball like they used to, but those people are dumb and need to shut up. Murray and Jokić have brought back the pick and roll and do it better than any pair in recent NBA memory. For those reading this who aren’t super fans of basketball and have somehow gotten this far in the piece, let me first offer immense gratitude for sticking around and now I’ll explain the pick and roll: Jokić sets a “pick” (using his body to get in the way of whomever is guarding Murray), forcing the defender to either run around Murray or switch whom he’s guarding. The enormous Serbian then “rolls” towards the basket, and based on the act of the defense, there are a lot of options. If the defender tried to run around Jokić, Murray now has separation to shoot a mid-range jumper without a hand in his face. If the defenders switch who they’re guarding, Murray can pass to Jokić who now has a massive size advantage.
Looking to watch it in action. Check out how seemlessly these two do it again and again and again…
But that’s not the story here.
The Nuggets entered the playoffs facing a very tough Utah Jazz. After taking Game 1, a switch got flipped and the Jazz, led by the amazing Donovan Mitchell and the return of Mike Conley, Jr. (who missed the first games due to the birth of his child), took the next three games. The Nuggets were on the ropes and people assumed the series would end in five games. In the history of the NBA playoffs, only 11 times has a team come back from a 3-1 deficit. The series was done.
Except no one told the Denver Nuggets, who would shock the world and knock out the Jazz by winning the next three games.
However, surely their luck was about to run out. Quickly falling behind the Clippers 3-1 in the next series (behind the stellar play of Los Angeles’ Kawhi Leonard), it looked like the Nuggets used up all of their good luck. Except they would then go on to win the next three games again, even while trailing each game by double figures.
The Nuggets are a team you cannot stop, and they seem to play better after they’ve dug themselves a whole, something head coach Mike Malone probably wishes weren’t the case. I don’t know if they’ll be able to win the Conference Finals against Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers, but I know this: I wouldn’t count them out.
So, the NBA has a great story these playoffs. But last night also have us one of the coolest moments I’ve seen in a playoffs full of cool moments.
It’s overtime in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. Each team had to get through a series where they beat a team with a better record, and both teams are clearly hungry to get to the Finals. This was a heavyweight fight, with each team throwing hard punches but no one getting the knockout.
With twelve seconds left in overtime, the Celtics are down two and everyone in the entire world knows they will be getting the ball to Jayson Tatum, their 22-year old superstar who is known for being able to create his own shot. Tatum gets the ball, blows by his defender, and leaps in the air like his personal gravity is different then yours and mine. He is about to throw down a monster slam dunk. In his face, you can see that he’s not only thinking about how the poster of this is going to look, but he is also wondering where he can go to buy that poster right now.
Then this happened…
My wife was sitting next to me when this happened, and she does not often get excited about the NBA. Her favorite sport is baseball (and her favorite thing to happen in baseball is when a fly ball hits someone in the head), and I can feel her waiting to change the channel the moment the game ended. But even she had a gasp of excitement when Adebayo jumped up at denied that ball from entering the basket.
Some people have called it the best defensive play they’ve ever seen in the NBA playoffs, and by “some people”, I mean Magic Fucking Johnson.
People may forget about this series (especially if Boston can come back and win it), but no one will forget that block. It’s one of the great moments that makes the NBA, and sports, so special.