Deal With It

It’s in the nature of really good basketball teams to seem inevitable. It’s not really in basketball’s nature to let that be true, but if you’re looking for a reason why NBA discourse tends toward the overheated, beyond the obvious—it’s fun to shout sometimes; everyone is working some stuff out; the culture as a whole has a mild case of Stephen A. Smith Disease—it’s the way that a sufficiently great team or individual performance can seem to announce itself very decisively as The Future. It’s possible to know this to be true and still fall victim to it. Everyone knows, in retrospect, that it would have been impossible for the Minnesota Timberwolves to simply play all the rest of their games the way that they did during Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals, but that performance was so astonishing, not just in its dominance but for the brusque way in which the Wolves rejected the most basic premises of the defending NBA Champions’ offense, that it was difficult not to feel as if you were seeing the future.

But all these teams are really good, and the NBA Playoffs are grueling in ways that no other postseason is, and things change. What happened in Game 2 was a future, maybe, for this Timberwolves team and perhaps also—as it felt in the moments when Minnesota was frantically denying Denver so much as a dribble-handoff—the sport more broadly. But it wasn’t even the future of that series, which would whipsaw wildly back and forth through seven games; the Nuggets adjusted and then the Wolves adjusted to that, and that is mostly just how it works.

As wild and thrilling and deeply convincing as the Wolves were in that moment, there were moments that followed in that series that pointed at different futures, up to and including the one that arrived in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, when a flubby defensive switch left Luka Doncic working on four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert above the three-point line. This was not the future that the Wolves wanted, Gobert’s credentials and his previous success against Doncic in a similar situation earlier in the game notwithstanding. That was all the past, and so not of any great use to the Wolves in that moment. It proved much more helpful to Doncic, who’d hit three step-back threes in the game, all of them launched after going to his left; when Gobert shaded him in that direction, as he had done successfully in the past, Doncic feinted towards another step-back to his left, wobbled Gobert with a gesture towards a drive, and then hit the game-winner—another step-back three, this time to his right, to give Dallas a 2-0 lead as the series heads back to their home court on Sunday night.

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In his game story at The Ringer, Rob Mahoney mentioned that Dereck Lively, who has emerged as the electric other half of a potent lob binary with Doncic, has a personal shorthand where Doncic’s stepbacks are concerned that amounts to “if Luka is hopping, the shot is dropping.” On Friday, Doncic was pogoing around on his left foot before the ball even began its descent. “I saw it go up,” Lively said afterwards. “I saw how he landed. He had a pep in his step, so I knew it was good.” Before Doncic literally yelled You can’t fucking guard me at Gobert and the rest of the world—he waited for the shot to fall for that—he was saying it. He finished the game with 32 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds.

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What we have here is a case of conflicting futures. Anthony Edwards is good enough and electric enough to be compared to any past superstar, up to and including the most definitionally out-of-pocket comp there is; he has also, through two games, mostly not been very effective in this series, and has at times looked exhausted and seemed pretty comprehensively stymied. Luka Doncic, who has presented a plausible potential Future Of The NBA since Edwards was in high school, has been making a case for a different future’s arrival—one that belongs to him—all season long.

That argument has become more convincing as other ones have fallen by the wayside, although how compelling that is will necessarily depend on your tolerance for Doncic, who is both better than he’s ever been—he led the NBA in scoring, was some narrow fractions away from averaging a triple-double, and has also been defending at a rather shockingly high level throughout the postseason—while still presenting every bit the aesthetic and ethical challenge that he always has. Luka, who still spends a lot of his time flailing for and remonstrating with the officials, who is the color of a damn cranberry minutes into every game, who is somehow always bigger and wider than I remembered and who plays with the strange sort of hyper-speed slowness that once led the baseball announcer Curt Gowdy to say of Brooks Robinson that “he is not a fast man, but his arms and legs move very quickly,” is not necessarily what The Future Of Basketball would look like if you closed your eyes.

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And yet, if you open them, Doncic seems pretty clearly the single best player remaining in the playoffs, and has been brilliant throughout. He is doing the same sort of basketball stuff that he has always done; his signature virtuosic little-stinker act, in which his mastery seems calibrated to generate the maximum annoyance in opposing match-ups and fans, is every bit as sadistic as it looks, but also just a function of him playing through all of every moment. His patience, the way he seems not to throw a lob until the last available instant and the inexorable deliberation of his drives to the basket, is more practical than it is cruel. But it has a deranging effect all the same, just because of how much persistence it demands, and prolonged exposure to this kind of thing has a way of spinning the dials of even a defense as great as Minnesota’s league-best unit. “His speed is different than his opponents’,” Kelly Dwyer wrote in his newsletter. “Even if Minnesota were at the correct tempo, Doncic would presumably adjust, find a way to dig deeper with dribble.” His newfound defensive impact works the same way; it does not seem plausible that this ruddy load of a dude could “materialize” anywhere, but as bracing as it has been to see Doncic walling up as needed on the perimeter in big moments, he’s made a bigger impact by making himself a reliable obstruction in the channels through which the Timberwolves offense is supposed to flow.

So, as the Celtics ride their inevitability towards the NBA Finals from the East, here is another future. Doncic was instantly and undeniably good enough, from his first moments in the league, that it seemed inevitable that he would have a rightful claim on it at some unknown point and for some indeterminate period. If it feels a bit like that moment is here, as it did in the last seconds of Game 2, it’s also never a good idea to start describing the future before it’s finished arriving. It’s probably wiser simply to say what can already be seen, which is that the roster around Doncic makes more sense than any other the Mavericks have managed to furnish in his six seasons there, and that he has made expert use of the talent around him while still being the same inimitable irritant of a centerpiece that he has always been. If it’s less wise to say that Doncic seems unstoppable, it doesn’t feel wrong. And if it’s probably wiser to say that he seems like the best and most commanding version of Luka Doncic that anyone has yet seen, I’m not sure it isn’t just another way of saying the same thing.

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