A playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder cannot help but work as symbolic ground. The debate for this year’s MVP award is all-consuming; considering that any discussion involving James Harden or Russell Westbrook eventually becomes a referendum on their candidacy, a direct competition between the two and their teams will be swallowed whole by its own subtext.
Talking points on both sides were rehashed in real time during Game 1. The relative emptiness of Westbrook’s near-triple-double (22 points, seven assists, 11 rebounds) in a 31-point loss brought out a haughty element in the Harden faithful. That Pat Beverley, Nene, and Clint Capela performed as well as they did for Houston fed into the disadvantage at the heart of pro-Westbrook dogma. This was a big win for the Rockets but also for confirmation bias. No matter what you make of Harden or Westbrook, there was something in these 48 minutes to support the stance that either was truly the best player in the series.
It should go without saying that the truth is more complicated. Anyone who sees Harden’s help as a crutch should have been silenced by the way he induced switches and single-handedly obliterated the bigs in his path. Those critical of Westbrook should have noticed how stale the Thunder offense looked when he wasn’t able to get rolling. This was a game of swirling variables, in which we learned that Enes Kanter might not be playable, that even Roberson’s excellent on-ball defense might not be enough, and that the Rockets’ bigs could exploit even the smallest of openings. Yet pull at the string and you’ll find that even those ideas and others are linked to the two superstars involved rather explicitly. Even the game planning itself was a part of the debate. The switching the Thunder tried against Harden and the clogged lane the Rockets used to slow Westbrook reflect the conversation on both sides.
This series is bigger than Harden and Westbrook, but it remains bound to their dynamic in almost every way imaginable. The superstars in a series can have this effect. Each of Sunday’s playoff games were concerned with and decided by the best player on the floor. Houston’s win over Oklahoma City extended the debate of it; Washington, in beating Atlanta, demonstrated the power in knowing they had it; Golden State found its footing against Portland by an improbable candidate becoming it; and Boston lost its home-court advantage to the Bulls with a painful need for it.
Being the best player in a playoff series is nice. Knowing that you're it, on the other hand, can be mean. John Wall shifted into that mental space during the third quarter of Washington’s opening game against Atlanta, an otherwise deadlocked contest. What the Wizards’ starters had earned in the first half, their reserves had relented. Much of the Hawks’ inconsistencies this season were rooted in a sometimes awkward reliance on their second unit. There is no single, transcendent star on Atlanta’s roster. There is only Paul Millsap and whichever members of an eclectic cast can be dragged into solid, responsible play along with him.
There are nights when that combination is enough and a few too many when it isn’t. Wall made sure to usher Game 1 into the latter category. He drove into Atlanta’s fourth-ranked defense for the purpose of toying with it, teasing out the coverage before hitting teammates with soaring lobs. The buffer the defense gave him—an understandable concession given how deadly Wall’s drives are relative to his jumpers—became an incendiary space. Wall stepped in to hit two of his four three-pointers and three of his six mid-range shots. When he opted to push further, the defense swirled around him but couldn’t stop him. Many a rotating defender slid into position before realizing they had been baited. A single great scorer can frustrate a defense with the undeniable. A single great playmaker can flummox them completely; Wall at his best drives and orchestrates in a way that leaves a defense dizzy, frantically scanning the court for where they think a possession might be going. You can find proof of Wall’s greatness in how often those defenders are wrong. Game 1 effectively ended when Wall saw just how much pull he had over the Hawks’ bedrock principles.
Golden State’s return course to the NBA Finals began in earnest when Draymond Green became Game 1’s usurper. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Damian Lillard are the obvious headliners for the series. C.J. McCollum made his incontrovertible case with 41 points for Portland in the opening game on just 28 shots, each a snowflake. There were slinking drives, stop-and-go runners, hop-step jumpers, and perfectly squared spot-ups. That the Warriors had to anticipate everything for a time left them unable to stop anything.
So Green began getting stops himself. While put at a disadvantage by a two-on-one fast break, Green showed out to prevent a Lillard three-pointer before stonewalling Noah Vonleh at the rim:
When Lillard later went hunting for an exclamation point, Green—who was stationed so deep on the wing he was essentially behind the play—somehow covered half the court to meet him at the at the rim:
Before, after, and in between were dozens of defensive plays so immaculately executed that no coach would dare ask for them. “I mean, he played a game that I’m not sure anybody else in the league is capable of, honestly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Who else can do what Draymond just did tonight?” It’s a fair question underlined by an unrealistic standard. Green played an all-time defensive half to accompany smooth shooting, intuitive passing, and frenzied rebounding. And thanks to Golden State’s switch-heavy defensive style, Green seemed omnipresent. Durant, Curry, McCollum, and Lillard all thrived, totaling 136 points between them. Yet the entire game changed when Green decided that his place in it—as was the case on his two jaw-dropping blocks—was at the summit.
Boston, by the very nature of its roster, demanded more of a mourning Isaiah Thomas than he was in a position to give. This is not fair, as if the death of a 22-year-old ever could be. Yet Thomas played in Game 1 against the Bulls the day following his sister’s death for whatever reason he saw fit. Perhaps there was some peace for him in playing. Maybe Thomas’ implacable drive—the force that made him first an NBA player and then an NBA star—wouldn’t allow him to sit. Grief is endlessly complex. Whatever convinced Thomas to play must also be.
Thomas will do whatever he likes as far as playing in this series goes, according to Celtics coach Brad Stevens, which leaves a basketball team to sort out a familiar imbalance. No matter his pain, Thomas played sensationally. His 33 points (on 18 shots) came by shedding multiple defenders to finish over giants. An overloaded defense gave way to his six assists while provoking his six turnovers. Contact could hardly stop Thomas, regardless of whether the game’s officials gave him the benefit of the doubt. Boston would have won handily had Thomas been able to play every minute. That he is only human left them to manage just 10 minutes in his absence … in which the Celtics were outscored by 16 points en route to a four-point loss. All of Boston’s depth cannot possibly account for what Thomas provides.
In that, the Celtics’ series against the Bulls might come down to the cruel need for Thomas—should he suit up in Game 2 and beyond—to be even better or to play even more. Chicago is a flawed team, but Jimmy Butler (30 points, nine rebounds, three assists) set a high bar, the supporting Bulls did their part, and collective offensive rebounding returned nearly half their misses. This is what Boston is working against. No matter how sharp Al Horford’s facilitation might be or how many improbable three-pointers Marcus Smart manages to hit, the Celtics’ future in this series hinges on Thomas somehow improving on what was already a stirring, resilient performance.