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AN UNLIKEABLE NBA — SEE: KYRIE — STILL HAS THE JOY OF STEPH
The league has lost appeal, weighed down by activism and negative vibes from Kyrie Irving and the Nets, making MVP Steph Curry’s playoff appearance vital for as long as possible — with LeBron looming
Once considered cool, hot, dope and the most entertaining damned league on Earth, the NBA now is unlikeable. That is the operative word. Activism has backfired, chasing away viewers in a racially divided land. Load management is a bogus copout, used by stars to nurse alleged injuries, blow off games at their leisure and render the regular season meaningless.
And the biggest postseason story, the Brooklyn Nets? They are a contrived, reviled superteam with one cornerstone whose skills have been superseded by his dark social-media habits, another whose playoff failures are longer than a beard that should have been weed-whacked years ago — and a third who has announced he can’t separate his full-time profession from Israeli airstrikes, though he’s paid $164 million to care about the playoffs.
‘‘I'm not going to lie to you guys. A lot of stuff is going on in this world, and basketball is just not the most important thing to me right now," Kyrie Irving said. ‘‘There's a lot of things going on overseas. All our people are still in bondage across the world, and there's a lot of dehumanization going on. So I apologize if I'm not going to be focused on y'all's questions. It's just too much going on in the world for me to just be talking about basketball.
‘‘It's just sad to see this s— going on. It's not just in Palestine, not just in Israel. It's all over the world, and I feel it. I'm very compassionate to it — to all races, all cultures. And to see a lot of people being discriminated against based on their religion, color of their skin, what they believe in, it's just sad."
Billions of people on the planet, myself included, share his concerns about Israel-Palestine warfare. We’re still expected to perform jobs and earn salaries with optimum dedication. In his undying quest to behave like he’s intellectually floating above the league, Irving comes off as an entitled space cadet who needn’t be laser-focused on his craft because there is violence in the Middle East. Never mind the fans who still devote money, time and energy to the league while still trying to climb out of a pandemic. Kyrie has shifted to his social-crusader mode again when, you know, America might like to enjoy an NBA postseason without the political echoes of the 2020 Disney Bubble. The sad part being, Irving is an exceptional talent, reaching the 50/40/90 club with those shooting percentages from the field, three-point line and free-throw line.
While Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden try to avoid a crash that would delight the masses, LeBron James is cast in a rare role as underdog, which falls in line with his upcoming animated challenges in ‘‘`Space Jam 2.’’ Just days after deleting the tweet that sabotaged his recent activist triumphs — ‘‘YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY,’’ he regrettably wrote about Nicholas Reardon, the Ohio police officer who fired the shots that killed a knife-wielding Ma’Khia Bryant — James isn’t a sentimental favorite, either, even on a weak ankle that he tweaked again Sunday night. He’ll try to will the Los Angeles Lakers from the Western Conference’s No. 7 hole in a play-in tournament that he already has slammed as beneath him, demanding that the concept architect be fired. The Lakers won’t return to the Finals — think Utah or, heavens, the down-the-hallway Clippers — as they’d have to survive a road potentially involving the very real Phoenix Suns, the Clippers and the Jazz.
‘‘Let the chips fall where they may," said James, hardly promising a repeat league title. ‘‘As simple as that. We’re ready to go.’’
He says so even though the one superstar who happens to be likeable — actually, lovable — awaits on Wednesday night at Staples Center. Be careful what you wish for, King James. Stephen Curry still could save the NBA from itself, at least for a little while, beginning with a victory that might send the Lakers tumbling into the offseason.
Speaking for most, I suspect, wouldn’t we enjoy watching Curry bring down James for the same reasons we enjoyed it three times in four years during the Finals? Three years have passed since they last met with consequences on the line, and, of all places, they meet again in a play-in game hatched in a Bubble during a pandemic. Curry was asked about their rivalry.
‘‘You expect greatness,’’ he said. ‘‘It brings out another level of intensity and excitement."
That’s understating things. Thanks go to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an ex-media guy, who said, ‘‘You’re talking about two of the greatest players of all-time. Of course, four meetings in the Finals is going to create a rivalry.’’
What we’ve valued most through the pandemic are the showmen in sports. Curry has been a revelation, somehow more sensational than ever, taking advantage of the league’s three-point binging and defensive lapses to lure eyeballs that otherwise are gazing elsewhere. If TV ratings have plummeted since 2019, Curry remains the NBA’s lead attraction, having played in half the season’s 10 most-watched games. He is a true underdog, overcoming his own injuries and the wretchedly bad luck of the Golden State Warriors — who’ve lost Klay Thompson for two seasons and rookie big man James Wiseman this year — to become an MVP candidate for a 39-33 team with the No. 8 seed.
Check that. He is the MVP, worthier than Nikola Jokic, the gifted, do-all centerpiece of the Denver Nuggets; and Joel Embiid, who has suffered his usual injuries while Philadelphia has soared to the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Abandoning his trademark humility for just a moment, he agrees that he deserves the trophy. ‘‘Yeah, I do,’’ said Curry, who has won the award twice. ‘‘But even if you don’t win it, being in the conversation, top five — those type of acknowledgements show what you're about, no matter what the situation is year to year. That, in and of itself, is the reward, because we all know how hard it is to actually have everything go right in a season where you actually do win it."
He is, without debate, the greatest and most electrifying shooter ever. He scored at least 30 points in 11 straight games — 38 times all season — as the Warriors avoided elimination. He broke the league record for most threes in a month and made 337 total, with a record seven 10-three games. He inevitably will break Thompson’s record for threes in a game (14). If Durant must draw social media traffic with homophobic, misogynistic rants, Curry still stirs phone-holders in uniform, enrapturing all demographics by routinely breaking down a defense, chucking a shot from anywhere inside halfcourt and strutting when it swishes. Or, during a late spree Sunday against Memphis, yelling and lifting his shirt to reveal modestly developed pecs as he celebrated his ninth three-pointer, his 11th game of at least 40 points — and his second career scoring title, making him the oldest to win it since Michael Jordan. Yes, the babyfaced assassin is 33 years old.
Oh, according to ESPN, he also joins Jordan and two large men, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships. Come on, Curry isn’t the MVP of his league? Every time he plays, he mutes every Irving screed, every Durant tweet and every LeBron social observation. When the Warriors were champions, Curry regularly lambasted President Trump. What’s the point now in politicking and screeching? When he yelled Sunday, it came from a place of sports inspiration — channeling Baron Davis, who authored a miracle Warriors run in the ‘‘We Believe’’ postseason. Was it Curry’s way of hinting at more magic ahead?
Certainly, James is impressed. ‘‘We’re playing, in my opinion, the MVP of our league this year,’’ he said. ‘‘I mean, just look at what he's done this year. I don't know anything else if you're looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State's team, what are we looking at? We get caught up in the records sometimes. We get caught up in the, ‘OK, who has the best record?’ instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year."
On a weekend when Jordan presented Kobe Bryant for induction at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in a ceremony that included Tim Duncan, Curry’s name was lifted to the same all-time plateau by his biggest admirer. ‘‘`He's reminding me of MJ in that you just get so used to the brilliance and the excellence, it sort of blends in with everything else,’’ said Kerr, who helped turn loose the Curry monster starting in 2014-15. ‘‘`It just becomes routine. It's insane to say that because what you're watching is otherworldly, and yet you sort of begin to expect it. That's probably the purest sign of greatness. … It’s the same thing after every game. It’s just utter amazement at this guy’s skill level, heart, mind, focus. It’s amazing to watch.”
As a leader, Curry is compared by Kerr to Duncan, his former San Antonio teammate. ‘‘The combination of humility and humor, and then total confidence on the floor. It’s such an amazing combination,’’ Kerr said. ‘‘A lot of people who have the humor and the humility, usually guys like that are the ones who are at the end of the bench. So when you have a superstar that has that type of combination, it’s so rare and incredibly powerful.”
More simply, teammate Juan Toscano-Anderson said, ‘‘He’s like the Picasso of our time.’’ Noting that Memphis’ Ja Morant had trolled Curry on social media last season, Toscano-Anderson took note of how Morant hit just 7 of 21 shots — and only 1 of 6 threes — while looking spooked in the Sunday loss. ‘‘``If Mike Tyson has a problem with me, I am not going to bark up that tree,’’ he said. ‘‘I wouldn’t make him have any personal vendetta against me. If you want to get embarrassed in front of a million-plus people, then, hey, go for it.’’
Said Curry, acknowledging Morant’s slight: ‘‘I see everything, so I love to have some fun with it.’’
Fun. Isn’t fun so much … fun?
So, yes, at least there’s the Joy Of Steph to counter all the NBA loathing. Problem is, the Warriors might not be around long. A loss to the Lakers would drop them to a single-elimination home game against the Memphis-San Antonio winner. Lose that, and wave goodbye. Win, and they’re in a best-of-seven series against the top-seeded Jazz, the league’s most complete team in the regular season. That might be more fun than anything else we see in these May-June-July playoffs, including the Finals.
‘‘God is good,’’ Curry said. ‘‘`I’ve been blessed to be back healthy and able to just play night in, night out, at a high level. I’m going to keep doing that until I can’t anymore. I don’t know how long that will be.’’
Can it be forever?
With summer arriving after a year in isolation, people won’t be immersed in the playoffs. They’ll be outside, which suggests ratings for the NBA — and all sports, including a risk-filled Tokyo Olympics that shouldn’t take place — will remain at rock-bottom levels. Curry can take a team and a league only so far.
So, the rest of the NBA might want to channel his joy. And, you know, leave bondage and dehumanization to the world leaders.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.