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THE NBA IS UFC WITHOUT THE OCTAGON, WWE WITHOUT THE FACEPAINT
Beyond the crotch strikes and Draymond Green, smarter minds crave basketball excellence — and star injuries and internal drama mean the healthiest and most stable teams will survive to the Finals
In the search for something reliable, something healthy, something clean and something sane in an NBA postseason that resembles the real and faux of combat sports — why the obsession with swats and kicks to crotch regions? — I’ve reached a lucid conclusion. The teams that reach the Finals will be those bogged by the least drama.
Prepare, then, for the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.
But is that what America wants? It’s certainly not what the league wants, as commissioner Adam Silver seeks to triple his current TV revenue — would you believe $70 billion? — and already is warming up his best negotiation voice. The appeal of his product, I’m afraid to admit, is grounded in the unpredictability of its psycho theater. Every day is a waiting game to see who limps off, who flips out, who targets enemy testicles and which teams succumb to the fallout.
Or, of all the damndest things, Stephen Curry calling a timeout he didn’t have in the final seconds — against Chris Webber’s one-time team, the Sacramento Kings — and almost sinking the Golden State dynasty he created. The Warriors had taken their last timeout on a failed replay challenge, and coach Steve Kerr didn’t reiterate in the huddle. Curry should have checked anyway. “I thought it was the smartest play in the world … and then everybody was shaking their head,” he said after a Warriors survival party Sunday, a rare acknowledgment he doesn’t walk on water. But at least he’s healthy at 35, which is more than can be said for other superstars.
Joel Embiid is hurt, again. Kawhi Leonard was an injury no-show, again, as his sister was sentenced to life in prison for murdering an 84-year woman in a casino bathroom, which redefines load management. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his legs taken out after ill-advised acrobatics — why lift off toward the rim like an Elon Musk rocket in the first quarter of the first game of a first-round series? — led to a hard crash and lower back contusion.
Is Kevin Durant next? Anthony Davis? Jimmy Butler? Or Klay Thompson, heaven help him? And those ongoing concerns involve only typical basketball injuries. What about testes squashes? Dillon Brooks was ejected for striking LeBron James in the groin, this after daring to call him “old,” joining James Harden in the sin bin for midsection mischief after Embiid somehow avoided an ejection for thrusting his leg into Nic Claxton’s upper thigh region. Of course, Draymond Green was the originator of the playoff low blow, toying with two balls too many in 2016, victimizing James and prompting the suspension that cost the Warriors a championship. Maybe that’s why Green chose another tactic last week, stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ chest like a trampoline.
Which placed him, as usual, front and center in the circus. Somehow, Green convinced media sycophants — from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith to his toadies in the Bay Area — that using Sabonis as a floormat was a good thing, and that the NBA was wrong to suspend him for a game. In claiming to be “disgusted” that he was the victim of a “personal” grudge in a league office “taking itself way too seriously,” the commentators were as insane in the membrane as Baby Dray himself. They only poured gasoline on his competitive rage, taking the lead of the Warriors themselves, who are back in pandering mode only months after Green slugged teammate Jordan Poole in practice and dragged his habitual thuggery into the in-house gutter.
Fueled by fans brainwashed by the same thought patterns, the Warriors used Green’s energy and defense Sunday in overcoming the young, determined Kings and tying a riveting series at 2-2. The sensational De’Aaron Fox and the Kings still could close out at home in a Game 7 and end the dynasty at four titles, especially if 7-2 Alex Len keeps countering Green as an enforcer — and some of us would view such a triumph as justice. Fox instantly flew into Green’s face after an early confrontation, a sign the Kings won’t back down. For now, until Baby Dray is put away, we’ll deal with the warped concept that tolerating him is an organizational necessity when his bosses could have ended his lunacy long ago and still preserved his passion and all-time defensive skills.
Do they know how soft and submissive they look? Kerr is the owner of nine championship rings, as a coach and player, and he’s completely intimidated by Green. “There’s no stopping Draymond,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to put your arm around him and calm him down.” Wow, there’s a lesson in strong leadership, enabling a bully because he might help win a championship. Unless, of course, he sabotages a championship, a possibility again as they pamper him and point him to the court, where he seems capable of anything — stomping, grabbing, punching, spitting, quitting, a strip tease or one final stroll into the crowd in Sactown. He came off the bench in Game 4, the first time he didn’t start in 133 playoff games under Kerr. To his credit, Green was the one who planted the seed, driving to Chase Center after sitting out Game 3 and telling the coach in his office, “What do you think about me coming off the bench?’’
Kerr asked how Green would feel not starting for the first time in nine years. It was Kerr, after all, who made Green a starter and ignited the title era. “One of his words were, how are you going to feel coming off the bench? Who f---ing cares? Who cares how I feel?” Green said. “If I must answer the question for you, I'm fine. I'll be ready to go when it's time for me to go in. I think the right thing to do would be to start the game the exact way we started Game 3. It's about winning games at this time of year. Whether you come off the bench, whether you start, whether you play two minutes or 40, winning the game is the most important thing. So those are some are the conversations we had, but I was definitely all for it.”
He played well when necessary, joining Curry in dogging Fox on the final possession and forcing a pass to ex-Warrior Harrison Barnes, who missed an open three-pointer that would have given his team a 3-1 series edge. Instead, the dynasty isn’t dying nasty — yet. “Winning is messy, if you want to be honest about it,” said general manager Bob Myers, offering up a lame justification for Green’s behavior. “There’s an edginess to it. There’s a tension. And certainly, he’s crossed that line. But he’s been punished for it. So the people that are wanting to see a punishment, he got one. Yeah, Draymond’s not perfect. But I haven’t met anybody that’s perfect. Yeah, it’s part of the whole thing, but he’s been a big part of a lot of winning.”
What they’ll never admit: Green also has been a big part of their failures, whether it was his 2016 suspension or berating Durant as a “bitch” and chasing him away in 2019. The team bosses, including Curry, continue to let Draymond be Draymond, which empowers him to speak in the first person and create more havoc. Of the suspension, Green said: “Them (s——) don’t work. Here I am, still sitting here, still winning. They created those rules before, they didn’t work, they still don’t work. Maybe they did but Draymond won’t be moved by no Draymond rules. I will continue to play the game how I play the game, operate how I operate, be exactly who I am, because that leads to winning.”
They still have to win once by the Purple Beam when they haven’t won on the road all season. Doing so means the Warriors would advance to a second-round series, possibly against the Lakers, who sometimes resemble contenders and sometimes look old, such as when Ja Morant returned to Planet Earth and loaded his ammo on the court, where he scored 45 points in a Game 3 loss in Los Angeles. Brooks was exposed as a fool, a Draymond wannabe who shamed himself with an ejection and 3-for-13 shooting in 19 minutes. Did he really think he’d rattle LeBron with words? James made a point of talking to the Memphis ruffian before the game, but the win spoke for itself. “This is not my first rodeo,” LeBron said. “I’ve had this throughout my career with certain individuals. It’s easy. It’s literally easy if you want to … I've been doing this too long. I've made enough statements.” Of the crotch shot, he said, “I was just trying to get up, protect my crown jewels and move on to the next play.” Winning the Western Conference will depend on his 38-year-old legs but, more so, the fragility of Davis, who had 31 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks — and could be in street clothes tomorrow.
Can they survive a Morant torrent in a Game 7 in Memphis? One thing’s for sure: Brooks won’t shut up. “The media making me a villain, the fans making me a villain, and then that just creates a whole different persona on me,” he said Sunday. “So now you think I intended to hit LeBron James in the nuts. I'm playing basketball. I'm a basketball player. So if I intended — and that's whatever is in the flagrant 2 category — if you think I did that, that means you think I'm that type of person.”
Well, yeah. We do.
Who wouldn’t love, say, a Lakers-76ers Finals? Let Magic Johnson and Julius Erving go one-and-one at halftime, for old times’ sake. Having seen one title run from Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the ascent of the Celtics last spring, hoops aficionados wouldn’t mind the Sixers continuing Philadelphia’s recent march to championship events. Except once again, in a maddening rite of spring in that city, Embiid is hobbling. Just as he had an orbital fracture and minor concussion last season, a knee injury in 2021, a knee injury in 2020, a stomach virus in 2019 and an orbital fracture in 2018, the big man is dealing with a sprained right knee. Everything was going his way, it seemed, from a possible league MVP award to more first-round superlatives.
Now he’s a day-to-day conundrum, as usual. “I talked to him. Obviously, clearly, that’s on your mind,” coach Doc Rivers said. “But just as I said, ‘This is another obstacle in the story we’re going to write this year. And you’re going to be OK. It may take a minute, but this is just part of it.’ I’m sure he’s human. Goodness, this happens again. So let’s win, let’s get him back on the floor. And let’s just keep on our own journey. And that’s basically what we talked about.”
So it stands to reason that the most stable teams will play into June. And those teams aren’t the Warriors, Lakers or Sixers, much to the pain of ESPN. The Celtics have resolved an internal kerfuffle involving Jaylen Brown, who understandably tires of being a Black athlete in Boston, and he continues to mesh with Jayson Tatum despite wearing a protective mask since suffering a facial fracture in February. New coach Joe Mazzulla hasn’t missed a beat after the Ime Udoka scandal. “Joe was put into a situation this year that nobody expected us to have to go through,” said Marcus Smart, “and he took it fully head-on with a smile and positivity.”
The Nuggets, of course, are led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, the antithesis of rockhead drama. They’re healthy. No team shoots the ball better. “I think the focus the guys have and the discipline, it’s off the charts,” Jokic said as they took a 3-0 series lead over Minnesota.
“Everybody’s contributing,” coach Michael Malone said, “and for us to do what we’re talking about doing, you need everybody.”
They’re talking about reaching the Finals, which hasn’t happened since the Nuggets joined the league 47 years ago. It would be a hell of a story to purge Phoenix (and Durant’s latest superteam gambit) in the next round, then the Lakers or Warriors in the West finals. And no one outside Colorado would care. Too boring.
Don’t they realize the NBA is the UFC without the Octagon, WWE without the facepaint, channeling two joke-sports entities that merged recently to create a $21.4 billion organization? But, hey, if Jokic ever got mad and hit someone in the crotch …
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.