As regular-season show winds down, it's now the Warriors' time

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

The committed, certifiable NBA junkie must be fully acquainted with the regular-season ritual of late-night box score perusal. It’s part of the deal, for who can sleep when there are teams to check on, scores to ingest, stat lines to inhale?

Russell Westbrook is tormenting the home crowd in Phoenix? Get your head off the damn pillow. Reach for that iPhone. Appreciate the majesty of his latest triple double.

James Harden is hosting and toasting the Jazz in Houston? Later for Trump Twitter. Can’t wait for morning. Behold the bounty of his seemingly effortless grace.

Maybe you saved and savored West Coast games – the latest Damian Lillard explosion from Portland – for the following day, but surely before the dog had so much as stirred.

You, the NBA junkie, intuitively understand that not all box scores are created equal, or are accessed by the order in which they appear. Any Thunder or Rockets box has obviously demanded precedence, endowed as they’ve been with Westbrook’s and Harden’s brilliance. More than but not without others, they dispelled the cynic’s myth that this regular season was destined to be a “Seinfeld” show about nothing, a predictable prelude to a parade culminating at Oakland’s Jack London Square.

And speaking of the Golden State Warriors, is it sacrilege to suggest that their star-laden box scores – at least after the realization had set in by December that Kevin Durant was no chemistry disruptor or destroyer – were not quite the marquee attraction despite the construction of the league’s best record?

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have one goal: winning an NBA title. (AP)
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have one goal: winning an NBA title. (AP)

By midseason, in fact – and at least until Durant went down in late February and the Warriors caught fire without him – there was an inescapably routine sameness to them.

A small army of national reporters rushed out to the Bay Area to record every sneeze by Durant and deliverance of a Kleenex by a doting teammate. But the Warriors were not the Heat of 2010-11, when the much edgier and self-tormented LeBron James took South Beach by storm and created a few more squalls before settling in for four successive trips to the Finals and two titles.

The Warriors were, as always, stylistically eye-catching with their high-voltage brand of long-range bombing and team-first connectivity. But those estimable qualities are not quite the same thing as being compelling in a powder keg, must-see way. Besides, there are highlights.

Yes, Stephen Curry finally got around to breaking the single-game record for threes in November before his Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, could beat him to it. Durant returned to Oklahoma City in February to face a frenzied crowd and a furious Westbrook, but the game was a Warriors rout.

On the kumbaya front, Durant and Draymond Green had one known in-game quarrel along the way, but Green could get into it with a lamp post and be typically remorseful 15 minutes later.

The black hats of preordained anti-heroism didn’t really fit the Warriors or their media-friendly environment established by coach Steve Kerr and executed with aplomb by their old-school public-relations director, Raymond Ridder. And really, what could a team that won 73 games the previous season and without the superstar it heisted from the squad that was minutes away from asterisking that record-breaking brilliance possibly do for an encore?

That is an all-important distinction between the 2016-17 Warriors and the 2010-11 Heat. Miami was nowhere before James and Chris Bosh triple-teamed with Dwyane Wade. The environment created there was much more guarded, defensive and occasionally on the threshold of paranoid. The Heat were expected to win but had no prior record to run on, and James’ combustibility created the sense that it could at any moment blow apart.

The Warriors’ fraternal charm and recent history preceded them into this regular season. Without Durant, they won a championship two years ago and all but closed the deal on a repeat against James and the Cavaliers last June. By adding another great player who wanted nothing more than to fit in, they put themselves in the position of being the NBA equivalent of the most heralded recruiting class of John Calipari at Kentucky – slogging through a meaningless SEC schedule before confronting the madness of March.

They are finally about to become the story after a regular season – television eye candy notwithstanding – in which they were actually more of a sidebar.

Russell Westbrook’s brilliance has dominated regular-season storylines. (AP)
Russell Westbrook’s brilliance has dominated regular-season storylines. (AP)

Consider the comment of Celtics coach Brad Stevens when he was asked at Madison Square Garden recently about somehow finding himself in a race with the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the East.

“We’re still in it, in the middle of it,” he said. “We’re all going to be asked about standings and seeding, but it really isn’t applicable yet.”

Everyone seemed to be playing for something or tanking, except for the Warriors. As the season wore on, other teams became more alluring than Golden State, for a multitude of reasons, both collective and individual. Take the Celtics, who refused to accept the notion that the East belonged to the Cavs, who in turn believed they were on cruise control only to discover their engine had shut down.

Miami became meaningful again after a 13-game winning streak that reversed a dive to the bottom and launched a valiant playoff push that made you click on its box score to figure out how in the world it was getting it done.

The Jazz finally re-emerged in the West behind free agent-to-be Gordon Hayward. The Clippers continued to be the Clippers, only this time with a potential breakup of this once-intriguing roster and perhaps with Doc Rivers’ job at stake. A Knicks box score was still good for high ‘Melo-drama, or laughs.

All around the league were players whose progress and performance were part of the habitual late-night reading experience: the ascension to franchise player-hood of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio; the raw talent of Joel Embiid until he was shut down in Philadelphia; Nikola Jokic, in pursuit of another improbable triple-double in Denver; and the steady, spectacular excellence in Minnesota of Karl-Anthony Towns.

There were others who took their bows across five and a half months of box scores, but now must step aside for the Warriors, the playoff main event. Box score reading season as we know and love it is just about over. It is time for dedicated watching into the wee hours and for Durant’s actual indoctrination with the Warriors to begin.

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