It Might Be the Patent Leather Talking
I feel into some unfortunate semantics earlier today. When I said "it's when players actually give a fuck," I really meant "when they can visualize the win in advance." Unlike football, it's easy for basketball to keep in touch with the fact that it's a game. During the regular season teams meet up, engage in a lively interaction, and at the end a winner emerges. It's not there's no effort involved, it's that it's all atomized, in-the-moment play. No grim teleology, no looming threat of shame. Just elite athletes flexing skills and working together to try and come away with the win.
Now think about T-Mac tonight. No one epitomizes that loose, organic regular season rhythm like McGrady, from the way he varies his role to his limbly movements. And yet against Utah in the second half, he decided to win and strode mercilessly to that conclusion. The tense SAS interview clip, that broad-shouldered other one shown throughout the game, and that thing about cutting himself off from all outside communication all smacked of dead seriousness. T-Mac blocking shots, hitting threes with a howl, all that was the work of a man who had decided how things were going to be. Basketball may not be jazz, but before the playoffs everyone's a prisoner of the individual contest's flow. Here, we had T-Mac exploding all the conduits and smacking the night around with his footprint. Yao produced, but McGrady ended up owning that game on every level imaginable.
I'm not an Iverson fan, but I was in 2001. That was when AI showed up for every game like it was a foregone conclusion. Not out of Shaq-like arrogance—no, this was a complete refusal to admit he could lose. You don't really get this with Kobe, who knows that he'll win if he just sets his sights on it brusquely enough. This is different; it's a player shedding all ego and perspective and identifying himself with the win. It becomes self-preservation, but of a far gnarlier variety than "staying alive in the playoffs." He is that win, and damn it, he exists.
I know I'm contractually obligated to cheer for Phoenix and Golden State, and those Nuggets are certainly a beguiling road show. And trust, I don't really think much about the fact that I live in Houston. But when I stopped at the CVS on the way home, and ended up discussing the game with two drunk frat kids buying lawn chairs and the black guy who'd gone to work during halftime, I saw Philly '01 all over again. When a player gets like that, the whole city can feel it, and they feed off of it. I'm not saying the Rockets are collecting rings, but I know right now that T-Mac's May could swallow up all other playoff storylines.
Excuse an old man his indulgence: I know all about that.