A convergence of magical moments, transcendent performances and jaw-dropping upsets has made the first round of the NBA playoffs—for the first time in ages—a spectacle that simply must be seen
The NBA playoffs produce more than 3,000 minutes of game action, yielding more than 9,000 possessions, and this is only one of them. It takes seven seconds. It is not inherently dramatic, given that it comes in the second quarter of the second game of a first-round series, and not especially meaningful, given that Oklahoma City is beating Denver by 19 points at the time and will go on to win by 17. But it is impossible not to watch.
Three days later the author of the play, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, sinks into a courtside seat at the Pepsi Center in Denver, the clip queued on a laptop in front of him. He narrates it frame by frame, with the detachment of a detective reviewing surveillance video.
The possession begins with a made free throw by Denver's Raymond Felton, an inbounds pass to Westbrook and a well-timed trap in the backcourt along the right sideline by the Nuggets' Ty Lawson and Al Harrington. "I had to get out of there," Westbrook says. "Through-the-legs, behind-the-back, spin move, whatever it took." He spins 360 degrees across his body, transferring the ball from right hand to left, splitting Lawson and Harrington like two props in a skills challenge. But Lawson pokes the ball loose, and it bounces into the key, toward Nuggets center Nené. The expression on Westbrook's face is of a kid watching his ice cream fall off the cone. "I had to get under control," he says.
He wins the chase for the ball, but by the time he recovers it, Nené is standing six inches in front of him, positioned for a charge. "I'd usually just run him over," Westbrook says. Spotting the basket, he picks up his dribble and spins 360 degrees again, across his body again. He splits Nené and Felton, who has rushed over to help, but as Westbrook elevates, he can feel his momentum carrying him left of the basket. "I needed to regain my balance," he says. He kicks back his legs, as if to suspend himself in the air, and scoops the ball skyward like he's trying to scrape the ceiling. "I put some spin on it too," he says. While the ball lolls on the rim and Nené jostles with Kevin Durant for a potential rebound, Westbrook lies flat on his back. He cannot see a thing.
"I didn't even know I made the shot until I heard the P.A. announcer call my name," Westbrook says, allowing a grin to creep up one cheek. "It was a crazy play, and I still don't really understand how it happened. But compared to the other stuff I'm seeing around the league right now, it was just regular."
These are extraordinary times in the NBA, when a full-court dash featuring two spin moves through four defenders and an exaggerated underhand finish is considered the norm. But Westbrook is right. Whether it is New Orleans's Chris Paul catching the ball and firing it through four Lakers from 30 feet away in a single motion or Chicago's Derrick Rose rising over three outstretched Pacers and converting with his left hand before slamming his head against the hardwood, the first round of the playoffs has featured enough glitter to restore much of the game's lost luster.
A Harris Poll released in January revealed that professional basketball was the fifth most popular sport in the U.S. in 2010, behind professional football, baseball, college football and auto racing. Only 6% of those polled listed pro basketball as their favorite sport, compared with 13% in 1998. "You hear it all the time: 'I don't like the NBA,'" says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University's Sport in Society center. "And I ask those people: 'What are you watching?' The other night I saw Amar'e Stoudemire go baseline, do a full 360 and bank the ball in on the other side of the basket. It was supernatural almost. And it's happening everywhere."
In the 1980s, held up as the halcyon days of the NBA, the opening round of the playoffs often amounted to tune-ups for powers like the Lakers and the Celtics. This year the seventh-seeded Hornets won two of their first four games against the Lakers, and the eighth-seeded Grizzlies won two of their first three against the Spurs. "People always tell me they wish it were more like the '80s," says former Laker A.C. Green, "but the first round now is almost as intense as the conference finals were then." Fans also lament to Green that the NBA playoffs are not more like the NCAA tournament, with players slapping the floor and waving towels on the bench. But, hey, there are no recruiting violations or 53--41 final scores, and the first round alone is two solid weeks of multiple games a night in throbbing arenas filled with monochromatic T-shirts. "TV pays the bills in the NBA, but it doesn't do the game justice," says Hall of Famer Bill Walton. "I wish anyone who doubts the effort level could sit courtside one time, because they would be blown away by the ferocity. The players are just so good, so fluid, it looks effortless on TV."
Basketball will never be able to match the violence of football or the tradition of baseball, but as the playoffs illustrate, the NBA has star power other sports lack. The NFL's best players, outside of quarterbacks, are disposed of every few years. In the post--steroid era, baseball's most popular players tend to be pitchers who perform once every five days. "The perimeter talent in the NBA is the best it's ever been," says former Bulls center Will Perdue. "These guys are acrobats as much as athletes." Take Westbrook, for instance, who, in this Year of the Rose, has emerged as his Western Conference equivalent. They are the same age (22), same height (6'3") and same build (think defensive back). Westbrook averaged more assists this season than Rose, more rebounds and just 3.1 fewer points. But Rose is the presumptive MVP, and Westbrook is only the second-best player on his team, behind Durant.
Westbrook and the Thunder came into the season facing outrageous expectations, found a way to meet them and last Saturday moved closer to capturing their first playoff series, beating the Nuggets 97--94 to take a 3--0 lead. The Thunder is the emblem of this postseason: absurdly young, gifted and telegenic. These playoffs are already setting broadcast records, with TNT's first tripleheader ranking as the network's most successful playoff opening day ever—ratings were up 27% from last year. The figures ought to give the NBA and the players' association pause as they head toward a lockout that will inevitably alienate viewers all over again.
After Westbrook finished deconstructing the video of his broken-field run, Thunder coach Scott Brooks strolled over and snuck a glimpse. "During the whole play I was thinking uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-good!" Brooks says. "He's just an athletic freak." And yet Westbrook is often overshadowed by the similarly freaky. In the first round Durant scored 41 points in a game. Orlando's Dwight Howard scored 46. Boston's Rajon Rondo handed out 20 assists. "I watch these guys on TV," says Hornets forward Carl Landry, "and I'm in amazement."
The artistry can get lost in scoring totals and rebounding margins. The NBA is in the midst of a statistical revolution, like baseball's sabermania, and players are evaluated even by fans on efficiency ratings and plus-minus. Baseball has always been a numbers game. Basketball is best consumed with images: Boston's Kevin Garnett in the fetal position after securing a loose ball, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant gnawing the fabric of his jersey while chasing Paul, Portland's Brandon Roy falling into the arms of teammates who thought they might have lost him.
To anyone who is watching and still longs for the '80s, Walton solemnly intones, "You're getting old."
"IT WAS A CRAZY PLAY," SAYS WESTBROOK OF HIS SPINNING DRIVE. "BUT COMPARED TO THE OTHER STUFF I'M SEEING NOW, IT WAS JUST REGULAR."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
O.K., LET'S GO Under the frenetic Westbrook's direction, the Thunder took the first three games from Denver to get to the brink of their first playoff series win.