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Sports

How Steph Curry and the Warriors Reclaimed Their Crown

The greatest compliment you can give Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors is that they made this seem pretty ordinary. Over the last few seasons, the Warriors have been as snakebitten as any team in the league, felled by injuries and unable to muster enough serotonin to muscle through mid-winter midwestern road trips. But as the Warriors polished off the Boston Celtics with a 103-90 Game 6 win, all that seemed to melt away—the ghosts of previous disappointments were finally able to pass through to the other side. 

In this sense, when Klay Thompson is pumping in dagger 3s, it’s easy to forget that he missed two full seasons and over 900 days with a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles; there was once a world where Gary Payton II was prepping to join the Warriors as a video coordinator and Andrew Wiggins was a flighty near-bust, but it feels far removed from the one we live in now.  For most teams, a championship requires some elusive potion of talent and luck; for the Warriors, winning seems like kismet. They were great and then they were bad and now—will you look at that!—they’re great once again. In its first post-COVID season, the NBA’s new normal looks a lot like its old normal. Real 2015 vibes, indeed.

“These last two months of the playoffs, the last three years, these last 48 hours—every bit of it has been an emotional roller coaster on and off the floor,” Curry said after the game. “And you get goosebumps just thinking about, you know, all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively. And that’s why I said I think this championship hits different. That’s why I have so many emotions, and still will, just because of what it took to get back here.”

While this Warriors’ championship run is painted as a story of transformation, every scintilla of Golden State’s success was enabled by Curry’s constancy. Yes, their sclerotic supporting cast from 2019 turned over and gave way to a new cast of contributors, but the Warriors reemerged as a powerhouse because of what stayed the same. Namely, everything works because Steph Curry, just as he’s done for years, makes everything work. 

All the adjustments and improvements that helped lift the Warriors out of the NBA’s working class can be traced back to Curry. Even during their listless playoffs-less season last year, Curry’s individual brilliance kept them philosophically coherent, giving the likes of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins the time and space to adapt to the Warriors’ scheme; it’s hard to imagine Wiggins morphing into an elite glue guy or Jordan Poole doing a solid Steph Curry impression without last season serving as a protracted rehearsal dinner. Curry isn’t a system player; he’s a system, player

If Curry last year provided the Warriors with a nurturing floor, his efforts in the Finals showed just how high he can raise their ceiling. Save for a Game 5 stinker, Curry was at his imperial best against the Celtics, averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists per game and taking home his first Finals MVP as a result. Pitted against the upper-case Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and a historically dominant Boston defense led by Robert Williams (the actual, lower-case defensive player of the year), Curry made them all look like chumps. Boston hung back in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, daring Curry to beat them with pull-up threes—so he did. 

This was peak Curry, blending the kinetic cutting that kick-started the Warriors’ dynasty and the on-ball assertiveness that has sustained it; he was simultaneously the best off-screen shooter and the best pull-up shooter in the playoffs. To their credit, Boston mounted an admirable effort to stem Curry’s scoring alluvia. Still, Curry is so deadly that he ensures that any minor success is a qualitative, rather than quantitative one. As Boston discovered, it doesn’t really matter if you contest shots and force Curry to hoist prayers over a seven-footer from a furlong away from the hoop because he’s still going to make them. 

Accordingly, the Warriors won Game 6—and the Larry O’B—by breaking Boston in quotidien, cumulative ways. On a second by second basis, playing the Warriors is exhausting, equal parts three-card monty and boot camp obstacle course. With Curry and Thompson and Poole scampering about, defenders must be able to instinctually communicate and download instructions, toggling assignments between all five players on the fly. It’s tricky enough to do that once, let alone six times on one possession, let alone on 100 possessions during an entire game. To wit, the Warriors’ super power is their ability to compound minor mistakes into game-ending runs—a few minutes of sloppiness is enough to spark a 21-0 Golden State run; a couple of botched assignments and Curry will put you to bed with a title-clinching 13 point fourth quarter.  

Now that Steph Curry has earned his first Finals MVP and secured the last piece of meaningful hardware that’s eluded him, it’s naturally time to reconsider his place in the NBA’s pantheon. At the very least, he’s graduated from some spot in the nebulous top ten discussion and entered the Secret Beef Room of true greatness alongside Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain (conversely, Klay Thompson made room for very public beef of his own). Whereas matters of “legacy” and things of that nature are a distracting sideshow, every Warrior seemed acutely aware of how important this series was to them. It was a matter of revenge against the doubters, but also redemption for both the team’s principles and its principals. 

“There were a lot of tears shed,” said Thompson in a post-game interview. “I knew it was a possibility. But to see it in real time, holy cannoli.”

How sweet it is.  

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Sports

Draymond Green Can’t Be Stopped

When Draymond Green gets a tech, he’s not going to get a second. No ref—not Tony Brothers or Zach Zarba or even Scott Foster—is going to do shit about it; the juice of tossing Green isn’t worth getting squeezed by a Chase Center full of wannabe LinkedIn influencers.  Whereas other players would tread lightly, Green is going to howl and inveigh and be a jerk with impunity, safe in the knowledge that he’s absolutely above the law. He’s Logan Roy, commandeering a shareholders’ meeting; Tony Soprano, seeing his goomah. So, yeah, he’ll try to pants Jaylen Brown and get in Ime Udoka’s face and flex and preen around because who’s going to stop him? 

“For me, you know, you have to send a message,” Green said after Game 2. “Guys follow me on [the defensive] side of the ball. If I’m not sending a message, who is sending that message?”

In Game 1, Green more or less followed convention, guarding Al Horford and Robert Williams for about 60 percent of the defensive possessions he played. This makes sense—as Green inches towards becoming a full-time podcaster, he’s no longer quick enough to pursue quicker players on the perimeter, but his massive super brain still makes him a devastating help defender. The problem: every Warrior defender got dog-walked by Brown and Jayson Tatum, who repeatedly breached the first line of defense and then swung the ball around the compromised defense for an open 3. 

Despite his characteristically modest stats (nine points on three shots, five rebounds and seven assists), Green dominated Game 2 from a vibes-based perspective. After Boston punked Golden State in the fourth quarter of Game 1 to steal home court advantage, Green took it upon himself to reanimate Golden State’s lagging defense.

Accordingly, Green assumed a larger share of Brown-duty in Game 2 and acquitted himself well; Boston scored just 17 points during Green’s 23 possessions on Brown, compared to 53 points during the 41 possessions Klay Thompson matched-up with Brown in Game 1. While Klay Thompson is firmly in the grim late-stage Obi-Wan Kenobi portion of his career, Green bothered Brown with his savviness and handsiness, rebuffing Brown’s drives and contesting his jumpers. 

Brown may be a superlative athlete and shot-maker, but he dribbles like a kid playing outside at recess after it just rained and the ball is gross and he doesn’t want to get his hands all dirty. As such, Green’s grinding defense prevented Brown from feeling comfortable with the ball. Struggling to rev up to full-speed, Brown couldn’t manifest his physical , ensuring that the matchup would be played on Green’s terms. Although Brown found early success and scored 13 first quarter points, Green hectored the All-Star guard into 1-11 shooting for the rest of the game. 

With Brown taken out of commission by Green, Boston’s offense became uncomfortably unimodal. Even at its best, Boston’s offensive approach can be boiled down to give the ball to one of the two really good guys and hope they score. In this sense, when one of their two really good guys has no hope to score—yikes. Beyond just Brown riding the struggle bus, Boston couldn’t conjure up catch-and-shoot opportunities—Game 1 hero Al Horford scored two points on 1-4 shooting. During the Warriors’ apocalyptic third quarter run, the Boston offense shriveled up entirely and mustered just 14 points. 

In this sense, Game 2 was proof that the Warriors are as much Green’s team as they are Steph Curry’s. He gives them an imperial dickishness that can only be formed by years of continued dominance—over the last eight seasons, Golden State has won 21 of the last 22 playoff series when Curry, Green and Thompson are all healthy. It’s Draymond Green’s Draymond Green-ness that creates the space for Curry to shake free, that engenders the confidence for Jordan Poole to pull-up from 30 feet, that produces the energy for Kevon Looney and Gary Payton II to tussle with more-heralded Celtics.

Playing against a younger, bigger, and, frankly, better team, Green fueled the Warriors to a blow-out win through sheer force of will. When he loses Game One, everyone knows Draymond Green isn’t going down 0-2—he’ll orchestrate the Warriors’ attack and put the Celtics’ offense in a headlock and make himself unmissable. Who’s going to stop him? 

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Sports Strength

Why Nikola Jokic Should Be the MVP

It’s inescapable, this NBA MVP stuff. Statlines across the NBA have become so incomprehensibly good that it’s driven everybody slightly insane; Lebron James—Lebron James—is having the best scoring season of his career and he’s somehow relegated to the outermost arrondissement of the MVP conversation, whatever that means. Log onto any corner of the broader basketball internet and you’ll find proxy wars waged with Statmuse graphics and galaxy-brained counterfactuals. Joel Embiid-ites claim that Nikola Jokic would have fewer assists if you didn’t count 22 percent of his assists; Jokic-stans counter that Embiid would average fewer points if players could foul him without consequence; a vocal contingent of Devin Booker supporters rail against an unspecified “they” who don’t want Booker to win because it doesn’t fit their narrative. With such a preponderance of great players having great seasons, any individual MVP take is essentially an expression of faith.

But this is all silly: Nikola Jokic is the MVP, clearly.

Understandably, Jokic’s passing is the subject of this kind of ekphrasis. He’s a good passer—one of the best, even. And while his imagination and accuracy are unparalleled, focusing on them obscures his larger, all-around brilliance. Namely, he’s a sneakily elite scorer—of the 38 players who are averaging more than 20 points per game, Jokic’s 65.8 percent True Shooting is the highest mark. In fact, Jokic is not just one of the most efficient scorers in the league right now, he’s one of the best volume scorers of all time: Jokic’s combination of volume (26.3 points per game) and efficiency have only ever been matched by five other players. At this point, Jokic has cobbled together a claim to be the greatest offensive big man since Wilt Chamberlain. 

Beyond his all-history offense, Jokic has emerged as a shockingly good defender. Although he outwardly looks like a slow-footed galoot who’s perpetually sandblasted on switches, he’s put together the most impressive defensive season of his career; it’s possible, if not plausible, that he warrants some down-ballot All-Defense team votes. Thanks to his quick hands and general ginormity, Jokic improves the Nuggets defense by 6.8 points per 100 possessions—in essence, he’s more integral to his team’s defensive success than Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid are to theirs. Similarly, advanced metrics like Estimated Plus-Minus and RAPTOR also grade Jokic as a top-shelf defender; EPM slots Jokic in the 85th percentile league-wide while RAPTOR pegs him as the second best defensive player in the entire NBA. 

After trailing Stephen Curry and then Joel Embiid in the court of public opinion for the bulk of the season, Jokic has edged into the lead to win MVP. This week, an ESPN strawpoll of 100 voters had him as the obvious frontrunner, with Jokic securing 62 first place votes. Similarly, Vegas sportsbooks installed him as a favorite this week for the first time all season. If Jokic won last year’s MVP somewhat by default, this year he’s left no doubt that he’s the best player in the world. 

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Sports Strength

Miles Bridges Is the NBA’s Most Exciting Dual-Threat

There are a handful of Michigan rappers who can work in clever lines about David Stern, Shane Battier and Sallie Mae all in the same verse. And there are a handful of NBA players whose dunks leave their team’s play-by-play guy speaking in tongues. Miles Bridges is the only person in world history who can do both.

It might just be semantic nit-picking, but Miles Bridges is a rapper and an NBA player rather than just a rapping NBA player. Whereas NBA rappers have traditionally either penned toothless club “bangers” or 90s boom-bap schmaltz about the virtue of hard work or something like that, Bridges makes songs that don’t sound like they were co-written by his PR person. A Flint, Michigan native, he raps over roiling, tinny, distinctly-Michigan beats, spitting lyrics that would give Adam Silver an ulcer. Like Babyface Ray, his flow carries a casual, downhill momentum; like YN Jay, he’s a jokester with an ear for punchlines; like Sada Baby, he pulls from a deep codex of obscure sports references. That is to say that he makes the same kind of niche, regionally-faithful Michigan rap music that’s become an underground phenomenon—and that he’s pretty good at it to boot.

But what separates Bridges from Babytron (besides like 8 inches and 75 pounds) is that when he raps that he “play against Bron and sell some work where the Lakers play,” the first part of that proposition is actually true. In his fourth season, the 22 year-old Bridges has cemented himself as LaMelo Ball’s best running mate on the Charlotte Hornets. While Bridges has always had the athleticism and theoretical shooting to provide the rough outline of a good player, he’s now parlaying his potential into production.

Averaging 20.0 points per game, Bridges is Charlotte’s leading scorer despite having only the fourth highest usage rate on the team. With Ball—and, to a lesser extent, Terry Rozier—at the helm, Bridges has learned to become a flexible and accommodating offensive weapon. Amongst the 37 players averaging more than 19.5 points per game, Bridges has the second-lowest time of possession, holding the ball for just over 2.4 minutes per game, per Second Spectrum Sports. Similarly, Bridges averages just 2.32 seconds per touch and 1.56 dribbles per touch, both of which are the lowest of any volume scoring non-center. In this sense, he’s a flammable scorer, yet one who doesn’t require much oxygen. 

Accordingly, he’s developed a rich and varied scoring portfolio; his signature move is his utter want of a signature move. Like a hooping character actor, he disappears into a variety of usages and succeeds in nearly all of them. He’s a lob-threat who takes spot-up jumpers on a plurality of possessions, a transition hellcat who doubles as his team’s best isolation scorer. Most impressively, he’s the only player in the NBA to rank in the top quartile as both a pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll-man, evidence of his portable, adaptable skill-set. 

In this sense, Bridges is the evolution of the traditional play-finishing scoring big man, albeit one who’s been liberated to explore all areas of the court. At 6’6, Bridges uses his tweener-ness to his advantage by expertly coloring in the margins around Ball’s game wherever is necessary. Just as his music is a direct product of Michigan, his game has grown to bend towards Ball’s sunlight—the Ball-to-Bridges assist battery is the seventh-most prolific in the league. He’s the most explosive player on the NBA’s most explosive team— there’s no limit to how high he can up the score