Latest posts by Ian Scott McCormick (see all)
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Maybe it’s the narratives that ruin sports. The arguments we don’t simply make, but maintain well past the point where we should continue voicing our dumb opinions.
Earlier yesterday, I’d listened as my coworker who hadn’t watched the Nets/76ers game told me that Jimmy Butler had a bad game. This was by all accounts, completely untrue. Jimmy Butler scored an efficient 36 points in a single digit loss.
They sure did. But Jimmy wasn’t the problem.
“The great players carry teams.”
I can’t spend time discussing why that’s a pretty flimsy argument. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in message boards, on blog posts, in comments sections, on social media, and over texts to friends who were not part of the initial argument. I think I’ve used up all of the allotted words that anybody should be reasonably given on birth. This is a person who looks for straw-men to insist that Michael Jordan was not the greatest player of all time, and without a shred of embarrassment shoehorns him into conversations, usually ones that start with the dreaded words “LeBron James.” Later I’d asked him if Michael Jordan’s 63 point game against the Boston Celtics was a good performance. The Bulls did lose that game.
“That was different. He kept them in the game.”
Jimmy Butler very much kept Philadelphia in Game One.
“It was different with those Bulls. They were supposed to lose.”
Ah. They were supposed to lose. Another narrative. Narratives clashing against narratives. Winners win. But Michael Jordan was the greatest. And the Bulls were supposed to lose. But his favorite player is Carmelo Anthony, and lord knows he never won anything of consequence. Narratives on top of narratives.
Of course the most obnoxious thing about narratives is how the refuse to simply expire when trapped into a corner. Instead they will mutate, seamlessly transitioning into any argument that might save the reputation of their initial point at any cost. Our conversation about Jimmy Butler quickly mutated into “If the 76ers don’t make it out of the first round, Jimmy Butler shouldn’t get a big contract from anybody.” Because that would mean that he’s not a winner, and implies that he’s incapable of ever being a winner. Switching gears, another person at the office laughed at me when I said that Baker Mayfield was probably a good pick by the Browns in last year’s draft. Early in the season I’d said he looked really good for a rookie, however the Browns were losing games. By the end of the season Baker had come into his own, and finished a very promising debut season. It would have been an ideal moment for the other person to say “Yeah, he surprised me,” or even “He was better than I thought, but I still have questions about how good he’s going to get.” Both would be reasonable takes. But he was still trying to win, so after a few big trades, he insisted on a new narrative. “If the Browns don’t make the playoffs next year, Baker Mayfield is a bust.” That’s my problem with narratives. This was being forced onto me. I’ve never accepted that premise, but apparently now those were the terms of any conversation we would have at work, where I do like to discuss sports, but don’t feel much like being forced into talking points. Especially with anybody who had also called Andrew Luck a bust earlier in the season. He’s still working on segueing that take into a viable narrative. In a logical world we would realize that we probably shouldn’t be as casual about forever predictions like “James Harden will N E V E R win an NBA Championship” or a personal favorite that I’ve had a lot of fun with for the past decade “Tiger Woods is D O N E with winning majors. Take it to Vegas and thank me later.” Hey, that went from a wild take in 2009 to a pretty safe bet a week ago. Why on earth do we even do this shit?
I don’t even watch golf. I have about as much authority on the subject as I would by getting drunk and poking you in the chest saying, “Michio Kaku is a F R A U D. Physics of the Impossible was OVERRATED. Get a haircut and a clue, Kaku.”
Pitt the Elder, my ass.
Going into this game the Sixers carried their own narrative: Ben Simmons is a punk. This is because Ben Simmons, who played terribly, didn’t care much for being booed with the rest of his team throughout the opening game of the playoffs. After the game, he told the media that the booing home fans could “stay on that side.” I’m not 100% sure what “stay on that side” actually means, but I get the sentiment. He doesn’t like being booed. This of course fed into the narrative that Ben Simmons was soft, or not serious, or any number of other unattractive qualities that tend to get tossed around following a loss. Then Ben sort of walked it back, played well, and now Philly fans love him. Of course the narrative will never be something as simple as “He played well, so it’s cool.” Instead it will inevitably warp itself into the idea that the boos taught him how to play Playoff Basketball™. For you see, it was not a moment of catharsis for a frustrated fanbase that has happily followed along with losing for years. No, this was something far more benevolent. These were the boos that taught him what is an acceptable level of effort, and what is lacking. These were nurturing boos. Really, it was just supercharged constructive criticism. The boos worked.
But Ian, all you do is create narratives.
Yeah, well [farts].
I don’t like it. I don’t want to do it anymore. But it’s an insidious trap, because it is almost impossible to talk about sports without falling into that trap. Our damn problem was when we decided to make sports into a metaphor for everything. But as soon as sports became a metaphor for life itself, the narratives took over. Because they are rules that make sense out of the anarchy of outcomes. The Lakers didn’t just miss the playoffs. They missed the playoffs because LeBron James did things incorrectly. He is being punished for ignoring any number of unwritten rules. And my damn problem was to pretend that I’d be okay with the Nets losing to the better team in the playoffs. I can worry about putting the season into its proper context when the season is dead. Maybe the best way is to let go of anything I think about the game.
Of course, that would make for a pretty bad post, so here’s what I took away:
They could have won this damn thing. Allen survived Embiid’s cheapshot elbow, which would have gotten any non-star ejected from the game immediately as a Flagrant 2. Kurucs kind of idiotically did the same thing, only not really, and only after he was baited by Ben Simmons, but they had weathered the storm in Philly to be down 1 point.
And then it just all stopped. They came out of the break, the Sixers kept scoring, completely torching the five on the floor, and Kenny Atkinson did…nothing. He just stood there, refusing to burn a time out when every single Net fan watching on the TV saw the same thing. He needed to put an end to the momentum as the home crowd seemed to grow increasingly confident, and only called his first after a 20-2 run. Hey, it’s his first time as head coach in the playoffs too. I would imagine his growing pains will be every bit as awkward as Jarrett Allen’s. The Nets cut it to 15, and then Philly went onto another run, and once again, Kenny forgot that he has the power to call timeouts and can at least try to do something to slow down their momentum or make a defensive substitution. I have to be careful here. Just a few days ago, I’d announced that everything that happens from this point on is a bonus. Their 42-40 regular season is a validation of their season regardless of what happens in the playoffs. So I cannot put Kenny into the trash, even if I do think he had a bad night on the sidelines, because I still think he’s a good coach, and I still think this team is a good squad. They gave up 51 points in the third quarter, and ultimately lost the game by 22. I supposed I could try to gin up narratives about that all day long, if that were still my thing.
Anyway, I’ve gotta run. There’s a discussion in my office about whether Ja Morant is actually better than Zion Williamson and who the Knicks should take if they get the number 1 pick. Entire careers are being decided right now.
The Brooklyn Nets are tied 1-1 with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.