We are in the age of Super Heroes. Or at least watching them in our media.
That saturation is not divorced from our sporting brains either. Think of those all-time great sports moments, and they often arrive at the confluence of the metaphorical river where incredible prowess, some level of transparency/insight, and perfect narrative all converge. One of my favorite examples came in the young career of Kawhi Leonard--the briefest of origin stories, if you will--emerging after the 2014 NBA Championship when emcee Patty Mills told a story about Leonard's choice of a costume for Tony Parker's super hero-themed Halloween party. When asked what super hero he was dressing up as, he simply answered, in the most Kawhi-fashion: "Kawhi Leonard, Superhero."
Great super hero hand-sign (and t-shirts) aside, I love the idea that in 2014, we were just seeing glimpses of the immense power he had in store. With an origin story more akin to the humble, hidden-in-plain-sight "Unbreakable" to LeBron's "Superman," Kawhi seemed to be merely putting on a costume of the player he could ultimately be. Remember, Kawhi Leonard has still not even celebrated his 25th birthday, and we are still inexplicably watching the part of the montage where his powers are developing!
But a few more nights like Friday evening, and we no longer laugh at the idea of Kawhi, supernatural being.
Excluding Kevin Durant, who is
almost certainly, probably, maybe going to be a Spur, the Thunder may just be the perfect blend of villainy to serve as a foil for this cabal of heroes and the training ground for Super Kawhi's emergence.
They have two bigs who simply look like "bad guy henchmen" in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, they have a coach who would make a fantastic murder accomplice with his La Cosa Nostra-like denial of what everyone knows happened (try to watch this with a straight face), they came into Game 3 with a series scoring differential of -31 but still talking trash, and they have my favorite comic book villain of all-time in Russell Westbrook.
Now maybe you're thinking force of nature LeBron James, or comic book sniper Steph Curry may be the best foe for our young hero, but let's take a moment to appreciate the sheer insanity and unbelievability that is Westbrook. He is probably the most physically-gifted player in the league (today, if not all-time) with speed that makes prime Tony Parker look pedestrian and a vertical that makes Dominique Wilkins look like the "Human B-Roll." I believe it was Jeff Van Gundy who described him as having "nuclear athleticism," and that seems incredibly apt. It can be weaponized, but it is also incredibly volatile and prone to meltdown.
Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting.... https://t.co/DEHJnqquHO— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 7, 2016
That, in itself is fun, but it's the fact that CHOOSES to forego easier baskets and one of the league's best shooters in Durant, in favor of off-balance, 26 footers that makes him truly special.
"Pass the ball to KD, or shoot a 3?" pic.twitter.com/ukAL0MgdY2— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) May 7, 2016
He turns inefficiency into an art form.
Final Russ shot chart for the game pic.twitter.com/SnsEsb9yIW— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 7, 2016
But he's so lovable in his bizarreness. He showed up to the arena dressed like this:
Russell Westbrook is in the building. pic.twitter.com/GjJIcmiixH— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 7, 2016
And surely spends more time practicing these moves than his three-pointer.
Russell Westbrook and Cameron Payne dancin before Game 3: pic.twitter.com/U99gctWOqr— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 7, 2016
This is what makes him, and ultimately the Thunder, the perfect backdrop to juxtapose Leonard's more...heroic qualities.
At almost every point in Friday night's graphic novel where the bad guys seemed too athletic, too long, too lucky, too fast, too buoyed by a rabid fan base; Super Kawhi rose. Whether for a crucial dunk to stem a Thunder surge, a 4-on-1 fast break when the Spurs just needed points, an offensive rebound over a giant mustachioed foe, or an offensive rebound with the game on the line and the bad guys mauling him; Super Kawhi rose.
This huge rebound Kawhi was key to victory. 100-96 pic.twitter.com/vhONqUFhv7— Basketradamus (@basketradamus) May 7, 2016
He scored 31 points on efficient shooting, made clutch free throws, alternated on defending two of the top-5 hardest to guard players in the NBA, and led the game in rebounding.
But the beauty of the Spurs is not their singular hero. They are not quite the Avengers where every player is some kind of Super Hero, but they are kind of the embodiment of what an everyman can dream to be. On any given night, it could be any one of the 12 guys sitting on the Justice League of a Bench that PATFO has assembled.
In the previous two games in this series, it was LaMarcus Aldridge who looked to have a supernatural ability to never miss from midrange. On Friday it was Tony Parker, not necessarily turning back the clock, but showing a growth of his own as his game continues to evolve to what he can do and what the team needs.
There are the aged Mr. Incredibles in Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, happy to fade out of having to save the world every night, but still happy to come in and fix things in a pinch (Duncan coming ice cold to throw an ice-in-the-veins crucial inbounds, for instance). There is Boban the Collusus, Giant and dominating when given his chance, Patty the Flash, Boris channeling Deadpool, and Matt Bonner...the Matt Bonner. Someone on Twitter described Danny Green as being the Hawkeye of the group which is perfect not only because of his marksmanship, but because he does all of the little things perfectly (like transition defense. I would watch a 4 hour highlight reel of Danny Green playing transition defense. Get on this Zach Lowe).
But it is to say the Spurs aversion to hero ball and hero worship has created an environment where any player, at any time can be the hero of the night.
Just don't be surprised if for the next few years, that's usually Kawhi Leonard, Super Hero.
Quote of the Night
Asked Parker about line between Spurs relying on Aldridge and over-relying on him. Found his response illuminating: pic.twitter.com/R1k56EzUuI
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 4, 2016
Asked Parker about line between Spurs relying on Aldridge and over-relying on him. Found his response illuminating: pic.twitter.com/R1k56EzUuI— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 4, 2016
Aldridge was very good (if, slightly below the unreal bar he set for the first two games), David West had some huge plays down the stretch, Kawhi was a Super Hero, but for me it's Tony Parker.
I am so excited for a career renaissance for Parker, turning into a Pick-and-Pop maestro, a Ginobili-esque crazy assister, and a dead-eyed catch-and-shoot option. If this turns into a post-heavy Aldridge and Leonard isolation offense, Parker may get a chance to extend his career a few years at an elite level.
My favorite part of the TP statline? 8 rebounds against a team that features only two players under 6' 7 in their major rotation (and Westbrook is the best rebounding guard in the league), have probably the greatest length in the league, and were statistically the best rebounding team.
Parker's unselfishness in the quote above has endeared him all over again for me. Ginobili was always unselfish, as a superstar coming off the bench. Duncan is obviously the model for a selfless phenom. But this version of Tony Parker is heart-warming.
194- Manu moves to 9th all-time in playoff games played, passing Danny Ainge and Karl Malone. Which also give him the dubious title of most games played by a second round pick (Ainge also somehow fell out of the 1st).
389 - Kawhi Leonard has already moved into 6th on the Spurs postseason field goals list, passing Sean Elliot and Avery Johnson. Again...he is 24.
3 - Westbrook missed three more shots...than Kevin Durant even attempted. (21 misses to 18 attempts)
The Internet remains undefeated. Another solid night of commentary and lols.
Thunder not named Westbrook actually had a phenomenal defensive night (not pictured).
"Make the EuroLeague Great Again"
Guy behind me is a hell of a thunder fan & Trump fan. He's putting all spurs foreign players on notice deportation is coming. #thunderDOWN— Ben Hunt (@benhunted) May 7, 2016
Manu digs into Durant's dribble, gets the pass from West and flushes it. I thought he wasn't allowed to dun... https://t.co/UPu4uofTOn— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) May 7, 2016
It's gonna be awesome when Pop coaches Westbrook on the Olympic team he's going to quit in like 3 days and go to wine country— mySA (@mySA) May 7, 2016
It is known.
I WILL NEVER DO ANYTHING IN LIFE AS WELL AS DANNY GREEN PLAYS TRANSITION DEFENSE.— Kyle Carpenter (@KyleCarpenter) May 7, 2016
I realize this.
This is about as clean as u can get on a strip. https://t.co/QqJxKX7ANM— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 7, 2016
For some reason, this slayed me
Whatever Donovan draws up here will be ignored completely— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) May 7, 2016
Adams needs to the next Bond villain!
I don't know how Steven Adams keeps officials falling for his tricks, but he does. A true talent.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 7, 2016
Steven Adams averages 37.2 uncalled fouls per game, second only to Draymond Green's 1412.7. #Analytics— Kyle Carpenter (@KyleCarpenter) May 7, 2016
Which writer is going to be the first to drop "Chokelahoma Blunder"?— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) May 7, 2016
Post-game Westbrook and Durant always look like two brothers in trouble with mom.— Aaron Preine (@PreinePS) May 7, 2016
But surely the most important revelation of the night: Becky and Pop have a sidebar, away from the main "Coaches Only" Group Text thread to coordinate outfits. Poor Ime.
becky and pop match pic.twitter.com/3FXrCbeJuD— Becca Laurie, PI (@imbeccable) May 7, 2016