The performances feel fresher now, partly because the playoffs are less than a month away. But there’s more to it. Fans in more cities are returning to arenas as coronavirus restrictions loosen. The game’s sidelined supernovas are on the mend. Healthy franchise players are asserting themselves, none more than Stephen Curry. And for as hotly debated as the play-in postseason setup has been, the benefit is that more teams have incentive to keep competing, and this strange and unwieldy campaign has a built-in reward for perseverance.
On Wednesday night, the most interesting matchup featured the 10th-best team in the Eastern Conference standings against the 10th-best team in the West. There’s usually no reason to count so far down in mid-April. However, in this game, the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors offered the guard matchup of the season, featuring the league’s two best scorers (Curry, Bradley Beal) and the sport’s triple-double king (Russell Westbrook).
The game, which the Wizards won 118-114, didn’t deliver as clean a performance as you would have hoped. Curry didn’t extend the insane 11-game streak in which he had averaged 40 points and shot 54 percent from the field; he finished 7 for 25 from the field and had 18 points in his first flat performance this month. Beal and Westbrook weren’t efficient, either, combining to go 13 for 38. But in terms of tenacity, the actual competition did not disappoint.
The doors of Capital One Arena reopened on this night, and the timing felt perfect. The Wizards (25-33) have won six straight games and eight of their past nine. They got all of the bad out of them when there was no one available to boo. Now, they have persisted and created a product that can entertain.
Even while watching remotely, I could feel a different energy about them. Beal took the microphone before tip-off and greeted the 2,133 fans allowed to attend. Given the chance to hype an audience for the first time this season — for the first time in forever — Beal asked excitedly, “What up, D.C.?”
The noise was not sufficient.
“What up, D.C.?!?!?!” he asked again, louder. “There we go.”
He declared it a “small, little step forward, but it’s a step nonetheless.” On this late opening night, that qualified as a grand statement.
It was an event, for 2,133 at least, not just a basketball game serving as television inventory. No matter how many great individual players the NBA and every other sports league has, no matter how well they play despite the circumstances, it is impossible to replicate the atmosphere and experience of what live sports are supposed to be. At the highest levels, the crowd is the MVP. It has been a disorienting time without the fans. Even though most cities aren’t close to having packed arenas and stadiums, these limited audiences still energize the games.
Curry was the main draw Wednesday. At his incandescent and infectious best, his presence electrifies any game, regardless of rooting interest. LeBron James may be the biggest star in the NBA, and his long injury recovery has dampened the season. Many others have been missed, too, including Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis. Even this game was marred by the gruesome ankle injury Wizards rookie Deni Avdija suffered. But Curry, when he’s hot, can carry the league for a good while with his magnetism.
He affects the way the game is viewed, for both teams. He makes everything vivid. He’s a Splash Brother not just because of his wet jumper. He splashes paint everywhere he goes. He’s a Technicolor star.
This time, an inspired Wizards defense outshined him. It was masterful, the way Washington doubled Curry, goaded him into overdribbling and stayed active with its hands to exploit his habit of playing too loose with the ball at times. In addition to his poor shooting, Curry committed six turnovers. He missed his first seven three-pointers and didn’t make one until 7:18 remained in the third quarter.
Before the game, Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of Curry, “He’s a genius on the court.” Through the years, Brooks has learned all too well that there is really no defense Curry hasn’t seen. There is almost no fooling him. The Wizards didn’t necessarily fool him in this one, but they challenged him with an attention to detail that other teams haven’t managed, especially of late. And it worked. Curry started 2 for 10 in the first half and never found a rhythm.
Westbrook was brilliant as a primary Curry defender. But it was the entire system that held Curry in check. Still, this performance felt like a testament to Westbrook’s infectious competitiveness. He keeps attacking, right or wrong. He won’t stop. And now the Wizards suddenly can’t lose.
“I’m one of those players that if I need to defend at a high level, I can do that,” said Westbrook, who finished with 14 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists. “If I need to score at a high level, I can do that. Pass? I can do that. Rebound? I can do that. You want me to coach? S--- I can do that, too.”
This is a season for the ones who can do it all. This is a season for the ones who are willing to do it all. It makes sense that the force of Westbrook’s personality is taking over. It makes sense that Beal, the most patient all-star in the game, is finally reaping the benefits of his balanced perspective.
The Wizards reopened the doors and invited in the hottest player in the NBA, only to douse him with water. Now, their heat must be acknowledged.
Yeah, this weird NBA season is growing on all of us.