This past Sunday, at the end of the N.B.A.’s regular season, the Golden State Warriors defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, 113–101. With the win, the Warriors—who, without their star, Stephen Curry, as they were nearly all of last season and for several games this spring, are a very bad basketball team—secured the eighth seed in the Western Conference, ahead of the Grizzlies, who finished ninth. In any other season, that would have given the Warriors the final spot in the playoffs. This year, though, the introduction of a play-in tournament—in which the seventh and eighth seeds played each other for the seventh seed, and the loser of that game took on the winner of a game between the ninth and tenth seeds for a chance to make the playoffs—meant that both the Warriors and the Grizzlies were headed for an extra game or two. The last day of the season was, in that sense, meaningless.
The question of just what makes a basketball game “meaningful,” of course, is the problem that drove the N.B.A. to establish the play-in tournament in the first place. For years, the end of the regular season has been a yawning stretch of half contested games. The best players on teams headed to the playoffs were often held out to rest for the postseason, and the best players on teams likely to finish below the cutoff were often benched in order to increase the likelihood that their team would lose, thereby increasing the odds of a favorable position in the draft. And, during this season, played amid a pandemic, the question of meaning has become especially fraught. In ordinary circumstances, it is pretty easy for the league to claim that it’s serving some essential social function, providing distraction and entertainment and vicarious competition to hungry fans. This season, that’s been more difficult. Stadiums were empty, or close to it. Fans were sick, even dying. Some players fell sick, too. Teams faced difficult disruptions. Ratings were down. The league had been lauded for its handling of the end of the 2019-20 season and playoffs, conducted inside a bubble in Florida. By the time the 2020-21 regular season began, though—at Christmas, a date chosen in deference to lucrative television contracts—there was no pretending what had driven the decision-making, and it wasn’t the propagation of joy. “To be honest, this is probably the most unpure year of basketball that I’ve ever been a part of, just from the whole league and rushing the season back,” the Toronto Raptors’ star guard Fred VanVleet told reporters in April. “It’s pretty much all about business this year on every level. It’s hard to hide it now.”
But even as VanVleet spoke, the league was gaining momentum. Vaccination rates were rising; the number of fans in stadiums was growing. Almost every team was within striking distance of the play-in tournament, if not already safely headed for the playoffs. Teams that would have folded in past years played with increased intensity. The Washington Wizards, who, in early April, were 17–32 and had less than one-per-cent odds of making the playoffs, went on a ferocious tear and ended up snagging a play-in spot. (They then won both of their games, to make the playoffs.) The defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, who, earlier in the season, had seemed the class of the N.B.A., had dropped into the seventh seed—and therefore the play-in—after long layoffs for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, due to injuries. “Whoever came up with that shit need to be fired,” James said, of the play-in tournament, earlier this month, as the Lakers tumbled down the standings. I suspect that person will actually get a raise.
Most compellingly, there was Curry. After returning from a tailbone contusion, at the end of March, he went on a historic tear of scoring, as he dragged his team up the standings. For years, for all the skills that Curry has in abundance—the electric quickness, the deft hands, the court awareness, the celestial shot—what often stood out was his ability to win, constantly, while making winning seem somehow beside the point. This says nothing about his competitiveness. (Anyone who leads his team to seventy-three wins in a single season, as he did in 2015-16, is ruthless.) It had to do with the aesthetics of his game—the impossible angles and pretty arcs, the puckish passes, the pleasing swish that punctuates so many shots—and with the way he’d smile disarmingly while ripping out his opponents’ throats. And it had to do with the fact that the Warriors’ winning also seemed inevitable, making it easier to discount. Curry just seemed to be having fun. He’d make the risky pass, play fast and loose with his dribble, and take the impossible shot—because, why not? He turned three-point shooting into performance art.
Watching him this season was different. He’d still be hotdogging, still having fun. His giddiness was still infectious, and, when he was hot, even opposing fans half hoped that his shots would fall. When Curry scored forty-nine points on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, in late April, amid a stretch of historic shooting, some in the Philadelphia crowd chanted “M.V.P.,” even as the 76ers’ own M.V.P. candidate, Joel Embiid, looked on. But there was a more desperate quality to Curry’s scoring binge this time around. With his fellow-guard Klay Thompson out with an injury, Draymond Green aging, Kevin Durant gone to Brooklyn, and a roster stacked with role players and G-leaguers, the burden was borne by him almost entirely. It used to seem just cool when he took impossible, almost irresponsible shots. This season, he took them because he was being blitzed and bumped, because multiple defenders hung on him from the time he crossed half court, and because he had no other option.
That’s the way of the league these days—a highwire act. The new play-in-tournament gambit paid off with a matchup between James and Curry, on Wednesday, that had the feel of a Finals game, and a storybook ending—James writhing in pain after a foul by Green late in the fourth quarter, and then drilling a thirty-four-foot three-pointer with the score tied and less than a minute remaining. The Lakers secured their spot in the playoffs, and the Warriors were left to play another sudden-death game, against the Grizzlies, who had beaten the Spurs in the game between ninth and tenth seeds to set up the rematch. Playing from behind for most of the game, Curry did everything but win it—hitting long three after long three, making free throws under extreme pressure, and scoring a series of circus layups. But, in the end, the heroics belonged to the Grizzlies’ dazzling young guard, Ja Morant, who hit consecutive shots in the final minute of overtime and finished with thirty-five points.
There’s one moment that will stick with me from Friday night’s game, though, which never showed up on the scoreboard. It came during warmups. With his teammates looking on, Curry stood at the foul line, took two long strides toward the basket, and flung the ball high into the air. It bounced off the floor, kissed the backboard, and fell through the net. Curry’s flashy routine of pre-game trick shots long ago became something of a cliché; everyone has seen it all before. And yet, when the ball dropped in, he sprinted along the baseline as his teammates celebrated, their excitement palpable. It was a meaningless shot, except in the only sense that really matters—it made people feel something.