In the New Orleans Pelicans’ startling first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, victory didn’t seem to be enough. In order to show the world who they were, after having been overlooked or flat ignored for too long, Anthony Davis’ Western Conference playoff upstarts humiliated Damian Lillard’s squad. Their bright-red home jerseys, by the time the series ended before a roaring Louisiana home crowd, appeared to be drenched in the blood of the Pacific Northwest. In one particularly encapsulating moment, Davis flew across the court for a transcendent putback dunk over Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic and after this, as Nurkic was keeled over, devastated by the proximity of his enemy’s athletic power, Jrue Holiday stood and pointed mockingly at the struggling center.
This is but one case of the 2018 NBA postseason being unusually rich with rudeness, razzing, and sometimes out-and-out animosity. Boring civility and bland professionalism have been left behind in a collection of first-round matchups that feel like they’re host to a thrilling series of transitions in league power. As the Oklahoma City Thunder lose grasp of their handle on history, the Utah Jazz take their spot in line brazenly, with fans nationwide cheering on Joe Ingles’ gleeful psychological proddings of Paul George, and the invasion of the All-Star’s personal space. Basketball Twitter devotes all its energy, for a night and a following, to the aggressive deconstruction of Russell Westbrook’s egocentric mythology, excitedly repealing a hero they helped to create. Even milk-drinking Mitt Romney got in on the fun, taunting Westbrook courtside in Salt Lake City when when he earned his fourth foul, doofily wearing a custom Jazz jersey over a dress shirt. The bizarre image of Romney goading the 2016-17 MVP has been widely passed around, as a sort of relish slathered over the piping hot Westbrook schadenfreude that fans are digging into.
Whether it be due to the Golden State Warriors’ malaise, two historically effective rookies in Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell leading their teams into playoff battle, James Harden and Chris Paul’s looming superhero alliance, or to the overarching reality of living in an atomized nation whose president’s only proven skill is ****, reverence and respect for the NBA status quo seem to be at an all-time low, and an outsize gusto is being taken in the embrace of new, destabilizing basketball forces. When the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers nearly come to blows in most games of their first-round series, it is easy to see the Heat as the avatars of Dwyane Wade and executive Pat Riley’s old-school ethos, trying to protect a fortress of long-held glory as it’s under siege by Simmons and Joel Embiid’s dizzying styles. Embiid, always the more vocal of the Sixers' two dynamos, has spent the past two seasons upsetting superstars whose place in history he’s indifferent to. “Our time is now,” he recently told a crew of reporters.
There is a sort of sweet spot that these freshly undelicate manners inhabit. Though all the grudgery, insulting, and heated emotions inspire many to recall the notably more savage nature of the NBA’s 1990’s, there is still a massive difference in the nature of play between now and then. Despite rising passions and tensions, the game remains more uptempo and high-scoring than ever, with all the league’s progressive “freedom of movement” initiatives standing strong. As much as we might miss the intense gamesmanship of Michael Jordan’s prime years, and as refreshing as a return to that form of rhetoric might be, most viewers would be frustrated to a point of physical pain if they had to watch a bunch of slugfests in which final scores rarely surpassed 100 points. Freedom of movement persists, joined by a collective uptick in freedom of mouth.
For a time, when the league was moving out of Jordan’s glow and its most known man was Allen Iverson, NBA leadership feared losing its place in the cultural imagination and did far too much to tamp down on these sorts of humanity. This got far worse when the infamous “Malice at the Palace” transpired in 2004, leading to a restrictive dress code and an emphasis on on-court order that reached perhaps its nadir—its wildest instance of deference to rule over deference to entertainment—when an exciting second-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns was decided over a handful of Suns suspensions, doled out because some players stepped harmlessly over a literal line in a moment of competitive vigor. All of these measures were taken to sooth the consciousness of an aging-out viewership who were singularly captivated by Jordan, the king of the international sporting monoculture before explosions in the media landscape made such a role impossible.
The NBA in 2018 is almost entirely indifferent to establishing or maintaining such an icon, or about massaging the psyches of potential fans who are afraid of a product that’s both boisterous and rich with blackness. It has exiled an owner for racism, and its best player has very publicly called the president a “bum.” The league is not playing nice with its scourges and critics; it is not even playing nice within itself, and it is a noticeably more invigorating follow as a result. Rudeness goes well with basketball, a sport that’s so much more fun when it’s changing. Right now it feels like the shape we know the sport as is ripping quickly at its seams, and its gates are open for mirthful slander and merry defamation. Dignity is earned, not granted. Any admired legend today may be a ridiculed fool tomorrow, and everyone in these playoffs looks like they understand these stakes, more heightened and inviting to brashness than they’ve been in years.