This past weekend, the boxer Deontay Wilder defended his heavyweight title against a challenger named Dominic Breazeale. In the first round of the Saturday-night fight, Wilder bopped Breazeale with a right hook to the jaw that looked like the hammer of death. Watch that punch in slow motion and be introduced to terror. Wilder’s glove makes contact and Breazeale’s head turns plastic, as a desperate measure of defense: his neck bends; his face folds; the whole apparatus trembles like a lost leaf as it travels, following the rest of poor Breazeale’s body, toward the ground. Game over.
After I watched that clip a few times, then recovered from a panicked, visceral fear of Wilder, a man I’m unlikely ever to meet, I started thinking about how in basketball, the sport I usually watch, we’re never given just one moment—bang—that tells the story of an entire competition. Even the most dazzling moments in this year’s playoffs, such as Damian Lillard’s series-ending long ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder, or Kawhi Leonard’s suspense-ride of a final shot in Game 7 of the previous round’s battle against the Philadelphia 76ers, were the culminations of themes that had been building throughout those series, and throughout the games in which they occurred. There are no first-round knockouts in basketball—no matter the score, or the overwhelming ferocity of one team toward the other, you’ve always got to play things out, sometimes in a rout, sometimes in a slog.
Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Leonard’s Toronto Raptors, which took place on Sunday, one night after Wilder’s indelible punch—and which ended only after two overtimes—was, to my mind, a minor playoff classic, the kind of grinding, complex game whose parts are inextricable from one another. Its mode of flukiness and slow attrition was established early on, when Leonard, perhaps this post-season’s most impressive performer, hurt his leg just a few minutes in. He made a routine, silky layup, and then, after he landed, started to run with a kind of skipping hop. He never really looked the same. The Raptors haven’t led often in this series—the Bucks won the first two games easily—but they sprinted ahead in the first quarter, despite the weird injury to Leonard, and led throughout most of the game. Leonard stayed active, shooting elbow jumpers and occasional threes without the full measure of athleticism that is crucial to his usual style. Several of his misses seemed to result from the loss of a few crucial inches of lift. His play on this night was characterized by a third-quarter sequence in which he rushed toward the basket, looking almost spry, then missed the layup, then somehow got his own rebound and made a follow-up. Hope, disappointment, gritty achievement—all night long. Lucky for the Raptors, Leonard’s teammates Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell, among others, helped shoulder some of the burden and keep the Raptors a few paces ahead. The Raptors superfan Drake, wearing a purple windbreaker hoodie and a tan, urged his guys forward with steady screams from his courtside seat near the bench.
The Raptors defense, led by Leonard, continually collapsed on the paint, where the Bucks’ unique star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, does his gnarliest work. At least partly as a result, Antetokounmpo never got it going. Even when, for a moment or two, he returned to his usual form, there was a feeling of ambivalent qualification. On a second-quarter fast break, he took a few dribbles after crossing half-court, moving toward the hoop, then, as is his way, he clutched the ball, took loping steps around the bodies of his defenders—agility shouldn’t come so easily to a guy this muscular and this tall—and finished with a layup. But there was soon a debate, first on the sidelines and then on the broadcast, about whether the move had been a travel. Had there been three of those loping steps, or just the legal two? Even great plays weren’t great enough to stand on their own, or to break away, narratively, from the confusing din of the game. When the Bucks pulled even and sent things to overtime, it felt fitting: there wouldn’t be a knockout, just an act of survival or defeat. (No N.B.A. team has ever come back to win a playoff series after trailing 3–0.)
By now Leonard’s hop had become a full-on limp, but he seemed revived by the opportunity to steer his team as much by endurance as by domination. There was a wily pivot-fake into a fifteen-footer, a slow but effective march to the hoop. He had a chance to win it for Toronto at the end of overtime, but he missed the shot, and so there was a second overtime. In this final frame, Leonard found the strength for a series of plays that put the Bucks away for good, placing a stamp of protagonism on the marathon game. Not quite two minutes into the second overtime—he’d played almost fifty minutes of basketball by now, and would end with fifty-two—he raced downcourt in transition, after a steal by his teammate Danny Green, took off from the dotted line with two defenders hanging from him in the air, and slammed the ball home with his left hand. After the move, it was clear that he’d hurt himself further. He grimaced all the way to the bench and covered his face with his hands when he sat. But, when he returned to the court, he kept pushing, even as his eyes seemed to glaze over with pain. He bumped bodies in sacrificial attempts to garner fouls, and, with less than two minutes left, intercepted a pass between the Bucks swingmen Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon and raced forward for another dunk.
When the game was over and the Raptors had won, making the series a salvageable 2–1, Leonard had somehow gathered thirty-six points, nine rebounds, and five assists in those fifty-two minutes of his. As he gave a post-game interview, his eyes seemed to water, either with emotion or pain or both. Knockouts are nice; so are routs, when it’s your own team doing the winning. But a slog can be exciting, too, when a player with as much fortitude and intelligence as Leonard is the leading man.
Source: The New Yorker