The Playoff Diaries: Skipping Coachella for hoops

John Atkinson

Kevin Durant

AP Photo by Sue Ogrocki

I'm staying in a condo outside of Palm Springs that gets all of the basketball channels I need. The Coachella gods smiled upon me by scheduled the only three acts I was kind of curious to see—Afghan Whigs, The Replacements, and Bryan Ferry, all old man shit basically—during a three-hour stretch of early Friday evening, allowing me to have a very manageable and contained Coachella experience before the playoffs kicked off. To be clear, I am attending as a guest, with zero interest in most of the acts and even less interest in seeing them surrounded by tens of thousands of people in sweltering heat with no beer in my hand (did you know you can't really drink at the shows at Coachella?), so skipping the vast majority of the festival is an easy call.

(The Whigs set leans a bit too heavily on cuts from their new, catalogue-pastiche-ish album, but fuck, “Fountain and Fairfax” and especially closer “My Enemy” still sound incredibly vital and raw; Dulli's voice sounds great i.e. totally fucked, John Curley looks utterly transformed and shockingly chiseled, and long-time backing vocalist Steve Myers—the third-longest tenured Whig at this point—gets some great extended dancing/vamping time in the spotlight. The Replacements are joined by, uh, Billy Joe Armstrong for pretty much the entire set while Paul Westerberg half-assedly plays reclined on a couch, which is a… weird vibe, but also probably the most 'punk' thing to happen in the C-zone all weekend. Bryan Ferry, sporting an extremely sick tuxedo, is generally aging handsomely and still the suavest dude at this festival by a mile despite some alarmingly out-of-breath panting during unnecessary uptempo numbers like 'Virginia Plain'.)


[Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters via Irish Times]

As if all this wasn't enough good fortune, the action kicks off Saturday morning with my Brooklyn Nets! I grew up in New Jersey and did a solid near-decade of time in Brooklyn, so my heart legally belongs to the Nets twice over despite the team's near-total lack of charisma for most of their history. This includes the team's first two years in Brooklyn, which have been a morbidly interesting, frequently-disappointing, and an incredibly expensive experiment in identity-searching, which, all things considered, makes the team fairly representative of many of its new constituents. Rim shot! (JK, I still love you Brooklyn.)

That said, the team has manfully overcome an extremely dark first month or two of the season to reshape itself around the massive-yet-charmingly-goofy hole in their offense left by Brook Lopez's season-ending foot injury, evolving into an intriguingly amorphous generator of big/small lineup mismatches (and turnovers) with Shaun Livingston unexpectedly emerging as its key cog. The Raptors are a young, good, tough matchup though—and their historically success-starved fans are legit bringing a ton of energy to Game 1 in Toronto, with tens of thousands going buck wild outside the arena before and during the game.

(Question, though: is the Raptors “We The North” playoff slogan some kind of corny attempt to tie-in to Game of Thrones? Not trying to be patronizing here but seriously, this is the team that decided to call itself the Raptors to take advantage of Jurassic Park mania… Wait, maybe I am trying to be patronizing here?)

April 19: Brooklyn Nets vs Toronto Raptors, Game 1

The Nets come out firing, with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson doing a very good impression of the “Brooklyn's Backcourt” that we expected last year. Worryingly, Livingston gets into foul trouble early, and our “veteran leadership” infusion of KG and Paul Pierce are non-factors, but the young Raptors squad play rattled, with more turnovers than baskets in the first half. The combination of coffee and playoff basketball at 10 AM is almost too much to bear.

Then, about midway through the third quarter, things get actually, seriously weird, as the Air Canada Centre shot clocks undergo some kind of total catastrophic failure. After trying unsuccessfully to get the clocks back online, the Raptors crew admirably, pathetically, hilariously improvises a shot clock out of a stopwatch and the PA announcer counting down “10… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, horn.” Like, he actually says “horn.” (By the end of the game, they manage to upgrade with a dollar-store air horn.) This is a professional, NBA basketball game. It's the playoffs. The absence of a real clock is driving me insane with distraction and I can only imagine how nutty it is for the players.

Even worse, the Nets are in the process of missing 19 straight three point attempts, with the 19th being a 2012-2013 vintage Mirza Teletovich airball. Livingston and Mason Plumlee—another ostensible 'role player' that's become a key to the Nets success this year—are deep in foul trouble. I'm weirded out and worried. Yet, despite very strong stuff from Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan is almost completely absent from the Raps attack, and they never manage to put together a solid run of their own against a tight Nets defense.

Then, down the stretch in the fourth quarter, it's Paul Pierce time. The Truth ends Brooklyn's drought from beyond the arc by draining a three, then somehow pulls off a delightfully funky drive to the hoop without getting called for a travel, and then nails a jumper at the top of the key to put the Nets firmly in control as the game winds down. Dude has been coming on strong the past couple of months, but the trade to bring Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn was always going to be evaluated based on their postseason play alone—and Pierce knows it. “THIS IS WHY I'M HERE” is the first indelible, non-weird moment of the playoffs and of Pierce's Nets career.

April 19: Los Angeles Clippers vs Golden State Warriors, Game 1

The second game presented me with what I thought would be my only real scheduling challenge of the weekend—the surely-thrilling Clippers/Warriors matchup, starting at 12:30ish, versus the only Coachella set of the weekend that I actually more or less needed to attend, Ty Segall, at 2:50. I was originally irrationally hopeful that I'd be able to watch the whole game and then hustle over to the festival site in time, but it quickly became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to watch much more than a first half full of sloppy, foul-plagued play.

The Dubs have a hard enough row to hoe in this series after the heartbreaking loss of Aussie-as-bro Andrew Bogut to a cracked rib, and with that unfortunate baseline combined with four fouls on Andre Iguodala through two quarters, I left for Coachella feeling distinctly pessimistic about their chances. (Though, I did stay long enough to see the new Chris/Cliff Paul commercial, and I might be “totally effed” because I definitely got goosebumps when Chris/Cliff pass Steph and his doppelganger on the escalator…)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the internet, I hoped to be able to watch the rest of the game later. There's a lot of playoff basketball and I am just going to have to resign myself to not being able to watch all of it, always, in real time. And thanks to expedited logistics I did manage to make it over to Indian Wells just in time (more or less) to see Ty Segall's set, which as usual effortlessly combined pretty much every time period and genre of heavy rock into a seamless whole, including a rousing, set-closing cover of 'Feel Like Makin Love'. Festive vibes!

Milling around after the show, I saw I had an email from a Warriors friend of mine and, stupidly, opened it. “Dubs win in LA. BK wins in Toronto. Great start to the post season!” Argh! Sports spoilers are the worst, and a frequent problem for me given my desire to live outside of “time” in a conventional sense. Regrettably, I'm guessing this will be a theme going forward.

April 19: Indiana Pacers vs Atlanta Hawks, Game 1

I get kinda stuck at Coachella for the rest of the afternoon, dealing with lots of rules, chilling out in various areas, seeing zero more bands and (kinda disappointingly?) zero headdresses, eating a big pile of food from an admittedly really good spread, and watching Waka Flocka Flame play cornhole. I try to watch the Hawks/Pacers game on my phone but the stream is slow and my phone's running out of batteries—no worries, I'll just catch up later in the evening.

Then another buddy texts me: “Pacers just embarrassed themselves.” Can I live??

April 19: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Memphis Grizzlies, Game 1

Back at the condo, I immediately cut off my Coachella wristband and taste freedom and beers watching the Thunder try and wrestle their way past the Grizz. Memphis (pronounced “Mermfrs”), full of life-changing barbecue, family, and ghosts, is one of my favorite places in the world, and I'm not afraid to admit that I kind of get off (in a basketball sense) on the brutalism of the Z-Bo/Gasol frontcourt and Tony Allen's “grit and grind” style-leadership. Meanwhile, while I really love Westbrook's relentless fury, and really want to like KD in advance of his signing with the Nets in 2016, there's the whole fucked up matter of how OKC stole this team from Seattle (*Seattle*)—not to mention the matter of #THEBASEDGODSCURSE. So, needless to say, I'm on Team Lil B for now:

The Thunder dominate the first two quarters and close out the half with a 56-34 lead, making me wonder—momentarily, and purely rhetorically—if I should have maybe considered keeping that wristband on and tryna check out Queens of the Stone Age and/or Nas tonight. But the Grizzlies run off a 30-13 third quarter, led by extremely strong play by the Grindfather, and whittle the lead down to two in the fourth quarter… before OKC goes on a Durant-led run to seal a relatively comfy win. I'm not counting the Grizz out of this one yet though and, all things considered, I'm psyched to get to bed before midnight.

APRIL 20: San Antonio Spurs vs Dallas Mavericks, Game 1

Happy Easter-20. It's 90+ degrees in the desert, a beautiful day to not be going to Coachella at all! The condo is stocked with grilling food, beer, chips, Rolling Rocks, prosecco and mimosa-ready grapefruits, and various other seasonally-appropriate munitions. Between the spread and four playoff games, it's going to be a day of deep consumptive indulgence, as Jesus would have intended (or at least not objected too heavily to, in my personal theology).

Dallas/San Antonio is one of the hardest matchups to figure out my rooting interests for, which makes it hard to know how to watch, emotionally-speaking (especially at 10 AM). Both teams trot out collections of appealing veterans—San Antonio's exceptionally cohesive, battle-tested core versus Dallas's charismatic mish-mash of mercenaries assembled for One Last Job. I want the Nets to win it all of course, and it's still juuuust plausible enough of a scenario to believe in, but if they don't, I think my preferred Finals result is for the Spurs to avenge their heartbreak of last year and win one more (last?) title for their relentlessly professional core and the rightfully-revered Coach Pop.

Despite this, about halfway through the first quarter I find myself mellowly rooting for the Mavs—the sight of ex-Nets Vincent Lamar Carter and Devin Harris getting serious run warms my heart, I'll always love Dirk for what he did to Miami in 2011, and what kind of asshole roots for the overdoge? After a creaky, bricky start, the Dallas offense starts humming and they take the lead in the 2nd quarter, closing out the half up one.

On the sidelines, Coach Pop's generous interview with Craig Sager Jr., filling in while his legendarily-suited father undergoes treatment for leukemia, is a genuinely heartwarming NBA moment…

Which is almost immediately broken by Sager Sr.'s cameo in the latest puzzlingly-bad Kia “Griffin Force” commercial. The empty awkwardness of the “Griffin Force” commercials are the real reason why no one takes Blake Griffin as seriously as they should, and it is perversely satisfying to see Kia suck Reggie Miller, one of basketball history's greatest monsters, into their whirlpool of shittiness alongside the orange-haired former sex assaulter Marv Albert.

Anyway, Dallas manages to build a 10-point lead in the fourth, but somehow the Spurs never seem to lose control—and, sure enough, Dallas goes ice cold down the stretch, and the Spurs go on a 15-0 run on the strength of vintage Tony-Timmy action. This might be a short series.

April 20: Miami Heat vs Charlotte Bobcats, Game 1

I hate the Miami Heat like no overdoge since the '90s Bulls, and this first round matchup looks to be only marginally more interesting than last year's sweep of Los Buckz. I'm half-watching while prepping files for an Aa recording session in Brooklyn next week (*foreshadowing*), hoping to at least see the Heat get worked out by Charlotte's strengthy defense—and to see some crazy action from Josh McRoberts, who has recently became one of my favorite under-the-radar weirdo all-stars.

The Bobcats get off to a frisky start before Miami's inevitable second half surge, resulting in the only real blowout of the weekend. Still, there was some nice McRoberts action, including a couple of sweetly-stroked threes and this INCREDIBLY SICK POSTERIZATION OF THE BIRDMAN.

April 20: Chicago Bulls vs Washington Wizards, Game 1

Taking advantage of the midday break in the action, I briefly rejoin society outside at the grill, where enough fish and vegetables are prepared to fuel me for the remaining two games of the afternoon and evening. As with Sacramento, I've got a professional soft spot for Washington, DC, and have developed an interest in their cornily-named basketball team. I'm particularly curious to see how the young would-be superstar duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal fare in their first time under the playoff spotlight—I like both of these dudes (and, full disclosure, have 'owned' both in fantasy leagues), but I'm not sure exactly where they'll ultimately end up on the spectrum between Good and Great, and these playoffs will be a good litmus test.

Chicago, on the other hand, terrifies me as a potential future opponent for the Nets—after last year's traumatic, heartless-and-gutless loss to the Bulls in seven games, I absolutely understood and endorsed the Nets' desire to tank into the 6th seed to face the Raptors instead. It's hard to root against a team that has overcome so much sports-adversity this year: the loss of Derrick Rose, the dumping of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer yelling all the time. But I am definitely, definitely rooting against these guys as a sign of respect.

The Wiz look shaky and tentative in the first half, with Beal starting off 1-7 and Wall's facial hair just seeming to be in a constant state of flux to me (is he going for some kind of Harden vibe?). I don't know if he even knows. But the Washington is kept afloat by Nene, always a pleasure to see work whenever healthy, and manage to pull ahead in the fourth thanks to the wily old sage Andre Miller, who actually keeps Wall on the bench for an extra couple of minutes down the stretch. Another victory for Veteran Leadership and another first round upset for the road team, which has been the case in 4 of the 7 Game 1s played thus far.

April 20: Portland Trailblazers vs Houston Rockets, Game 1

Preparing for the fourth and final game of the day, I'm reheating the remainder of the morning's coffee and trying to eat all of the popsicles in the freezer. I really like almost everything about this Houston Rockets team—the wild pace, the James Harden, the occasional reminders of Linsanity (and thus Raymond Felton and Knicks fan suffering, lol), the mohawks, the analytics-nerd mindset, the richly idiosyncratic rap heritage of the city of Houston itself—except for the biggest thing: Dwight Howard. Despite, or maybe because(?), of admittedly spending the better part of 2012 caught up in the ongoing 'Dwightmare' of speculation surrounding a potential trade to the Nets, Dwight Howard is one of my very least favorite players in the league.

And, by certain measures, D12 is also objectively the biggest tool in the league. His official bio with the Magic used to read “his muscular physique resembles a 6'11″ bronze statue of Apollo.” At the end of the pre-game Houston player intros, the Rockets players (doubtlessly under some inhumane contractual obligation) form a circle around this Skittle-fueled manchild while he does a 'funny' dance to whatever terrible techno music is playing that night. His line readings on the currently-airing NBA Green commercials (“or even… riding your bike!”) are uncannily reminiscent of “Full House”-era Mary-Kate and/or Ashley Olsen.

The Blazers, meanwhile, are from PORTLAND, and, like anyone with any sense at all, I love Portland! I saw a game at Moda Center in February and it was maybe the best in-arena crowd experience I've ever had (shout out to fantasy hoops co-champs and Blazer season ticket holders FKA Jarrett Jack's Booty). The PDX fans have suffered too much between Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, and I want LaMarcus Aldridge to be the anti-Kevin Love and stay in Portland. And they have the terribly-missed Brook Lopez's horribly-maned twin brother Robin! #teamblazers

The first half is full of exactly the kind of high-octane action you'd expect from these two scoring machines, with each team trading big, double-digit runs, and Chandler Parsons is a predictable 'surprise' scoring leader for Houston, all things considered. But James Harden's three to give the Rockets a one-point lead at the end of the half presages a third quarter full of vicious Beard action, allowing Houston to build a 10ish-point margin which they don't relinquish until late in the fourth.

A monster stretch run by Aldridge—the highest scorer of any of the weekend's games, with 46, including a 19-point fourth quarter—and a healthy dose of always-enjoyable hack-a-Howard ritual humiliation—which has Patrick Beverley and the Houston crowd gesturing for *silence* so Howard can 'focus' on his free throws, lol—sends the game into overtime. BTW, Patrick Beverley, skipping with evil glee after baiting Mo Williams into a foul as the Rockets were seemingly pulling away, is another early “indelible image from the playoffs” for me—dude is a demon that I would love to have on my team, or really almost any team that didn't have Dwight Howard.

Unfortunately, the gift of extra basketball presented me with another scheduling conflict—not with the last night of Coachella, which I'd already opted out of, but with a 10 PM drag show by Tommy and the Playgirls at Toucan's Tiki Lounge in Palm Springs. After some agony, I opted to check out the show under the assumption that I'd be able to watch the overtime sans spoilers afterwards.

This was a good decision. The drag show was by turns wildly powerful and utterly mystifying to me, which is as it should be for a straight dude, and definitely a more interesting and endurable last show in the desert than, say, a Lana Del Rey/Beck/Arcade Fire triple-header. And, in an Easter miracle, I managed to get home and watch overtime without spoilers!

And holy shit, what an overtime! In a weekend (mostly) full of close games and intense action, this was the wildest finish of all. Foul-outs for RoLo, LMA, and Beverley, six consecutive made free throws by Dwight Howard (ugh), and then, closing things out with Aldridge on the bench, an ice cold clutch performance from Damian Lillard. Like John Wall, it was Dame's first playoff appearance, but unlike Wall the dude absolutely killed it. I, can, not, fucking, believe that the Nets basically traded this guy (in the form of their first round pick) to the Blazers for a couple months of Gerald Wallace.

APRIL 21: Memphis vs Oklahoma City and Los Angeles vs Golden State, Game 2

After enduring a few hours of awful post-Coachella traffic back from Palm Springs, I'm happily back in my zone in Echo Park, Los Angeles with time to shower all the desert off of me, emotionally reunite with my cat, and Vitamix myself a carrot-orange-ginger juice before the start of the evening's hotly-anticipated Western Conference game twos. Happily, I'm also joined by some fantasy basketball buddies (including co-champs Hollywood As Hell!), making these games more social and less note-takingy than my largely solo-watching in Palm Springs.

In the first game, Memphis leads most of the way behind strong efforts from Z-Bo and Mike Conley, but it's a tight game with great KD/Russbro vs Gasol/Z-BO action down the stretch—including this beyond-ridiculous Westbrook-to-Durant four-point play:

Despite the heroics, the Grizz hold on to win—much to the pleasure of two-thirds of those gathered. The aforementioned GM of the Hollywood As Hell fantasy basketball franchise, LA-based arts and culture writer Sam Bloch, is an unrepentant overdogger, who is not only rooting for the Clips and Thunder this evening but supported Miami in last year's playoffs because he thought LeBron's success was “important” to “our generation.” Let's just put a pin in that one for now.

By the time the broadcast switches over to the Clippers/Dubs game, it's already a blowout, with Blake Griffin and, uh, Danny Granger dominating the action. The lack of drama at least gives us assembled bros time to catch up with some focus over beers, bourbon, some Vietnamese tacos, etc. In the words of my fellow Sagittarian and New Jersey native Frank Sinatra, “LA is my lady / she's always there for me / LA is my lady /she knows how to care for me.”

APRIL 22: Brooklyn vs Toronto, Game 2

Toronto fans have been Drakeishly whining about unfair treatment from the officials in Game 1 for the past two days, so the refs waste no time in rectifying things in Game 2. The Nets are hit with four fouls in the first four minutes, including two on Game 1 hero Paul Pierce. Uh oh. A strong start by Brooklyn quickly fizzles, as Jonas Valanciunas continues to be unstoppable, DeMar DeRozan starts feeling himself, and Greivis Vasquez—recent inventor of an impressively heinous mohawk/rattail combo—makes an appearance.

The Nets are missing everything and go down by as much as 11, but there are bright spots: weirdly-secret weapon Andrei Kirilenko finally gets floortime and immediately makes his presence felt, swiping steals, making smart passes, and cleaning up the glass. Mirza Teletovich finds his range, making a couple of extra-deep threes. And, despite shooting under 40 percent through the first two quarters, they manage to close out the half down only six.

Also, Drake was caught on camera using a lint roller on his pants while sitting courtside, and there's got to be some kind of basketball-karmic penalty for this kind of hilariously soft sideline behavior, right?

And sure enough, the Nets tie the game up within the first two minutes of the second half and then retake the lead halfway through on the strength off of JOE JOHNSON TIME. Say what you will about the dude and his contract, but if I only saw him play during these not-infrequent 'peak Joe' stretches, and not his also-not-infrequent 'where's Joe?' stretches, I would not be insanely mad at the Nets paying him $20+ million a year. And really, who among us works at their peak performance level all the time?

But the Nets are still losing a ton of hustle plays and rebounds against the spry-legged Raps until Kirilenko parachutes back in to do his sorely-needed KGB assassin routine. The game stays tight the rest of the way, but DeMar DeRozan starts balling like crazy in the fourth, scoring about half of his game-high 30 points in the quarter. This is definitely “why Paul Pierce is here” time, and he makes a couple of nifty and-ones in the fourth after being a total non-factor in the first three quarters, but he juuuust misses a pair of open 3s down the stretch that doom the Nets' chances.

It's a tough loss. Friday in Brooklyn better be raucous:

Looks like Indiana avenged themselves as well today, so I guess that's it for easy first round narratives. Imma head out for now and watch Wiz/Bulls tomorrow, talk to y'all soon—no spoilers!

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