Monday, December 28, 2020

NBA Tip-Off: All Up in Their Feelings

By Jonathan Lowe

The holiday season is winding down. During this five(ish)-week, year-end stretch, every emotion imaginable (happy, sad, and in between) is displayed in homes around the globe.

Emotion is not only apparent, but a driving force when it comes to athletic competition. With the new NBA season underway, feelings can be just as important as roster moves and late-game strategies. And our feelings toward players and teams can be pretty significant, too.

For Lakers fans, the world order has been restored. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Purple & Gold won the franchise's first title in over a decade. However, being on the mountaintop didn't necessarily mean that things couldn't get better.

So, the front office went to work. Over the truncated offseason, they traded for the runner-up to last season's Sixth Man of the Year award. Then, they singed the winner of the Sixth Man award. After that, the younger of the Gasol brothers was welcomed into the annals of this franchise's history.

As the season gets rolling, there's no question that the defending champs are the favorites. But is a repeat of the October's celebration an inevitability?

Am I just slow to catch on? Is this really about to go down? These questions stem back to the middle of last week. I was watching the final 2020 edition of the show "Around the Horn." During the first segment of the episode, the panelists offered their impressions of Brooklyn's performance against Golden State. The reviews were more than rave, they were astounding.

While many are hailing the Nets as, perhaps, the second-best team in the Eastern Conference (behind Milwaukee), my thoughts went elsewhere.

Despite losing another star piece, the core of the Celtics is still contending-worthy, right?
Toronto is a year wiser and deep as all get out, right?
You do know that Miami made the "Bubble Finals," right?

Maybe I should be more on board with all the buzz surrounding Brooklyn. The majority of the playoff-qualifying squad is back. Now, they're adding Kevin Durant (completely) and Kyrie Irving (back) into the fold. It's already shown dividends, with a shellacking of Boston to follow up that drubbing of the Warriors. But will that dominance play out over the span of 72 games?

Down on the Gulf Coast, the Rockets are in a much different place than just a couple months ago. Head coach Mike D'Antoni was let go. GM Darryl Morey was relieved of his duties. Russell Westbrook was traded to Washington. The one major constant from last season? James Harden.

The superstar guard has been the focal point of the franchise since he step foot in Houston. As he gets into his 9th season leading the Rockets, Harden appears to have had enough with the organizational changes (which includes a new owner) and the inability to get over the postseason humps.

The tactic of trying to force a franchise's hand isn't new. There are current stars that have moved the needle on making a trade happen. But in this unusual year, with unusual circumstances, a recent move has tipped many onlookers over the edge.

A viral video of Harden hanging out with others at a club may have been innocuous most other years. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic still poses major issues in this country, the video showing him maskless told some that the star openly disregards the pain hundreds of thousands of people have endured due to the virus.

Everyone has personality quirks. We quibble over those all the time. We forgive those all the time. This particular situation is more unique, and the ire expressed by some may stick with Harden for the rest of his career. How will he respond, whether he stays in Houston or not?

Up here in the Twin Cities, the Coronavirus has enveloped the life of one of the NBA's best big men. It has been a horrible year for many people across the world. Karl-Anthony Towns would certainly qualify as one of those people. The Timberwolves' star center has lost seven family members after they contracted COVID, most important of those being his mother back in April.

The Wolves came back from a fourth quarter deficit to beat the Pistons on Wednesday. Right after the opening night victory, Towns said that he was happy to win the game for his Mom. That's a sentiment we've come to expect after a high-profile athlete loses a loved one.

In the post-game press conference, though, the tone completely changed. Answering a reporter's question, Towns gave us a much more somber insight to how this virus has impacted his soul. Listening to his answer, I had never heard that much despair in a similar situation.

As smarmy as this is, I'm more intrigued on how everything will work out through this season. Normally, you figure Towns would get solace and inspiration from playing. If he finds little comfort between the lines, what will that mean looking forward? No matter how this ends up, whether hoops are in the picture or not, I hope this young man can find his place of peace to deal with the tragedy unfolding around him.

Emotion can be a powerful attribute. It can help elevate spirits, raise tensions, or crush souls. And it'll always be around, whether it's after tipoff or in the fandom.

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