When we watch March Madness we watch very young, extraordinarily gifted men burn like roman candles. It is a carnival, less a display of basketball prowess than an ecstatic frenzy. We see the spirit carrying the body to places it literally cannot go. There are shows of incredible effort and passion, fevered battles for loose balls, defense played on the edge of exhaustion, wild last-second drives to the hoop. But also: shots crush the back iron; muscles drown in adrenaline; so many turnovers. The tournament is like the most spectacular party you barely remember, the one where the floor bent to the beat of the music, where you could not speak, only scream, where your veins ran with gold, where you loved everybody.
The NBA regular season, in contrast, is more like an adult life, albeit one performed by humans possessed of mind-altering physical grace and skill. Dr. J. once said: “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on days you don’t feel like doing them.” (And that is probably the most optimistic definition possible: doing the things that you love on any day at all–much less in a professional capacity–is a great luxury indeed.) When we watch the NBA we certainly are privy to moments of transcendence, as we also occasionally are in our daily lives. But the deepest appreciation of the Association stems from observing the everyday and the habitual. The way point guard turns the corner on a pick-and-roll; the way an offense mutates and grows; the way defensive intuition and cohesion evolves over time.
As in life, there are days in an NBA season that fail to inspire the fullness of passion, that fall between the cracks and just seem to lack intrinsic meaning. Today was one of those days. Even the games that bore on the playoff race–like that Utah/Memphis matchup–seemed a little desultory, seemed to a share a bemused, forgotten quality. Being extraordinarily competitive people, the players can’t help but compete despite the strange sense of permanent garbage time. This is how that feels when everything has already ended: it feels like Quincy Pondexter taking stepback jumpers; it feels like Chris Johnson going baseline and throwing down–hard–on Aron Baynes.
Of course, certain things were decided on Wednesday night. The Timberwolves won their 31st game, crowning the franchises most successful season without Kevin Garnett. With one of their finer outside shooting performances of the year (12-29 from three), they narrowly avoided sinking below the dreaded 30% mark and ascended from historic awfulness to the ranks of the merely terrible. Ricky Rubio narrowly missed becoming the NBA steals leader.
Mostly, though, things were strange. The ball wobbled into the basket off of fingertips and wrong-footed afterthought heaves. J.J. Barea dueled with Patty Mills. Derrick Williams threw down a two-handed 360 and no one really noticed. Chris Johnson did his amazing thing. In all of that, it was a fitting end to a confusing year. I’ll say it again: their most successful non-KG season ever. There will be time to sort through the wreckage in the coming weeks, but right now I’d just like to savor that thought. It fell far short of our brightest hopes. It ended before it began. It hinged on a poorly performed knuckle pushup. And yet it was a strange kind of success. Wolves’ fans, welcome to your world.