In the NBA present, there is little mystery. LeBron and the Cavaliers will lose handily to the superteam Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June. To suggest a different ending to 2017-18 is wishful thinking multiplied to the umpteenth power.
But while the present state of affairs is predetermined and maybe actually boring to many, this week at Madison Square Garden, fans were given the chance to appreciate the NBA’s future when two teams not just with but rather led by young stars lit up the world’s most famous arena in a nationally-televised game.
And while the performance of the youngsters was exciting enough, the importance of this glimpse into the seemingly bright futures of two NBA franchises is magnified even more by the fact that the matchup took place at Madison Square Garden and the two franchises happen to be the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Organizational clout aside, the young cores of each team are undeniable. For the Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis, who was booed enthusiastically by the NY faithful in the moment he was drafted, is a budding superstar. He is a unique basketball specimen, all at once a perimeter scoring threat and rim dominator, and relishes the big stage.
Frank Ntilikina is only 19 and can effectively guard NBA players, which should not be overlooked while people take shots at his still undeveloped offensive repertoire. And in Tuesday’s game, Ntilikina played every minute of the fourth quarter and overtime.
And in L.A. of course there is Lonzo Ball, who for all the drama surrounding his every sideways jumpshot, has elite vision and anticipation with his passes and can in fact place the ball wherever he wants, with both hands. There’s every indication that the game is happening slower for him than for everyone else. And Ball has even shot with confidence of late, with success, and in his first trip to the Garden he did nothing if not stand out on both ends of the floor.
Don’t be fooled–Lonzo Ball can play. Lonzo Ball can make shots. Lonzo Ball will be an all-star, and soon.
And in Kyle Kuzma the Lakers have the 2017 NBA Draft’s most pleasant surprise. Mostly unheralded going into and coming out of the draft, Kuzma has brought energy and composure, the latter rare for a rookie, and remains among the top rookie scorers in the league.
Then, without context there was the game itself. A 113-109 overtime finish, arriving as so after 17 ties, 20 lead changes, and 203 attempted shots, a league high this season. There was a 3rd Quarter starring Ball and Porzingis in which Porzingis had two deep threes and blocked a dunk attempt and Ball had two steals, two threes, a circus finish and a ferocious alley-oop dunk.
Each back-and-forth exchange incited signature MSG sideline antics, this time courtesy of Lavar Ball, Amare Stoudemire, Magic Johnson and of course Spike Lee.
The only one in the building who seemed to let the moment get to him was Lakers coach Luke Walton, who with the Lakers trailing by 4 in overtime let his defense play out the shot clock with a little over 30 seconds left, not realizing that his team even still had one foul to give after they cut the Knicks’ lead to 2 with less than 2 seconds on the clock.
But Walton is just another one of the Laker’s rising stars, and even he can be afforded some growing pains.
With Christmas just ahead, its fitting for fans to be shown, if only for 48 minutes, what the NBA yet-to-come has in store.
Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge’s, however, in this future the arena was full.