NBA stars share the limelight

The Golden State Warriors are synonymous with stardom. When the vaunted Kevin Durant arrived, it was assumed the side, already packed with talent, would ascend into divine status.

It’s the nature of basketball; individual skill is grossly rewarded. More often than not, the finalists of any NBA season can be predicted from the off with a reasonable degree of certainty. Games might not be won on paper but leagues often are. Few other sports share this peculiarity. Even Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi couldn’t drag Stoke City to a Premier League title.

The Warriors fulfilled the prophecy. This week they swept the Portland Trailblazers four games to nil to clinch a fifth consecutive NBA finals spot, a feat achieved by only one other team ever.

Yet, over the past few weeks Golden State Warriors have proved there’s more to them than a predetermined course plotted by a congregation of headliners.

Unable to draw upon injured starters Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, they were forced to emphasise the “team” aspect of their superteam. Nothing less than full commitment from everyone was necessary. All did their part. But Draymond Green raised his hand the highest.

“He was like a wrecking ball out there,” coach Steve Kerr said after Portland were downed 110-99 in Game 3. “It’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen Draymond play.”

Green is an All-Star in his own right but, understandably, falls under the hierarchy of Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. His inability to profitably shoot three-pointers means he’s not usually considered to lead the attack.

With Durant out, Green dominated at both ends of the court. His quick thinking and sublime playmaking kept the Warriors ticking.

Kerr has no shortage of assets but it’s what he’s done with his less favoured ones that is telling. He’s shown immense faith in role players, the unsung heroes who usually wait on the bench, like Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney and it’s been repaid tenfold. They proved the difference as the Blazers pushed until the last second of overtime in Game 4. The harsh lesson the people of Portland learnt that night was that this is not a season for the star.

The Los Angeles Lakers had long since come to understand this fact. Their hubris in thinking Lebron James could take them to the playoffs was exposed when the team crumbled both around him and in his absence.

Those that did make the playoffs with a feeble framework didn’t have to wait long for their comeuppance. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double (double digit points, assists and rebounds) for the third straight season, a first in NBA history. But where are the Oklahoma City Thunder? Gone in the first round, also for a third straight season.

The Houston Rockets are another team that have been found guilty of worshipping at the altar of their headliner. James Harden scored 50 points on six occasions in the regular season, lining him up as an outside shout for another most valuable player haul. That counted for nothing as a hungrier Warriors team dumped out his benchless outfit.

By contrast, MVP favourite Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks trails behind the numbers of Westbrook and Harden. His strength has come from drawing a wall of defenders to him, forcing open spaces for his teammates to exploit.

Currently battling the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, the Bucks have done anything but rely on their star man. Brook Lopez scored a career-playoff high of 29 points to go with his 11 rebounds and overall ubiquity in the opener.

In Game 2, George Hill underlined the invaluable benefit of having a playoff veteran ready to come in as a substitute. That wasn’t the case when James took the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals last year. There, Hill’s role was seen as little more than to hold firm while players such as James took a breather.

There is no shortage of such examples this postseason. The playoffs have not been kind to those that chose the path where a team’s fortunes hang on the individual. The basketball gods are rewarding those willing to put their heads down and grind; those willing to form more than the sum of the team’s parts.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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