The Toronto Raptors were not supposed to be here. Not here, as in the NBA Finals. Here, as in up 3-1 in the series and back in Jurassic Park for Game 5, with history at their feet. They’d been among the top teams in the eastern conference for the better part of the season, so it wasn’t all that surprising they had the championship within their grasp, but they were up against the Golden State Warriors, a megazord entity that doesn’t quite know how to lose.
When I think of the Warriors and all that they’ve amassed—three championships in the last five years; top-dog status in the league; a litany of records I won’t attempt to list here because who has the time?—my mind immediately rushes to that definitive Harvey Dent line from The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s so indisputable and befitting a team like Golden State. In obvious ways, the team mirrors its home region of the Bay Area, a place now flooded with tech overlords who seem invincible and wield immense powers, the true nature of which has yet to be revealed. Of course, if you’re from Northern California or a fan of Stephen Curry’s superhero talents, this doesn’t quite apply; no Warriors fan thinks their team wins thanks to unspoken magic. But for the majority of us, for those of us who have found the perfect avatar in Kawhi Leonard and his Raptors, all of this backstory—the rise and rise and rise of the Warriors, the turn from David to Goliath—has made the series all the more gripping. For the first time in a long time, the demigod Warriors look mortal.
Maybe what I’m really trying to say is, as much as we have paid attention to what’s in the foreground of the 2019 NBA Finals—the Raptors’ savvy defense; clutch performances from Fred VanVleet; Drake’s meme-worthy courtside antics; Kevin Durant’s return and career-derailing injury—it’s the backdrop, the particulars of the surrounding environment, that drives the real plot.
The charm of Nathaniel S. Butler’s photograph from the closing seconds of Game 5 inside Scotiabank Arena is best animated by its context. The potency isn’t extracted from what’s right in front of us: Draymond Green narrowly blocking Kyle Lowry’s corner three-point shot with a graceful, impassioned reach. It’s what we see beyond that: the statum of emotion in the crowd. It’s operatic in composition. The image has a glorious scale to it. Faces stretch like goo. Hands shelter mouths in freak anticipation. Eyes dart upward. There’s depth, drama, disbelief, hope, raw shock.
Green’s last-ditch effort would save the Warriors from elimination. The team’s chances at a dynasty are still in reach tonight, but for a moment history is here, time-stamped. There’s no before or after, just one moment from a grueling, Odyssean quarter of basketball, from a game and a series that has been defined by moments forgettable, exceptional, and heartbreaking. That’s what I love most about this image: It reminds us that these moments, these microscopic apertures of time, these tiny windows of release, are sometimes the most accurate reflection of the human spirit. Moments that prick the brain. Moments that charge the senses. Moments that remind us how alive we are during the ephemeral and unpredictable streaks of life.
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