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Magic 104, Knicks 98: ‘They don’t want you to live/They don’t want you to ball’

R.I.P. Young Dolph.

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

So, I agreed to take this recap less than an hour before we all found out Adolph Robert Thornton Jr., better known to the world as Young Dolph, was tragically shot and killed outside of a local bakery in his native Memphis. By all accounts he was a kind and generous person, a dedicated father who loved his family. He was 36 years old.

Whenever a person, any person, as young as Dolph is killed, it’s a tragedy, but this was particularly bad. For anyone paying attention to regional rap scenes, especially one as historic and ingrained in the American musical tradition as Memphis’, Dolph was an anomaly. The rare instance of a guy who followed the real and actual mythical bootstraps vision of the American Dream, and pulled a rabid following and burgeoning empire out of independent hustle, God given talent, and hard work. He was a brilliant and hilarious, beloved artist. And now he’s gone.

Tonight, I’ll be watching and writing about this Wednesday night, regular season, late November basketball game between the Knicks and Magic. The Magic are a bottom three team in the league who already, miraculously have taken a game off the Knicks, currently a disappointingly middling Eastern Conference team, coming off a heartening win, dealing with huge expectations from last season, trying to decide if they have the talent and cohesion to elevate to the next level, to become real contenders.

But as I write this, I’ll do it with the knowledge that a major city, a whole state, a quadrant of this country, and a large slice of the entire American populace, is mourning yet another senseless killing of a brilliant artist whose life was tragically cut short. There’s much to see, and much to learn from tonight’s game, but in the grand scheme of things, it can be difficult to maintain perspective.

I would imagine any fan of the NBA has at least a passing awareness or interest in rap music, the art that has defined and soundtracked several generations of this league and the lives of the players we spend so much time obsessing over. But if you’re one of the few who isn’t, in some ways I envy you. In basketball, the stakes are always relatively low. Another unspectacular Knicks season, a dumb trade, a minutes distribution “crisis” we lose our minds over because there’s another player offering a theoretical “better” opportunity for us to win another athletic contest between two groups of young men competing in a children’s game, that has no actual real world consequence. This bullshit constitutes our pain and sorrow in the majority of our lives as fans.

But if you love rap and its artists, on an increasingly frequent basis, we have to stand by and watch as generation after generation of talent is culled by numbing, repetitive cycles of systemic violence that continue to take the young Black men in one artform who serve as inspiration for the other talented, predominantly Black men we root for in this artform. So this dumb Wednesday night Magic Knicks game recap is dedicated to the art, the legacy, and the life of the great, gone but not forgotten Young Dolph. It is the most meager and pathetic gesture I can imagine, but it’s all I have to offer at the moment. Love to his family and all his fans. Rest easy brother.

Ok, basketball. Let’s get it out of the way, this game sucked. The Orlando Magic have now won four of their fifteen games, and two of them occurred in Madison Square Garden. And this game wasn’t some kind of impossible uphill trek. It was eminently winnable multiple times, but each time, we shit the bed. Allow me to count the ways.

“Can’t get money with me, you too lazy”- Dolph, “Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up”- Rich Slave, 2020

The tone was set early, and expressed in typically blunt yet evocative fashion by Mike Breen, who reflected on how exciting basketball can be when three point shots are falling, but how ghastly the game is when they’re not. Please keep this in mind. Both teams were sub 30% after the first quarter, and it truly sucks to watch players pulling up for brick after brick. Much like the Pacers game before it, this was a 90s styled rock fight.

I had an interesting thought watching RJ Barrett matchup with Terrence Ross tonight. Is he a rich man’s (please do not isolate this sentence and QT me with “Update?” next time he has a good game) version of the Magic wing? This was a thoroughly mediocre game from RJ, he picked his exceptional spots, but you watch Ross, and it might be as close to a comp of what we could hope for from RJ someday, albeit in a more consistent, smarter, more athletic iteration.

But not even RJ, the one guy who seemingly is immune to the Knicks’ communicable laziness disease, who always is prepared to put his head down, penetrate, and attack the rim or kick, to make something, anything happen, could stop himself from pulling mostly bad three point attempts with a lid that was affixed firmly to the rim all night (0-7 from 3)

The Knicks were playing a 3-11 Orlando team that looked awful most of the first half, but were somehow only down 2 going into the final seconds. It was a continuation of our dangerous habit of playing to the level of competition. Again, manifested in the tendency to just settle for lazy heave after lazy heave. Cole Anthony punctuated this general sense of dread felt by the casual fan at home, and the team’s malaise in the Garden, by draining a three just before half to give the Magic a lead, and drive home how badly we fucked that half, and the opportunity it provided to build an actual lead.

“For some strange reason, I just love the hustle dog”- Dolph, “It Feel DifferentDumb & Dumber, 2019

We’ve gotten to the point during home games when Obi and IQ entering a game is the equivalent of Kramer bursting into Jerry’s apartment on later seasons of Seinfeld. The uproar from the crowd is practically Must See TV canned audience applause, and the energy they bring onto the court is also a practical facsimile. Again, they were the straw that stirred the drink, the only energy or life we showed on offense besides an occasionally scorching Alec Burks. Every alley-oop counts for the exact same number of points, but I swear when it’s those two hooking up, the value is incalculable.

I’d like to tell you Thibs seems to be acknowledging that the sample size has grown large enough, and a quarter way into this season we can no longer rest on past performance when it comes to the 4 slot. That he may be ready to take a harder look at this Obi/Randle schism. And perhaps we’re getting there. In the first loss to Orlando, Randle played 38 minutes to Obi’s 12, and outscored him 30-2. Tonight, Randle played 32 minutes to Obi’s 18, and was outscored 14-13. Obi was +11, Randle was -21. Stay tuned.

I’m going to jump out here and launch into a fairly drawn out diatribe that takes a blind and potentially embarrassing stab at our troubles on defense. The other day, the great Jack Huntley brought up Taj’s stellar effort, and I’m not smart enough to prove this, but I’d love for a good basketball writer to prove my eye test theory that Taj puts extra pressure on our team defense.

I was shaken to my core tonight when I discovered Mitch wears a size 14 shoe, but that issue aside, he’s such a gravitational presence under the hoop. On defense, it’s the shots that he alters, the shots that he simply dissuades via his presence to create subsequent lower percentage shots he doesn’t get credit for that don’t show up as challenges. On offense, he converts drives that look like desperation bailouts into easy dunks that only count for two points, but have such a traumatic effect on the opposing defense, both in these specific plays, and subsequent plays that just open up the perimeter because he sucks every other defender in.

I’m not sure enough stats exist to quantify everything he does for the team. He complicates every rebound, every bouncing ball, and gets some balls back it looks like he, or any relatively sized NBA frontcourt player, shouldn’t (true rebounding %? Is that a thing? I know there a rebounding % but I can’t find anything to account for degree of difficulty).

“I’m DUI right now, I don’t belong behind the wheel (whoa)”- Dolph “By MistakeRole Model, 2018

I just want to make it clear that I love Taj Gibson. All due respect to Fort Greene. Romans is one of my favorite restaurants, my son went to P.S. 20 for a year, the park itself is top five in my book, truly a crown jewel neighborhood. And from every indication I’ve heard, Taj is an all time great NBA human.

But what Taj FEELS like, to me, is a very capable inside and out, face up defender who struggles in back to the basket or loose ball scenarios where he can be outsized and skilled by younger players. He wins the 70/30 loose ball situations the team would probably win anyways with a replacement level player, due to basic position on the floor, but the 50/50 balls are just that. There’s little I’m familiar with that accounts for the “good” defense he plays that opens up ball rotations because he constantly requires help. He makes a ton of hustle plays that tug at heart strings and look good afterwards in timeline clips, but if you’re watching cumulative effects, I think there’s a chance he’s deleterious and we’re badly missing Mitch, if not Nerlens to spell him as “real” rim defenders who can handle their assignments solo when he’s in the game.

And this is how Wendel Carter Jr., and Mo fucking Bamba, had moments that kept Orlando afloat (if not dominant in stretches) throughout the game.

Now, the one thing I can’t sit here and litigate or defend is Mitch dropped hard yet again down the stretch, and got himself removed from the most crucial stretch of the game, though it’s unclear to me, because we had to play catchup, if Thibs would’ve gone this route anyways because we didn’t go to Taj, we went small. I just wonder if the muscle mass Mitch put on, that we all applauded and were excited to see him operate with, was too much. Can his body sustain the sudden strain he’s put it under?

“They Call Us the NBA All Stars, but we got a team full of shooters.”- Dolph “I Just LandedBlue Magic, 2012

Back to the game. The Knicks clawed back at the end of another miserable third, but it didn’t feel good because it was the same collection of behind the arc settle shots that got us into this mess in the first place. We continued to chuck, when they went in, it looked good and we got close or managed to briefly take the lead. But for the most part, I began wondering whether it was smart to allow Julius to attach what amounts to a cash penalty for every three point shot he hits? Like I know he’s very rich and the money means little to nothing to him, and he made the deal with the best intentions, but are we sure we want to attach a little $500 price tag to every three he pulls? Has to be somewhere in the back of his mind, right?

And then we began to see the toxicity of keeping a fence around the perimeter. You’re at the mercy of a 30-40% shot falling at the exact time when we can’t afford to be settling for those types of odds. As shot after shot clanged in the closing minutes, and the win got further away, it became clear how weak and ineffectual *most* of our attack was the whole game, and how we never really deserved to win. So we lost.

Notes

  • My wife and I watched the game with a plate of Memphis style salt and pepper spareribs from Hometown BBQ, in honor of Dolph, with a bottle of Bordeaux.
  • Clyde sounded like he referred to “Mo Bamba” as “Obama” several times, and now it’s the Sheck Wes remix I absolutely need.
  • Was thinking, post Crypto.com gate it’s just a matter of time till every stadium is named after a gambling site.
  • Younger readers won’t understand this, but Wendell Carter’s glasses are the ABC TGIF primetime lineup version of Horace Grant’s goggles.
  • I could live to regret writing this, but Jalen Suggs seems bad at basketball (I wrote this before he started hitting in the fourth, but I’m going to take a real chance and leave this in)
  • Disney is a hegemonic, culture monopolizing death cult, but you have to admit, it’s the coolest corporate sponsor on an NBA jersey.
  • JB Smoove had a pocket square in his hatband.

That’s it. Honestly it feels right to have a Knick game play out exactly how I felt going into the game (very bad!). The quote in the header comes from “100 Shots” off Dolph’s 2016 opus Bulletproof. One last time, Rest In Peace to the late, great Adolph Robert Thornton Jr. Please loyal readers, while you have the opportunity, appreciate the people around you. Tell your people you love them. We are only here for a brief moment, then we’re gone forever.