If there's one reminder from this wild NBA week, which featured both a modern trial-by-social-media over audio released on the Internet and a good old-fashioned newspaper headline uproar, it's that words matter.
If you think about it, beyond the basics of advancement vs. elimination, words are the stakes for the key players in this batch of Game 7s. Descriptions and labels. Unlike the coaches whose jobs could be in jeopardy if they lose, there's no risk of the star players going anywhere. Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Stephen Curry won't be traded if their teams are defeated. They'll still have their endorsements, which means they'll still be on your TV screens even if the playoffs move on without them. What would change is the way we talk about them.
If Durant receives his Most Valuable Player award after he's bounced in the first round of the playoffs, we'd say it's tarnished, or worthy of an asterisk. Griffin could very well finish third in the MVP voting. If he's not still playing, he'd seem unworthy. Could we still refer to Paul as the best point guard in the league if he's out in the first round in back-to-back years and if he loses a Game 7 at home for the second time in his career? And we might have to hold off on our elevation of George and Curry to the next tier of stardom if they can't advance.
Some of this is on the labelers more than the labeled. We anoint players before they've earned it, then hold it against them when they can't back up our proclamations. Or we affix titles without even understanding the full story behind them. Whomever we dub the Next Jordan should be granted the same right to early failures as the first Jordan, who didn't have a winning regular-season record or a playoff series victory in any of his first three years in the NBA.
If we're going to remind people of Jordan's failures, we also should bring up some of the circumstances surrounding his success which eliminates an out for whatever behind-the-scenes turmoil is wrecking the Pacers or the very public problems the Clippers have endured. It's not the Clippers' fault the Donald Sterling recordings hit TMZ in the middle of the series against the Golden State Warriors.
But Jordan had to deal with the release of a book detailing his gambling habits in the middle of the 1993 playoffs -- and he still won. And he won championships from 1996 to '98 while playing alongside the walking distraction that is Dennis Rodman, whose controversies during the NBA Finals included making disparaging remarks about Mormons while in Salt Lake City.
We remember the results long after we forget the circumstances.
At some point, though, players on maximum contracts need to produce the return on investment. That's especially true in the climate produced by the current collective bargaining agreement, when max deals are harder to come by and more restrictive on a team's flexibility. At some point, the compensation and the production have to align -- especially in the NBA, where team success is so tied in to star performance.
In Griffin's case, he's averaging 28 points and shooting 60 percent in the Clippers' three victories in the first round and averaging 18 points and shooting 43 percent in their three losses. There are teamwide disparities that aren't evident in the stats, noticeably toughness vs. tentativeness that tends to define their games. It's still hard to ignore the impact Griffin makes when he's at his best.
"I think the most important thing to me is to not go out and try to press, like 'OK, I've got to get 30, I've got to do this, I've got to do that,'" Griffin said. "Just kind of let the game happen. And most of the time it just happens in the flow of the game."
It sounded reminiscent of LeBron James when he resisted calls for him to take over playoff games. But LeBron's greatest moments came when he did play the way his critics called on him to do. He simultaneously defied them and proved them right.
The Oklahoman was well within its rights to label Durant "Mr. Unreliable." The newspaper would have been doing its readers a disservice if it didn't point out Durant's performances and how they had led the Thunder to the brink of elimination. It was up to Durant to change the story, which he did with a 36-point Game 6 that resulted in the headline "Kevin Up."
That's the beauty of the playoffs. They offer the chance for redemption. They force us to update the descriptions.