The sensation visits when it pleases, and you’re thankful for it. Life is a near-unbroken stream of mental-emotional toe-stubbing and low-bore dramas, all dull and picayune and all doubly painful for how dully picayune they turn out to be. You’re a person on a couch on a Monday and you want to feel, but can’t on your own. This is why we lean on anything we lean on: booze, books, other people. This isn’t the only use for sports, but you can use them this way, although more often than not a game doesn’t take and you’re watching some desultory, mediocre scrap that’s barely distinguishable from the static. Sports can be, and mostly are, a slog; sports let you down a lot.
They can also make you whole for an hour or two. Kyrie Irving was hot shit in Oakland on Monday night—ebullient and slippery and smooth. He buried the Warriors, dumped an island’s worth of sand on a glassy skyscraper and stuck a flag in it. He’s been trying to do this all series, to varying degrees of disaster and quasi-success. It’s never worked completely because—well, Evel Knievel broke his body several times over trying to entertain folks. Kyrie can do things on a basketball court that no one else can, but those things are impossible for him, too, some of the time. The difficulty of what he attempts is inherent in its appeal; his dogged pursuit of the sublime is the miracle. It’s no surprise that nearly all the criticisms lobbed at him are obtuse efficiency-slave harrumphing from people keen to turn a blessed bit of exercise into debate club fodder. The shoot-first point guard is definitionally imperfect. You relish the original sin of that type of player, or you miss the point.
Here is where Kyrie Irving makes sense and doesn’t: he pushes the ball out in front of him and erases the first defender, then feints baseline and pulls his dribble back before spinning into a fadeaway that he angles off the backboard just so. He falls down in the high post, regains control, slithers backward while seeming like he wants to go forward, and swishes another fade. He chains maneuvers that are independently legible but mindbending in concert. All this action, read together, scans as insanity; it is a dish that tastes nothing like its ingredients. To the extent that Steph Curry is remaking basketball, he’s turning it into archery. Kyrie is not moving the game forward in a systematic way. He does not do anything in a systematic way. If he were consistently great enough to be influential, it wouldn't matter. He's great in such an inimitable way that there’s no use in trying to emulate him. You can’t write like Burroughs; you can’t paint like Kandinsky. Duchamp thought of Fountain and no one could think of it ever again.
If Kyrie has something over Steph, it’s dynamism. It’s glib to explain Curry’s dominance by saying he does one thing better than anyone else ever has, but to watch his best performances is to watch him do the same tricks repeatedly, perfectly. He pulls up in transition and shoots; he fakes a drive and shoots; he gathers a loose pass and shoots, squaring himself in the air, like you could whip a basketball at him while he was napping and he’d integrate rising from the couch into his shooting motion. His jumper is a marvel of engineering. It is also, by nature, mechanical, and its superior utility has an aesthetic downside. Steph has a well-tuned floater and a pull-up and can lay the ball in from odd angles, but when he takes over a game, it’s usually through a series of ever-deeper threes. He mashes the same button four or five times and everything around him turns to ash.
Kyrie scores from all over, in all kinds of ways; even he can’t duplicate them exactly from moment to moment. It’s not by accident, really, but by the kind of momentary inspiration that manifests once then permanently blinks out of existence. Steph is text and Kyrie is speech. He’s out there riffing, losing the thread and finding it, setting himself for a three, then scrapping it and skidding toward the rim without a plan. He’s so skilled that he seems almost always in control, but the ideas that animate him are fluid and sudden and occasionally profoundly harebrained. The thrill is in the very real possibility that he’s fucking himself, here—that he’s about to dribble into a dead-end and toss up something ill-advised that will make him into either a dunce or a god.
Let's leave aside whether this is someone you want running your basketball team. Kyrie's wild endeavor is bracing. It’s sports as a stimulant for the soul. Life is a long, hot walk to the grocery store to buy food you can barely afford, so you have the energy to do work that pays for you to take the long, hot walk again next week. It is the same aggravating thing almost always, and just good enough from time-to-time that you go on bothering with it. Some people drink to deal with this; some chase their own thoughts deep into the night for reasons they don't understand. Kyrie Irving dropped 41 points in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and it was absurd and full of feeling. That’s sustenance for a few more days, at least.