Posted Jan 25 2012 9:52AM
A freak show is designed to startle and amaze, leaving the viewer dazed and mumbling about what the heck just crawled across the stage. That's what this lockout-created 2011-12 NBA season is about, right here and right now: a bearded lady twirling a basketball.
Have you ever witnessed so many injuries, so many poor shooting nights, so many lopsided scores in so short a time? Has there ever been a first month of a season as astonishing as this one?
Part comical, part tragic and totally freakish, this season is starting to separate itself from all others, and not entirely for the better.
Well, let's be fair, now. Kobe Bryant did go on a 40-point binge, as did Dwight Howard with his 20-point, 20-rebound efforts. The Thunder are a team to behold. Nobody runs the two-man fast-break more poetic than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (that is, when Wade actually suits up). Dozens of games have been decided on big shots and big plays. When two contenders square off, we usually see a spectacle.
For the most part, though, the season has been hell on the limbs, on the elderly vets, on practice time and, most nights, on the eyes. Which is what you'd expect from a condensed 66-game schedule and a microwaved training camp.
"Guys are tired," said Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and aren't we all by now?
The good news is players will eventually adapt to the rapid-fire pace of the games, and the quality of play can only get better. We, at least, didn't get stuck with the alternative, either: no basketball at all. As long as the playoffs bring the typical intensity and some compelling matchups, this start will be forgotten and forgiven.
Unfortunately, that's still a few months off. In the meantime, we're left to seriously wonder if the Pistons can break 100.
Let's rattle off some events unique to lockout hoops, also known as The Season That David Stern and Billy Hunter Created:
• The Hawks, one of the better teams, lose to Miami without LeBron and Wade.
• The Magic, another upper-tier team, are held to a franchise record-low 56 points by a Boston team without Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
• A basketball player -- Derrick Rose, no less -- develops turf toe, an injury that may haunt him the entire season.
• Dirk Nowitzki needs a few games off to work on his conditioning.
• The young Timberwolves, citing the schedule, hold only two practices in a 2 ½-week stretch.
• Steph Curry's chronically creaky ankle isn't given proper time to heal and subsequently gets tweaked again.
You get the drift. Almost every team has had at least one player suffer from a conditioning-like injury. Few teams have been able to practice for more than two straight days. Coaches are not only preparing for that night's game, but also for the next night, too, by resting regulars and reaching deep into the bench.
"I actually think it's worse mentally than physically," said Nick Collison of the Thunder. "You can get off your feet and rest your body but, especially with a back-to-back-to-back, you're always thinking about that next game. While your body might be resting, your mind is always working."
Because lockout ball affects everyone, most players and coaches are dismissing it as the cost of doing business in the aftermath of the labor negotiations. They realize the schedule is an equal opportunity offender, so they aren't wasting their breath cursing it -- mainly because they need their breath for the game. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wisecracked when asked how he's managing to put up with this kind of season.
"Are you married? How does your wife put up with you? She has to. She has no choice for now. It's the same thing here. You've got no choice. Quit your crying and just deal with it. Just deal with it and shut up. That's the best way," he said.
He then spoke for all coaches when he discussed the tricky task of preparing for the weekly flurry of games.
"My daily schedule is different," he said. "Our staff meetings and approach and when we do things is different now because of the rapidity of games. The teaching logistics have changed. We're cramming in less than normal. The time is so short. With those young kids you need to keep repeating some things before you put new things in. Think back to your algebra class. If you went too quickly, and it's the fourth week and you didn't know (what was taught) the second week, you're screwed for the whole year."
Players are sitting longer to heal from persistent, though maybe not serious, injuries. Miami is taking no chances with Wade, who will rest as long as the Heat can win without him, which they have. Same goes for most veterans 30 and older, particularly if they're franchise players. The risk of aggravating an injury and ruining their bodies for the postseason is too great.
So you can imagine what life is like these days for the Celtics, for example. Doc Rivers gave a clue.
"I was talking with Larry Brown," he said, "and I was half-joking when I said: 'At this point you're almost scared to have a practice.' Because if one guy sprains an ankle in practice, with all the games that means he could miss seven games. When Kevin (Garnett) was limping around [with an ankle sprain] you almost wanted to blow the whistle and say, 'OK, we're going to practice but no one can touch each other.'"
Steve Nash said, "It takes more than a couple of beers and a nap in the afternoon" to recover from the previous night, and so players have adjusted their off-court schedule accordingly.
Let's just say the nightclub business isn't booming in most NBA cities.
"It's not a fun season," said Keyon Dooling. "You're so fatigued at the end of the night, you just go home."
Through Sunday's games, offensive numbers are slightly down from a year ago, including shooting percentage (45.6 to 44.2), 3-point percentage (36 to 34) and points scored per 100 possessions (104 to 100), while turnovers are up (16, from 15.3). You almost can't predict which team will show up on a nightly basis.
"It's interesting," said Rivers, explaining the personality of his team. "Every once in a while they'll sprinkle in a great game. Our first game of the year (against the Knicks), shockingly, both teams were on fire. We've probably had only one other game like that. You see it all around the league."
Magic general manager Otis Smith added: "You can win a game by 20 one day and lose a game by 20 the next day, that's the effect of it. That's not consistent play."
Players and coaches will eventually figure it out. They must. There's no other choice. Assuming the injuries don't pile up, bodies will strengthen and performances will tighten. That's the hope, anyway.
As the postseason draws near, coaches will begin to cut their rotations and the usual playoff and championship contenders, if healthy, will take their rightful places come late April.
"In the next month," predicts Suns coach Alvin Gentry, "teams will play at a real high level and get back to where they should be."
That will come as a relief to everyone involved. Because no matter how shocking they might be, nobody wants a freak show in the NBA. Just a show.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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