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Thursday May 26, 2011 3:09 PM

For The Love Of The Game


Rockets.com's official 2011 NBA Playoffs blog

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Tomorrow is promised to no man. With nearly half the league's teams already done for the summer and another eight to be sent fishing in the next two weeks, NBA fans ought to understand that as well as anyone right now. The future is uncertain and entirely out of our control. We have, then, but one recourse for the moment: to positively soak ourselves in the here and now, and savor every second of the postseason spectacle taking place before us.

Whether you're inclined to affix your faith to the numbers or your eyes is of no importance here. In this sacred temple the only thing that matters is the passion which binds us all together. That is why we're here. That is what we come to praise. The physics-defying explosiveness of Derrick Rose. The steady symbiosis of the Spurs. Kobe's killer instinct. These are the things that draw us in, inch us closer to the edge of our seat make us cry out for more.

Consider this, then, a daily hoops haven; a place to congregate and celebrate the plays, players, games and frozen moments that demand our full attention, be they subtle or overt, steeped in significance or simply a momentarily eye-catching thread that serves to make the overall tapestry all the more vibrant and alive. Who knows what tomorrow brings? But today we have the game and our collective passion; gifts that should not just be cherished and savored, but also to stand as a daily reminder of the childlike joy that brought us all here in the first place.

May 26, 2011

Several months ago, ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott wrote a brilliant piece debunking the myth of Kobe Bryant as the unquestioned, unimpeachable king of crunch time. Predictably, Abbott took a ton of heat from those who worship at the throne of Bryant’s clutch credentials, but to do so was missing the point: this was no ad hominem attack, laced with a hidden agenda meant to undermine Kobe’s accomplishments. It was simply an impeccably well-researched, insightful, thought provoking and provocative piece delving into the heart of what works and what doesn’t when the clock is ticking down and the game is on the line.

In other words, Abbott’s column wasn’t so much about Bryant as it was about our own misconceptions concerning “closing time” in the NBA. Hero shots are hardly the way to go. Because while ball-hogging might earn you a rep, ball-sharing will ultimately lead to more wins. And isn’t that the point?

It’s a topic that’s just as relevant today, despite the fact Bryant and the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs nearly three weeks ago. Time after time over the last few days, we’ve watched close, incredibly intense games that see teams seemingly ditch their offensive schemes and systems in favor of a steady stream of isolation plays for their respective superstars. And far more often than not, the results have been no different than the underwhelming crunch time numbers Kobe’s team tends to produce relative to how the Lakers’ often-stellar offense performs outside of those situations.

Whether it’s Derrick Rose repeatedly attempting to beat LeBron James one-on-one, or Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant trying to do the same to various Dallas defenders, the outcome – a bevy of missed shots and turnovers – has already led to the elimination of one team (Oklahoma City), while putting another (Chicago) on the brink. It’s also drawn the ire of critics (though bear in mind many of the same talking heads crushing the Bulls and Thunder right now are the same people who love to trumpet Kobe’s classification as the game’s ultimate “closer”), who are rightfully begging for these clubs to employ better ball distribution, movement and offensive diversity when the game is on the line.

That’s easier said than done given the elite competition they’re facing, but it’s doubly difficult because the “give the ball to the superstar and get the heck out of the way” mentality has become the accepted go-to offense of nearly every team in the NBA. Somewhere along the line it got ingrained in our minds that that’s simply the way it’s supposed to be. It should hardly be surprising, then, to see crunch time play calls routinely abandoned in favor of far simpler, but frequently less successful, isolation sets that ask Player X to put the game on his shoulders and deliver the goods.

One team, however, has largely steered clear of this strategy and, perhaps not surprisingly, they remain very much in the title hunt. Throughout this postseason the Dallas Mavericks have executed their offense at a far higher level than any other club, scoring a jaw-dropping 111.2 points per 100 possessions, a number that’s more than four points better than the league’s second-ranked team (OKC). The Mavericks, of course, have enjoyed the electric offensive exploits of Dirk Nowitzki, and it would be disingenuous (not to mention flat out absurd) to suggest they have not reaped the immense benefits of riding his superstar coattails down the stretch of tight games.

Dallas differs, however in its approach to riding said coattails. When the going gets tough, Dirk does not become a black hole but rather the sun of the Mavs’ magnificent solar system. Everything revolves around him and instead of being sucked in to a ball-hogging vortex, the satellites in orbit are made all the more vibrant and vital precisely because of the life-giving light he exudes and is ever so willing to share.

Put in less prosaic terms: Dallas stays true to its schemes and principles regardless of the situation and its crunch time offense is so much the better for it. So while the easy story is to say that the Mavs are enjoying this success because they’ve finally shed their "soft" label, the far more accurate tale should focus on the fact that Dallas is simply unwavering in its identity. And that has far less to do with toughness than it does to a tireless devotion to proper execution.

The looming dénouement to this particular postseason’s passion play lies in the fact that the Mavericks’ likely Finals opponent is none other than the Miami Heat, a team that has had well-documented issues with its propensity to devolve into superstar isolation mode. Miami has certainly shown improvement in that regard thus far in the playoffs, but still suffers from the occasional fit of handing the ball to a member of its Big Three while the other four players on the floor stand around watching.

It is, in fact, a testament to the breathtaking skill of the Heat’s triumvirate that Miami has repeatedly come through in the clutch despite an excessive reliance on hero shots. LeBron James especially has delivered time and time again, most memorably against Boston and Chicago, but you’d be hard pressed to call many of his big shots the by-product of exquisite offensive execution. Far more often he has, for lack of a better term, pulled a Kobe, winning the day and bucking the odds by hitting shots of extreme degree of difficulty. To be sure, Nowitzki has done this too, but when he’s done so it’s often come in the flow of Dallas’ offense, whereas James’ heroics have frequently had more one-on-one origins.

If Miami does move on to face Dallas then, this delicious matchup would not just be a mere grudge match of the 2006 Finals. Nor would it be as simple as the Good vs. Evil motif that is sure to be bandied about by the population at large. What it likely would be, however, is a fascinating contrast of crunch time style. Can Dallas’ execution hold up in the face of Miami’s withering defense? Can the Heat keep relying on acts of singular brilliance to carry the day in the clutch? Or will the Mavericks make Miami rise to their level of offensive trust and telepathy – in other words, conform or be conquered – in order to emerge victorious?

Fascinating questions all. The answers won’t provide a final referendum on the issue of the most effective means of crunch time execution – the sample size will be far too small for that – but you better believe the topic will be front and center on several occasions. Kobe Bryant might not be involved, but the discussion was never really about him, anyway. This is a matter of basketball philosophy, plain and simple. And in a matter of days it could be time to choose a side, consider the evidence and watch as the players make their closing arguments on the court.

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May 19, 2011

That might be the best 85-75 game I’ve ever seen.

I can certainly see how Wednesday night’s Game 2 between Chicago and Miami wouldn’t be for everyone. It most definitely was not a fast-breaking, highlight-making, high-scoring frenzy. Points were at a premium, the pace was plodding and the fourth quarter scoring (14-10 in favor of Miami) seemed more befitting of a game between the Bears and Dolphins.

What this was, however, was an uber-intense, bloody and beguiling tug of war with strategic nuance and storylines galore. Erik Spoelstra’s desperate search for a spark. Udonis Haslem’s resounding response. LeBron James coming through in the clutch (again). The defensive clinic both clubs combined to put forth. This was grind-it-out, every-possession-counts basketball at its best and, as far as I’m concerned, it feels downright greedy to ask for five more games following this same sort of blueprint – not that that’s going to stop me from asking, of course.

I bring this up because yesterday I listened to ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report and his guest, Chuck Klosterman, floated forth the idea of doing away with the NBA’s best-of-seven format and turning the playoffs into a single elimination affair. The gist of his argument: we’re all hoping for a winner-take-all Game 7 anyway, replete with all its inherent drama, passion and intensity, so why not skip the buildup – and the possibility and downright likelihood of a series ending before a seventh game even takes place – and skip straight ahead to the high stakes moment of truth right off the bat.

I get what he’s saying. The NCAA employs that format for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and everyone, myself included, positively adores March Madness. But with all due respect to Klosterman and the NCAA’s preferred methodology, give me the NBA’s postseason structure any day of the week.

There’s just so much beauty in the best-of-7 buildup: the rhyme and rhythm of each game layering upon the next; the coaches learning, adapting and shifting their strategies on the fly; the utter helplessness of a player whose weaknesses have been exploited and exposed; the overdue appreciation and rise to prominence for role players accustomed to spending the regular season in the shadows of the stars who own the spotlight; the euphoria and exultation of the team that digs deep and finds a way to endure.

Single elimination basketball is a pop song, possessing the potential to demand our full attention on the strength of a well-crafted hook or anthemic chorus. Best-of-seven hoops, meanwhile, when played at the highest levels, can be a full-blown symphony, complete with a blissfully exhausting series of ups and downs, each movement containing enough subtle tones and textures that it can take weeks to unravel and identify them all.

The Heat and Bulls appear well on their way to composing just such a masterpiece and we are the lucky beneficiaries. While they slave away, feverishly working to figure out the next notes, we simply get to sit back and bear witness to the sights, sounds and beauty, both brutal and beautiful, playing out before us.

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May 12, 2011

I’m about to ask for the impossible.

In this day and age, replete with a 24-hour news cycle, countless blogs and myriad voices straining to rise above the din, it’s hardly surprising that much, if not the vast majority, of the media content produced is filled with breathless snap takes that frequently dissect the latest big event in a vacuum rather than applying context to the bigger picture. This phenomenon is not unique to sports, of course – it’s just as prevalent in political coverage as well – but though the subject matter is certainly of far less import than what’s taking place in world affairs, the wild exaggerations and reckless leaps of logic are just as maddening.

True story: Several years ago, I actually felt the need to stop listening to sports radio on a regular basis precisely because the non-stop barrage of head-shaking proclamations wore on me to such an extent that I felt as if I could literally feel my blood boiling just beneath the surface. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. For my own peace of mind and quality of life, I had to take a step back and avoid the staggering lack of perspective filtering through the airwaves, battering my brain on a daily basis.

So now that I’ve painted myself as perhaps the least likeable form on the sports coverage landscape – that of the elitist, above-the-fray, pretentious curmudgeon – allow me an admission: I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ve played my part and participated in, knowingly or otherwise, exactly the same sort of thing which I’ve come to rail against. Heck, search the archives of this website and I’m sure it wouldn’t require much effort to uncover several examples when I’ve rushed to judgment without providing the proper perspective necessary to truly produce an accurate interpretation of what just took place.

Nonetheless, fruitless as this request might be, I’d like all of us, myself included, to do our best to pause, even if for just a moment, to contemplate the true meaning of the messages we’re putting forth from this point forward. Think critically. Contemplate context. Examine the issue from all sides. Put real thought into the entirety of the argument. Then, and only then, may we proceed. (And, yes, I realize I’m probably losing likeability by the second, especially since I just spent an entire paragraph echoing the sentiment your high school English teacher attempted to hammer home every day.)

I say all this because, in my mind at least, the first month of the NBA postseason has essentially been one giant label-shattering, myth-busting passion play. San Antonio’s experience mattered more than anything until it didn’t. Brandon Roy wept and was a broken man until he singlehandedly orchestrated one of the great comebacks in NBA postseason history. Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki are setting records for the number of times a single player can shake (and then reclaim) the dreaded, amorphous “soft” label. Chris Bosh was chided and called a chicken after admitting the electric Game 3 atmosphere in Boston adversely affected him, before bouncing back and (at least temporarily) quieting some of the catcalls with a big time performance in Game 4. Then, of course, there is LeBron James, arguably the greatest player in the game the last several years, whose epic performances of postseasons past still were not enough in the minds of many to establish his “clutch” credentials until he bolstered his rep with at least a half-dozen pressure-packed plays to take out the Celtics. Of course, should James fall short in his quest for his first title this summer, we all know the masses will be only too quick to turn on him once more.

Such is the fickle nature of life in the spotlight, I suppose. But that shouldn’t mean we can’t strive to do better in the way we digest and discuss these dramatic events in our daily discourse. These players and teams are doing everything they can to step up their games every day. So, too, should we.

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May 9, 2011

It’s so tempting to see it as a triumph of good over evil. That is, after all, the storyline anytime the Lakers lose, right? And to be sure there has, quite understandably, been a massive amount of celebration in the hours following LA’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, as NBA denizens (prematurely?) rejoice the fall of the current Lakers empire.

Of course, in these parts painting Dallas as the “good” part of any narrative is a pretty tough sell, likely akin to attempting to convince a member of the Kardashian clan that life can be better lived away from the view of cameras (at least it would be better for us, that is). Taking a rooting interest, then, when the subject is Mavs-Lakers is very much a matter of cheering for the lesser of two evils, never leaving anything even remotely close to a wholly satisfying taste in one’s mouth, no matter the ultimate outcome.

With that in mind, perhaps the best way to view the result of that series is not as a triumph of good, per se, but rather a victory for the art form that is beautiful basketball. Put simply, Dallas’ offensive execution was a joy to behold (except for the Lakers and their fans, of course), picking apart LA’s defense time and time again, the end result of which often was a wide-open shot from beyond the arc, looks the Mavericks knocked down again and again (and again). And no matter one’s feelings toward the Mavs, that sort of exquisite ball movement, spacing and unselfishness surely must always appeal to the basketball purist that resides in each of our hearts. That was, after all, precisely what made the Rockets such a wonderful watch following the All Star break, as Houston’s players embarked upon a six-week run that frequently saw them carve up opponents with a similarly well-executed offensive attack that was, at times, run with such surgical precision it proved nearly impossible to stop.

Furthermore, it’s funny now to read about the Lakers’ supposed need to blow everything up with an eye toward injecting more youth and athleticism into their lineup. Certainly those things would be helpful to a certain degree but such a suggestion also seems somewhat silly in light of what just took place. Los Angeles did not lose to a team filled with jackrabbits who can jump out of the gym. The Lakers lost because Dallas executed its offense to perfection and mercilessly exploited the mismatches it had in its favor while LA suffered innumerable breakdowns on both ends of the floor. Would younger legs and better athletes have helped in that regard? Sure. But proper adherence to schemes and fundamental hoops principles would have helped even more.

To be sure, talent is, was and always will be the most important part of the championship equation. But basketball’s true beauty is only fully revealed when that talent congeals into something that sees five men on the floor moving with one mind, artfully probing and picking apart its opponent. For four games against the Lakers, Dallas did just that. And the end result, no matter one’s rooting interest, should be considered a win for basketball lovers worldwide.

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May 5, 2011

One of the most beautiful aspects of the NBA playoffs is also its most gruesome.

With only one opponent to focus on and back-to-backs in the rearview mirror, teams plying their trade in the postseason are given the opportunity to gameplan and prepare at such a high level that any perceived weakness is likely to be exposed – frequently time and time again.

The effect can be jarring and at times brutal to watch, as clubs find their opponent’s soft spot, then set about the process of bludgeoning that vulnerable area into submission. Once exposed, there is no hiding. It’s simply basketball Darwinism on display, the strong preying upon the weak until the latter fades into extinction.

This mesmerizing dance was on full display last night during Dallas’ shocking 93-81 trouncing of the two-time defending champion Lakers, a win that gave the Mavericks a 2-0 series lead. Watching the way the Mavs methodically picked apart one of the league’s best defenses, it was difficult to discern what was more shocking: the fact Dallas, an exceptionally poor postseason road team over the last several years, was on the verge of taking two straight on LA’s home floor, or the way in which the Mavs went about slicing and dicing the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

With the game hanging in the balance, Dallas repeatedly put the ball in J.J. Barea’s hands 35-feet away from the basket and ran a high screen and roll with Dirk Nowitzki setting the pick. What followed was not unlike watching the way a mongoose might toy with a weary, vexed and wholly outclassed king cobra. Time after time, Barea slipped free from the Lakers’ poor pick and roll coverage, enjoying unfettered access into the paint for a floater, layup or easy dish leading to a Dallas dunk.

Seeing the champs dismantled in such fashion wasn’t just shocking, it was downright disturbing. Their quest for a three-peat seemingly slipping away, the Lakers were helpless (or, perhaps more accurately, hopeless) to defend themselves. For those who can stomach examining the macabre massacre in finer detail, NBA Playbook.com’s Sebastian Pruiti expertly breaks it down here.

Los Angeles is not yet done, of course. One assumes that so long as Kobe Bryant and company still have life, the potency of the Lakers’ venom still possesses the capacity to turn the tide and put Dallas back on its heels. But the fact remains: through the series’ first two games, save for one awful stretch late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter of Game 1, the Mavericks have been the better team. They have kept Kobe out of the paint (stunning stat: Bryant has just a single made field goal inside 10-feet so far in the series), Nowitzki has been unguardable (his fadeaway has taken its place, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, in the pantheon of the most incomprehensibly impossible-to-defend shots in basketball history) and the vast majority of the mismatches are playing out in Dallas’ favor.

In short, the Lakers must either adapt or face annihilation. Such is life in the jungle that is the NBA postseason. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, filled with moments sure to make your heart leap and soul sing. But there exists a darker side, too; one which reminds that sooner or later nature will take its course and weakness will be exposed and extinguished – often in the most merciless and brutal way imaginable.

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April 28, 2011

Kevin Durant totally thwarted my plan.

Today’s post was supposed to be about bidding adieu to two of the first round’s feel good stories, the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. Though both teams lost in five games to superior clubs, each gained well-deserved attention, appreciation and admiration for the way they battled to the end and gave their opponents all they could handle from start to finish.

Initially thought to be little more than speed bumps, the Pacers and Sixers instead refused to roll over while showcasing an intriguing mix of young talent and killer coaching that could portend brighter days for a pair of franchises that have endured their fair share of suffering over the last several years. Countless columns could and should be devoted to the coaching work turned in by Indiana’s Frank Vogel and Philly’s masterful Doug Collins. And it was equally superb to witness the way players like the Pacers’ Paul George and Sixers’ Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday rose to the occasion with the sort of savvy and poise that belied their age and inexperience.

I had every intention to wax poetic about those guys. And then Kevin Durant happened. (Actually, then Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal and the more-lives-than-a-cat Spurs happened, but I’ve already written about that franchise’s extraordinary ethos. Let’s face it, right now the NBA playoffs are so freaking good it would require an army of writers working around the clock to capture everything and do it justice. Thankfully, the internet has precisely provided just such a service, making this, in a way, a golden age not just for hoops competition at the highest level, but for the delightfully diverse way the game is being covered as well).

Watching the way Durant eviscerated Denver down the stretch Wednesday night, it was impossible not to be tempted into thinking that the Oklahoma City superstar had made the leap from transcendent talent to full-on, fear-me-for-I will-tear-your-heart-out playoff assassin. Sure, he’s won the league’s scoring title two seasons running and, yes, he brought home a gold medal at last summer’s World Championships, but we all know basketball players in this country are ultimately judged by the amount of success they attain in the NBA postseason.

Last year, Durant’s first foray into the world of playoff basketball, provided the then 21-year-old forward with a harsh reminder of how far he still had to go when the Lakers’ Ron Artest largely bottled up Durant with the sort of physical, in your face defense that still gives him problems from time to time. It’s important to remember, however, that Durant did get better as the series wore on, especially in terms of contributing in other aspects of the game, at one point memorably providing lockdown late-game defense on Kobe Bryant to help Oklahoma City battle back before ultimately falling in six games to the eventual champs.

Suffice to say, Durant took yet another step forward last night, exploding down the stretch to score 14 points in the game’s final three minutes and 30 seconds, as the Thunder overcame a nine-point deficit during that time to dispatch Denver once and for all. It’s difficult to say what was more mesmerizing: Durant’s spectacular play, or the unbridled emotion and sheer force of will that seemed to say, “I will not let us lose.” Without question, he had “the look” – that most mythic of characteristics sports fans love to attribute to all the great playoff performers. And real or imagined, it’s a vital part of the narrative we weave into the postseason fabric of our fandom.

Durant himself was quick to remind that he and his teammates still have so much more to accomplish. This was, after all, just the first round. Young as they are, the Thunder have all the talent and ingredients necessary to win it all – not next year, but right now. Are the odds stacked against them? Absolutely. Youthful, inexperienced teams like Oklahoma City’s aren’t supposed to ascend to the top of the NBA mountain without a few falls and setbacks along the way. But this club is so precociously talented that it just might be able to break the mold and speed through the title-winning process faster than any of us ever expected. And to do so, they likely need Durant to have truly made the transition from superstar to sublime.

So has he? Has he shown all the necessary ingredients integral to elevating his team to a championship? I tend to believe he has. But before we get too caught up in such questions, it’s important to recognize the folly that frequently follows those queries, too. Our impulse in such situations seems to imply that the only players worthy of residence in that pantheon are those capable of singlehandedly willing their teams to a title. But basketball is and always will be a team game. No man, leap-taker or not, is so supremely talented that he can simply carry a club to a championship himself.

Think back to May 31, 2007. That night a 22-year-old LeBron James scored 25 straight points, and 29 of his club’s final 30, to help Cleveland beat Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. If ever existed a night in which a player emphatically announced his arrival as a singular talent and force of nature on the world stage, that was it. One year later, he nearly lifted his overmatched Cavs past the eventual champion Boston Celtics, falling short in Game 7 only because of the similar brilliance of Paul Pierce and some unexpected (to say the least) fourth quarter heroics courtesy of P.J. Brown. The year after that, he hit an impossible shot at the buzzer in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals to help keep Cleveland afloat in a series that ultimately saw them succumb to the matchup nightmare that was the 2009 Orlando Magic.

Then last season James put up 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.2 rebounds per game in a losing effort against a Celtics team that ended up falling mere minutes short of another title. Of course, those numbers did little to take the heat off LeBron because that series was ultimately remembered for his curious effort in the momentum-shifting game 5; a turning point not just for the Cavaliers but for James as well, since it was at that precise moment his previous prodigious postseason performances were forgotten in the fog of one too many playoff defeats.

Suddenly the leap he made in the summer of 2007 and the myriad memorable, magical moments he’d conjured since then were lost at sea amid a tempest of doubt and skepticism regarding his crunch time credentials. 25 points in a row? No longer relevant. Buzzer beaters and all-world playoff performances? Big deal. A supporting cast that, while solid, was utterly devoid of All Star talent? Don’t wanna hear it. Without a ring to validate his greatness, James had gone from next big thing to underachiever in the court of public opinion.

There’s no denying the fact LeBron did little to help himself in that regard with certain regrettably poor P.R. decisions. Still, it seems similarly difficult to deny the fact he hasn’t exactly received the fairest treatment when the subject turns to his primetime, big moment prowess. The end result: now, not only must James find a way to propel his new team to a title, he must do so while fighting the phantoms of a shrinking violet reputation he’d seemingly expunged years ago, only to see it rise again, even more ghoulish than ever before.

Durant, then, would be wise witness what’s happened to LeBron and choose to steer clear of any and all suggestions that he’s made the leap and proven his playoff chops. The narrative can shift too suddenly. Not until he’s won a title (or possibly titles – just look at LA’s Paul Gasol who still can’t shake the soft label even after two championships and a gargantuan performance in last year’s Game 7) can he allow himself to even entertain such talk.

And the fact is, he shouldn’t have to. It’s on us to stop thinking in such binary terms as “superstar with rings = legit” while “superstar without = loser.” Context simply must be added to the conversation. If Kevin Garnett had spent his entire career with the Timberwolves, chances are he’d be retiring without a title to his name. We’d think less of him as a player. But is that his fault, or our own?

Every player, even the best of the best, requires plenty of help to reach the crown. Just because someone is his team’s biggest star doesn’t mean his burden is that of Atlas, shouldering the load on his own. That’s something we should never lose sight of, whether the subject of our focus is LeBron, who eventually left Cleveland in an effort to find better help, or Durant, who already has an exceptional supporting cast ready, willing and capable to help him fulfill his hoops destiny. Just look at last night’s game for proof; spectacularly great as Durant was, the Thunder don’t emerge victorious without Serge Ibaka’s block party down the stretch.

The NBA playoff tale currently unfolding before us has twists and turns aplenty as it is. Better yet, there are so many more still to come. There’s no need, then, for us to jump to conclusions. For now let’s leave the leaping to the players.

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April 26, 2011

I recognize the need to tread carefully here. The San Antonio Spurs, as we’ve come to know them for more than a decade, are not yet dead, but they are on life support. And while I completely understand those who feel the dynasty’s demise is not just inevitable but now at hand, especially in light of the thorough dismantling received at the hands of the Grizzlies Monday night, it seems inappropriate to write an epitaph so long as the patient still breathes and continues to cling to the hope of revival.

Still, it’s impossible not to feel a flood of emotions at a time like this. The recollection and reminiscing of days gone by, which so often accompanies such situations, has already begun. Love them or hate them, the Tim Duncan-led Spurs mattered and made an indelible mark on the NBA. It’s only right, then, that those who passionately follow the game would start the process of coming to terms with their feelings and preparing themselves for the final moment.

What strikes me as interesting, and at least somewhat surprising, about the early returns of this public outpouring is the overwhelmingly positive tenor and tone of the sentiment expressed. Remember, these are the San Antonio Spurs we’re talking about. During their banner-raising heyday, there was no shortage of invective hurled their way as the masses bemoaned the Spurs’ signature style and lack of flair. They were, exceedingly unfairly in my opinion, branded boring; an outfit utterly devoid of charm, charisma and anything even remotely resembling fun.

Today, however, no such words seem to be spoken. The talk is much more akin to that of a nation respectfully recalling the golden age of a king making final preparations for his voyage to Valhalla. Which is as it should be. And quite frankly, how it should have been all along.

Because, I’m sorry, the “boring” label is and always was bunk. No, the in-their-prime Spurs were not the Showtime Lakers, but they sure as heck weren’t the ’96-’97 Cavaliers, either. San Antonio got a bad rap for the fact its Finals appearances were largely grind-it-out affairs that were perhaps not easily accessible or aesthetically appealing to a general public whose hoops palate had grown to prefer a fast food diet consisting of fast breaks and shake-and-bake, ankle-breaking isos. But let us not forget that styles make fights.

So if you want to complain about the unwatchability factor of San Antonio’s 2005 Finals matchup with the Pistons that’s fine, just make sure you also bring to mind the Spurs’ epic series of showdowns with the Suns over the years, not to mention San Antonio’s sensational 7-game conference semifinal series against Dallas in 2006 – only one of the best, most entertaining playoff series you could ever wish to see.

And feel free to decry the flopping and frequent incredulous looks cast at officials, just don’t forget to hold your own favorite players and teams to the same standard.

The truth is the Spurs were once so good that they could emerge victorious regardless of style. Crank up the pace as the Suns loved to do and San Antonio still found a way to outscore them. Get down and dirty in a defensive struggle and the Spurs would happily strangle and suffocate opponents like an anaconda constricting its prey until it lay limp and lifeless.

San Antonio played the right way, masterfully executing their gameplan on offense while incorporating a defensive intensity that often left them second to none. And they conducted their business the right way, too, using their own unique form of alchemy to weave luck, talent and ahead-of-the-curve vision into long-term, small-market gold.

So regardless of whether we’re witnessing the championship window closing once and for all on these Spurs, or if they still have one more Houdini-esque escape left in their bag of tricks, it’s good to see a nation of hoops devotees ready to pay them their proper respects. TNT’s Kenny Smith – A Houston Rocket at heart and, as such, a natural enemy of the Spurs – seemed sincerely choked up at the prospect of this being San Antonio’s final rodeo. I think I know why. A multiple title winner himself, Smith has full appreciation for the sacrifice and commitment it takes to climb the top of the mountain. He knows what it feels like to sit on the NBA throne and how heavy is the head that wears the crown. There is mutual respect. There is admiration. All earned. And all to be considered and kept in mind whenever the time comes for us to bid farewell to a team that represented itself with the sort of regality befitting all the once and future basketball kings born to reign.

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April 25, 2011

The NBA playoffs are the ultimate meritocracy among major North American sports.

If you prefer your cream rising to the top, the NBA postseason was made for you. For those who like a little more unpredictability along the road to a title, however, life in the Association can sometimes appear a tad too preordained.

That divide, in my opinion anyway, lies at the core of the conversation between those who love to compare the respective merits of the NBA playoffs versus those of the NCAA’s basketball tournament. I’ve personally been involved in a countless number of these debates, as has most anyone who considers himself or herself a hoops aficionado.

In my mind, it breaks down like this: March Madness is all about unpredictability and the underdogs. Single elimination means you never know what’s going to happen or who’s going to emerge with a title, all of which makes for highly-entertaining, easy access theater regardless of whether you follow college hoops during the regular season or not. Conversely, the NBA’s best-of-7 format grants a considerable advantage to the superior team. Bad night and can’t get a shot to fall? No biggie. Your undermanned and overmatched opponent still has to take you down three more times before the upset is complete. Far more often than not, this results in the better team moving on; in fact, I would argue that even when upsets actually do take place, it typically still was the best team that won – we just didn’t recognize or appreciate their superiority at the start of the series. You just don’t fluke your way into four wins. You have to earn each and every one.

This key difference – not to mention the discrepancy in talent, experience and execution – is why I think it’s rather pointless to even bother comparing the college tourney to the pro postseason. It’s akin to comparing an In-N-Out burger to a top notch filet mignon. Sure, both are beef and most definitely mouth-wateringly delicious, but in the end you’re really talking about two completely different meals. Your preference might be different than mine, but stacking them side by side seems sort of silly in the first place.

So why even bother bringing this up? Because one week into the 2011 NBA playoff extravaganza, our tender, succulent first round filet seems to have been served with a side order of animal fries. Fantastic finishes. Heart-pounding performances. Shocking results. It’s as if March Madness morphed into April Absurdity, bestowing upon basketball fans the perfect mix of bedlam and beauty.

Take this past weekend, for example. Eight games took place and all were decided by five points or fewer save one, and even the lone exception proved entertaining as a limping and languid Knicks team did its best to erase a massive deficit and stave off elimination before eventually succumbing to the vastly superior Celtics. Everything else, however: nothing short of hoops heaven served on a silver platter. Indiana, continuing to give the best-record-in-the-NBA Bulls all they can handle. The Grizzlies getting their first-ever home playoff win thanks to a Zach Randolph 3-pointer on a broken play. Philadelphia refusing to lie down and in the process resurrecting Miami’s late-game demons. Chris Paul looking like the best player in the NBA. Again. And, yes, Bradon Roy’s magical, mystical, memorable soul-stealing murder of the shell-shocked Mavs.

You want easily-accessible sports theater played at the highest level? This weekend was the NBA equivalent of Westley staring soulfully at Buttercup while whispering, “As you wish.” Even my parents, whose typical threshold for sports watching ranks somewhere between nil and nonexistent, had no problem spending the vast majority of their Saturday afternoon and evening watching the better part of all four games that day. You’ll be hard pressed to find a greater testament to the compelling drama and exceptionally high quality of those ten hours of basketball than that.

The lesson as always in this blog: savor every second of this extraordinary postseason. Sure, it’s still likely the favorites will flex their muscle and reestablish superiority. The eventual champion is still almost certainly to come from a 4-team group that consists of Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Chicago. But who knows? Maybe Oklahoma City’s exceptional talent truly can trump its youth and lack of experience. Who’s to say Chris Paul can’t conjure more magic? There is but one certainty at this point: the cream will eventually rise to the top as it always does in the NBA. But other than that, everything else appears up in the air; meaning whether your taste leans toward a trip to In-N-Out or tenderloin, you’re sure to come away satisfied.

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April 21, 2011

Show me a classic epic tale and I’ll show you an equally memorable villain.

You can’t have one without the other. Someone or something has to provide the necessary conflict to heighten the drama and amp up the adversity our heroes must overcome. Remove Darth Vader and there is no Star Wars. Indiana Jones would be just another architect without the Nazis. Strip away Snooki from the Jersey Shore and, well… you’re still left with a cast of insufferable humans capable of converting even the most fundamentally optimistic people into a pack of J.D. Salingers. But you get the point.

Good vs. evil. Darkness and light. It’s all part of the essential yin and yang needed to draw us in, pique our interest and compel us to keep watching.

This, then, is an ode to the villains who make the NBA playoffs must-see TV. Whether they provoke fear and dread or just plain loathing, there’s no denying the fact they make the games infinitely more interesting. It’s a tribute to the power they possess that the passion evoked can be so intense there exists those moments, perhaps more than we’d care to admit, when cheering against them can be just as enjoyable, if not more so, than cheering for our favorites.

Oftentimes the contempt is rational – unless you’re a Lakers fan, Kobe Bryant’s talent will always evoke terror, while the shark face he unveils in the postseason produces pure repugnance – but there are also exceptions to the rule. As a child I always had it in for Denver’s Bill Hanzlik. To this day I still can’t explain it. Most likely it had to do with his knack for being the consummate basketball pest. But maybe it was just the ‘stache. All I know is that any time the Rockets paid a visit to Denver, by the second quarter Hanzlik inevitably had me so consumed with utter disdain that I’m pretty sure my parents harbored not completely unwarranted concern that they might have given birth to the spawn of Satan – at which point I’d remind them in a voice calm but filled with barely controllable rage that since they were, presumably, not the ones responsible for bringing Hanzlik into this world they clearly had nothing to worry about.

I’ve matured a lot since then. Instead of summoning the spirit of antichrist, these days I’ve learned to channel my anger into more productive things like punching pillows and profanity – you know, all the tell-tale signs of healthy, well-adjusted adulthood. When Kobe’s jaw juts out, the fury still simmers, but doesn’t fester. When Dirk Nowitzki drains another dagger and Mark Cuban dances with glee, I suppress the urge to strangle the gloating Mavs fan, who frequently doubles as a friend in non-hoops situations, with the “MFFL” shirt he’s wearing. You know why? Because I finally realized sporting life is way more fun when filled with people and teams you love to hate.

So bask in the beauty of a Chris Paul pick-and-roll. Marvel at the magnificence of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But appreciate, too, the service provided by the sultans of scorn. Whether your rancor is reserved for the likes of the Lakers or Heat, understand that life is more fun with them around. They are the perfect foils for a playoff tale that promises to provide its fair share of heart-pounding moments. They are the villains who provide meaning and purpose to the journey. Fear them. Respect them. And keep hoping like heck that good triumphs over evil and the Hanzliks of the world get defeated once and for all.

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April 19, 2011

How can a running feature dedicated to celebrating NBA basketball not begin by waxing poetic on the exploits of Derrick Rose? Forget for a moment, if you can, the issue of whether or not he deserves to be named the league’s most valuable player. What matters far more than any mere MVP is that he is the story – and luckily for us, that story is still being written.

The 22-year-old man-child seemingly comes straight out of Commissioner Stern’s central casting: electric, young, humble, hardworking and highlight-friendly with a flair for the dramatic and a precocious proclivity toward letting his actions do all the talking. He appears to have the uncompromising vision of Howard Roark, smoldering intensity of Aragorn and awe-inspiring wizardry of Harry Potter, all packaged together in such a way that he increasingly provokes opponents into feeling the same sort of unholy fear and dread Judge Holden produced in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Why all the forced literary references? Because after Rose kick-started this postseason with a positively ridiculous 39-point, 6 rebound, 6 assist, so-dominant-down-the-stretch-Danny Granger-compared-him-to-a “crazy stalker ex-girlfriend” performance, then followed it up with a gritty 36-8-6 encore Monday night, Chicago’s hometown hero is quite likely on the verge of being made myth himself (yes, even more than he already has).

Those who touted Rose as MVP will use his latest heroics as the exclamation point at the end of their argument. Those ready to anoint him the worthy successor to MJ will polish the throne and bid him forward. There will be hushed tones, hype and hyperbole galore. John Hollinger’s email server will crash. And chances are Rose will choose to ignore it all, just as he’s done all year. My suggestion: do as his Bulls teammates do and simply follow his lead.

Because the thing is, to make too much of this or any other game actually does a disservice to the man himself. And if you don’t believe me, just take a step back and look at the recently completed regular season Rose put together. Everyone agrees he was brilliant, mesmerizing and an absolute joy to watch. But once Rose unwillingly became the polarizing focal point of the MVP discussion, the endless debate and increasingly heated ad hominem attacks transformed some of that joy into jaded, jaundiced cynicism. The bloom, as it were, came off the Rose. And the fault was no one’s but our own.

So let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. Feel free to revel in Rose’s crunch time cajones. Bask in his otherworldly block-on-one-end, spinning-layup-at-the-other combo. Rejoice at the fact we’re privileged to watch a player work so hard in an effort to make the most of his extraordinary talent every day.

The playoffs just began. The big picture stuff can wait. Derrick Rose’s story is still being written. And the best thing we can do right now is simply sit back, get comfortable, settle in and prepare to savor every single scintillating second.

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A child in Memphis just became a lifelong basketball fan this weekend. A Memphis adult, meanwhile, just had his fan card validated.

Spare me the snark about how that paragraph provides an accurate representation of the actual number of Grizzlies fans in existence. It’s a franchise and fan base that have been through their fair share of lean times to be sure. But every team requires a rallying point, a moment when history is made and the long, slow churn of time begins to curdle and form into something that will some day be known as “tradition.”

This is how it starts. With an underdog team expertly turning defense into offense. With Tony Allen popping his jersey with pride. With Zach Randolph dominating down low down the stretch. With Marc Gasol forging his own path and making his own name in the family. And with an original member of the Memphis clam coming back to town to deliver the biggest shot in franchise history.

A word about Shane Battier, if I may. I spent the better part of the last four seasons covering his time with the Rockets. I can’t pretend to be unbiased but I’ll try. Everything you’ve heard about him is legit. Off the court he’s pure class all the way and a joy to be around; on it, he’s likely lost a step defensively while being reduced to little more than post-ups and spot-ups on the offensive end. Still, his mind is as sharp as ever and he remains a master of the intangibles that frequently make the difference in close games. Like being in the right place at the right time, for instance. Then possessing the capacity and chutzpah to make the most of that moment.

Battier did, and as a result, tales of redemption were written rather than rehashing the virtues of experience. Instead of bemoaning the Grizzlies’ bevy of missed free throws and missed assignments on D, the focus fell on a roster full of reclamation projects that found a way to transform itself into a formidable postseason foe: Randolph, from head case to head of the class; Gasol, from doughy younger brother to dynamite sibling du jour; Allen, from “trick or treat” to simply tremendous. Heck, even the Grizzlies’ General Manager Chris Wallace, the NBA’s unofficial active league leader in being the butt of bad sportswriter jokes, surely is being seen in a somewhat different light today.

The lesson: sure, experience matters; but so too does one’s ability to overcome adversity. And Memphis, much as so many of its players have done this season, managed to atone for earlier sins by bouncing back from a litany of late-game errors to secure victory with the sort of poise one expects from the wise and wily Spurs, finishing the game on a 7-0 run to secure the first postseason win in franchise history.

Grizzlies fans, you have your rallying point. You have a game to remember and a gang to be proud of. Cherish them both. Create tradition. Write poems. Sing songs. Or simply run circles around the living room screaming your head off. Show the Memphis kids who received their basketball baptism on Sunday what it means to be a fan going forward so that when the day comes, sometime in the far-off future, young and old can gather together with smiles to share and stories to swap about the fateful day you both knew you’d been blessed with Grizzlies fever forever.

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