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NBA Playoffs Thoughts

May 29, 2011

Hey all. I hope everyone else is enjoying this NBA playoffs as much as I have been. If you know me at all, you've probably heard this take from me before, but, man, the NBA Playoffs just completely crush March Madness. For the shade-tree basketball fan, I think March Madness probably has the edge, because there are so many games in such a short period of time -- which, of course, leads to a lot of upsets and everyone gets so vested in their brackets. I think Blue Collar Bob loves to get behind the George Masons and Northern Iowas and VCUs, and there's definitely a David-and-Goliath element at play that is absent from the NBA playoffs. Of course, that completely ignores the fact that oftentimes teams like VCU don't deserve to play for a title in the first place. In the Colonial Athletic Association, the Rams finished two games behind a Hofstra team that was playing in the NIT and didn't boast any impressive non-con victories, either. Under what criteria did they get in? They didn't do well in conference, they didn't distinguish themselves in the non-con, and they didn't even finish strong in their last handful of games, winning three of their last eight. #grounds4investigation.

I just can't take college basketball too seriously when the best team so infrequently wins the championship and teams that have no business being there -- like VCU -- completely disrupt a tournament full of deserving teams. The format makes for an entertaining experience, for sure, but to me it's kind of like watching the Fast and the Furious series: it's a helluva good time, no doubt, but in of itself nothing I'm going to nominate for critical acclaim. How can million-dollar contracts and the futures and fortunes of so many men that run these programs be decided by this ridiculous format? Actually, wait a minute ... this sounds a lot like the tournament poker circuit. Butler coach Brad Stevens was the huge beneficiary of these "basketments." (To non-avid poker players, cash game players, the most skilled segment of poker players, refer to poker tournaments as donkaments, because often donks -- or bad players -- win). During his back-to-back championship game run, his teams won so many games where it literally could have gone the other way. I'm still trying to figure out how the Bulldogs won that Pitt game, where a Pitt player missed a free throw late that essentially would have ended the game with 1.4 seconds left. Instead, ole boy misses the free throw and somehow Butler's Matt Howard gets fouled like 90 feet from the basket while attempting an impossible full-court shot. As my fellow Bostonian friend Kissler would say "Are you Seriousssssss!!!!???" Of course, kudos to Stevens for having his team in every one of those games, but he had some incredible luck to get to consecutive championship games and got a 12-year extension and millions from it. Shaka Smart made out in this, too, going from a coach that didn't even have his team together for a Selection Sunday rally -- can you blame him? -- to a guy who somehow got in the tournament and rattled off upset after upset en route to a Final Four. Knocking out Kansas was probably the biggest shock of the tournament. The result? Being courted by programs a few tiers above his, ultimately forcing VCU to throw eight years and millions Smart's way. Weird how things can play out in the fantasy world that is March Madness, where if you replayed the tournament five times, you'd have vastly different results nearly every time. They could probably play last year's tournament 100 times and you wouldn't see Butler and VCU in the Final Four. It's insane, really, and that madness is what people love. Perhaps I'm a basketball purist, but I like seeing the absolute premiere talent in the world play a best-of-seven games series and seeing who comes out on top in a back-and-forth chess match of adjustments and matchups.

It's amazing that after watching these NBA playoffs so many surprising transformations took place. Kobe and the favored Lakers aged four years in less than four weeks. Dirk went from a great player who was known for a Finals meltdown to one drawing Larry Bird comparisons. Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies became an unstoppable team you didn't want to play, knocking off the No. 1-seeded veteran-laden Spurs squad, and the Heat transformed into a cohesive, clutch team that made others cry. Remember those late fourth-quarter stats where Heat were so inept all season? It was so hard to believe.
Probably two of the hardest things for me to believe during these playoffs was the ascension of the Grizzlies and the Mavs. How does your team take off like a rocket in the playoffs with a top-two player being out due to injury? Most would say Rudy Gay was the Grizzlies best player going into this season before he got hurt, as most would agree Caron Butler was the Mavs second-best player. With these guys, these teams weren't supposed to factor into the power structure of the NBA this season and battle for a title. Months later, without them against the top teams in the playoffs, they've swept the Lakers and completely dismantled the Spurs and Thunder. As my friend Harp has been known to say, "$hit's Wild!" So what happens to these teams had their stars been healthy? Things that make you go hmmmmmmmm.

I think the Heat's story this year is so fascinating. Once the trio united this off-season, they took so much flack for joining forces. Let me get this straight: If an athlete goes for the money, perhaps at the expense of a title in exchange for more stats and money, he's a joke and maligned, yet when these superstars joined forces, almost assuredly sacrificing their stats and money, it was something to flame? Interesting. Of course, how they did it was a joke, and LeBron didn't need to slow-roll Cleveland like he did, not to mention make a TV show out of his "Decision", but at the end of the day, these guys signed together because they wanted to win. I can't crucify them for that. After all, when you end your career without a ring like Marino and Barkley, it can be a lonely island with no return flight. If i'm an elite athlete who cares anything at all about my legacy, I'm going to do whatever I can to give myself as many cracks at a title as I can. It's funny how at the start of the year so many NBA experts were saying how good the Heat were going to be and how it was almost unfair. A lot of the basketball talking heads were saying, "Oh, Jordan would have never done this; he wouldn't have teamed up with Magic, etc, etc."
Basically it seemed like the ethics of free agency and the competitive balance in the NBA for the foreseeable future was in question because now all of the sudden three of the top 15, and arguably the very two best players on the planet, were now on the same team. Of course, I always found it interesting that Lebron was blasted for joining with Wade and Bosh, creating this allegedly unfair superpower. As I remember, they weren't even the favorites to win the NBA title heading into the season, the defending champion Lakers were. I suppose Kobe's titles should have asterisks by them because he was with Gasol, Odom, and Bynum? Where was all this superpower hatred when the Celtics did precisely the same thing a few years prior when KG and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce and Rondo?

Here's how the narrative changed just a few months into the NBA season. "Oh this is a terrible model to build a championship team around." "You can't win a title with two and a half players and a team full of scrubs." "Stars and scrubs won't work." "Give me a team full of working parts like Chicago." "Give me a gritty, experienced, deeper Boston team." "Give me Kobe Bryant, two dominant 7-footers, and the multi-talented near 7-foot-tall Lamar Odom." Another easy angle was, "So let me get this straight, you're going to put your faith in Eric "looks like he could be a substitute teacher" Spoelstra?" "I'll take Phil Jackson or Doc Rivers!"
It all made so much sense in the moment, as the Heat were tripping over their own feet, losing, seemingly, to every good team they played. They even lost to the newly assembled Knicks, and they couldn't stop a nose bleed. Now all of a sudden the Heat were a transparently terribly flawed team that nobody was picking to win the Finals. I think their topsy-turvy journey was perhaps the best route they could have taken, making their potential title triumph come with a lot more respect and a lot less hatred. Just think about it. Had the Heat ran through the NBA season like everyone thought they would, winning 70 games and won the Finals, all of those aforementioned pre-season sentiments would be brought to the forefront again, and everyone would be saying, "Of course they won, they have three of the top 15 players in the league!" Everyone would be clamoring to turn off the Heat. (Sorry had to insert one meatball media-esque Heat pun). That anti-Heat hate would be intensified. But after seeing them fight and struggle (and cry) like most teams do en route to a title, they are so much more humanized, and it seems like more of a triumph that should be applauded, not questioned with disdain. It was completely by accident of course, but I think this season played out for them as well as it possibly could have assuming they win it all.

All of that is nice, but I actually think the Mavericks are going to win the Title. Their offense is the most ridiculously fluid, hard-to-defend offenses I've seen in awhile. They have the most unstoppable player in the league at the moment who can get his shot off literally on anyone at anytime. How do you stop a 7-footer that shoots with a one foot fadeaway from as far out as the 3-point line who can also put the ball on the floor and score 48 points without making a single 3-pointer while missing only two shots? It seems like every possession Dirk isn't scoring, the ball is kicked out to someone behind the 3-point line. That player then pumps and the defender has to close out hard because everyone on this team can nail 3's. That guy either waits until the defender is in the air and draws a foul if possible, or waits until the defender flies by and drills the open 3. Or he just kicks it out to someone else who is wide open, or drives to the basket for a jumper or some other scoring opportunity presented from a five-on-four. Remember that closing game against the Lakers? I've never seen a team move the ball around and shoot like that. It was like they were playing with a six-on-four power play advantage the entire game. (With some of the fouls in that game, a penalty box would have been appropriate). It was ridiculous.
The Mavs also have that Ponce De Leon fountain of youth factor going on. If I'm opposing teams in the league, I'm launching an investigation into what's being dispersed in that locker room. Marion is playing like it's 2004, Kidd is playing like its '99, and J.J. Barea (the Danny Woodhead of the NBA) is playing like one of those guys who dices people up in those half-court three-on-three games at 24 Hour Fitness. And I haven't even mentioned Peja, whose career fell off a cliff before coming to the Mavs and somehow Jason Terry is playing the best basketball of his life in his 11th season. How are all of those things happening simultaneously for them in the playoffs? It's unbelievable if you think about it. You have to give a lot of credit to Dirk, who is the alpha dog and leader of this group, with a team full of aging veterans who seemed near their NBA expiration date, he's swept the defending champ and favored Lakers, and completely destroyed a young and very talented Thunder team in five games. Pretty damn impressive. What the Mavs have done this playoffs is way more impressive than the Heat, who have beaten a Celtics team whose most valuable player was playing with one arm and a Bulls team whose best player is a one-dimensional scorer yet to develop a jump shot and whose second best player is Carlos Boozer, who seems to always wear down and underwhelm in the post in the playoffs.

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