Hate the Playoffs, Love the Game?

God created the world in six days, so why does it take eight weeks to pick an NBA champion: A City Pages dialogue

There's Really No Reason Anyone But the Most Devout Followers of the Game Should Pay the Slightest Attention to the NBA Prior to March or So, Is There?

 

This involves an old argument between hardcore and casual NBA fans, so let me put it briefly.

I tend to agree with those folks who contend that playing an 82-game regular season schedule for the privilege of joining more than half of the league in the three-month playoff season (which I've heard more than one commentator, including ex-Wolves color guy Trent Tucker, refer to as the "real" season) is the most creative scam in professional sports, and likewise the most tedious. I have friends who actually mock me if I allude to watching an NBA game in the first half of the season, before mid-January or so.

I realize that on one level, what I'm describing here is no more or less than the Maginot line between serious and casual fans. And certainly there's room for fans on both sides of that line.

But there's an added wrinkle this year with the potential to make the long NBA season look like not only a bad joke but a practically inexcusable one. Of course I'm talking about the Lakers. If they can spend an entire season underachieving--fighting and preening like spurned candidates for homecoming queen--and then turn it on and ace the playoffs, then there's really no reason anyone but the most devout followers of the game should pay the slightest attention to the NBA prior to March or so, is there? Aren't Shaq and Kobe and the rest the league's worst nightmare now?

--Steve Perry, 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

 

I Don't Know What Kind of NBA Calvinism You're Endorsing Here, But Isn't the Deathbed Conversion a Central Tenet of American Mythology?

 

While your argument is not without merit, Steve, I frankly resent some of its less charitable implications about our nature. For instance, I've been underachieving for nearly two decades now in practically every field of human endeavor. Should I be forced to accept that lowly condition as the permanent state of things? I don't know what kind of NBA Calvinism you're endorsing here, but isn't the deathbed conversion a central tenet of American mythology? I think it's been firmly fixed in our political sphere that the term "youthful indiscretions" now applies to any event before one starts receiving an AARP discount.

To wit: Let the Lakers come to Jesus in their own time. Or as Phil Jackson might have it, let them escape the samsara of the regular season on their own time.

Before I start sounding like George Will pontificating on the Jeffersonian underpinnings of the infield-fly rule, I'm going to drag this argument down from the vertiginous altitude of the upper bleachers to the court itself. The Lakers will not be the NBA champions of the calendar year 2004. (They're not going to be the NBA champions in 2005 or 2006, either, but I'll save that Tiresias routine for another tragicomedy.) I've watched something like five out of eight quarters from the Houston series, and here's what I'm seeing:

 

1. The vaunted triangle offense is missing at least two points. Maybe three. Enough words have been wasted on Kobe's bizarre performance in his team's horrid non-showdown with Sacramento. I won't pretend to understand who's proving what to whom. Here's my best conjecture. Allen Iverson has found some kind of Malkovich portal into Kobe's head, and he's taken up residence there. Maybe he's got a weekly rate.

Here's another theory: While the country remains on alert-level magenta, Tom Ridge has secretly tipped off Kobe that there's a grenade contained somewhere in the ball and he's got to throw the pumpkin in the air within three seconds of catching it.

All I know for sure is that Iverson-cum-Kobe has been heaving up some shots that look familiar from my third grade days in youth-league, when the basket looked about six feet too high. When the shots drop (37 pts. against Portland at season's end; 36 against Houston last night), the Lakers look like a credible outfit with a ball hog. (see, the 2001 Sixers.) When they don't, the Lakers resemble an admittedly more gifted version of my third-grade youth league team. Or the 2004 Sixers.

 

2. The Glove, at this stage in his career, could best be described as a rather loose mitten. Maybe even a soft muff. I like the fact that Steve Francis is widely called Stevie by TV's ball-talkers (no idea what his friends call him, but I've got a hunch it's a good deal less cuddly). The nickname reminds me of some of Stevie Wonder's early Motown hits, which after generations of AM radio play, continue to really stir the soul, don't they? And yet I think one could safely say that Stevie Francis is never going to stir anyone's soul. Maybe he could stir a drink with a twizzle stick; perhaps a can of paint. And the fact that Stevie can sign, seal, and deliver on the Lakers front court to the tune of a triple-double does not bode well for the yellow-bellies.

 

3. On the subject of correspondence that is signed, sealed and delivered, I've never written a valentine to the Mailman. All I will say, then, is that I'd rejoice in seeing him retire without a ring on his finger. Call if spite if you must. I may not subscribe to strict Calvinism, but no just god likes a craven opportunist. If Malone were meant to win, it would have happened in the Mormon Jerusalem.

 

4. How long has it been since Shaq put up one of those 40-point shock-and-awe performances? We can all call him "the most dominant player in the game," like he were some Amazonian blond lady in PVC clothing who fulfills adult fantasies by the hour. Hey, he's 340 pounds and he wants to be a cop when he grows up. (Maybe I was on to something there with that costume-and-handcuff theme.) But it's starting to seem like a fantasy to me that Shaq is going come alive on offense during these playoffs. After the first half of Game One, Shaq has planted himself for interminable stretches on the left post--as if he were doing an impersonation of a Redwood tree in a stiff breeze. (His hands sure look like wood on the foul line; I like his chances better from half court at this juncture.) To tell you the truth, it wouldn't surprise me too much if some L.A. environmentalist who calls herself "Beautiful Oasis" tried to set up a platform on top of his shoulders, and then started camping out there.

Which is to say that Shaq is starting to look to me like the monument we all wish could be preserved forever, but who is fated to be cut down. For this is the fate of all things mighty and glorious.

--Michael Tortorello, 3:39 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

 

Where Is the Evidence That the Regular Season Doesn't Mean Anything And That Teams Somehow Bide Their Time Until the Playoffs?

 

Steve, what were the friends who mocked you for watching the NBA in January doing instead--catching football's Pro Bowl down in Hawaii? Watching The Apprentice, Extreme Makeover, or the bully-boy pontifications on Fox News? Coming out of Menard's with materials to rehab their basement? Reading War and Peace? Well more (or less) power to all those sorry bastards. Hope they had as much fun as I did watching the Wolves go 12-3 this January, led by the glorious exploits of NBA Player of the Month Kevin Garnett, who I would watch play pick-up ball for peanuts on a playground in August if he was willing to showcase his entire range of skills.

Where is the evidence that the regular season doesn't mean anything and that teams somehow bide their time until the playoffs? There are fewer upsets in the NBA playoff series than in any other team sport. Of the ten playoffs games in the books thus far this season, the higher-seeded team has yet to be beaten. If anything, an argument can be made that the rigors of the regular season produce a select group of teams of such obvious quality that many of the first-round matchups are predictable warmups for the big guns.

Tell me Steve, because you're a baseball fan--why do we have to wait 162 games, twice the amount of an NBA season, to find out the Yankees will be one of eight teams left for the postseason? At least Payton and Malone have to forego millions in salary for the Lakers to stockpile its daunting talent base.

Which brings me to Michael's entertaining screed, his transparent bid to wrest the moniker of the Big Aristotle from Shaq. I've seen seven of the eight quarters of the Lakers-Rockets series (thank god the million-watt doppler didn't show an untidy gust of wind in Pine City, prompting the weather masturbators to pre-empt coverage), and I think L.A.'s only problem is getting the Spurs in the second round. You're right about Payton; he's a 35-year old mitten who should be shifted over to Cuttino Mobley, because Little Stevie Francis (who I bet does a mean rendition of "Uptight") wouldn't be getting no triple-double with Kobe on him. And I can't say that I disagree with you about your distaste for Malone, that semi-ridin', Rogaine-shillin' he-man who ran at the sight of Magic Johnson's blood. But at least Malone understands what he signed on for, which was to be a high-profile pooper-scooper in the Kobe-Shaq circus.

And you may be right about Kobe, with that Iverson-Malkovich conspiracy theory. Hoops freak that I am, I liken it more to a higher-stakes version of the Marbury snit, whereupon Stephon thought he should be bigger than KG and took him enormous gifted game and even more enormous ego elsewhere to prove it. Now he's being quoted as saying Flip Saunders was the best coach he ever had and, following checkered stops in Jersey and Phoenix, is being mocked by his boys from Coney Island as the Knicks gets schooled in the playoffs.

But you're wrong about Shaq, Michael. The guy is still the most dominant player in the NBA, the one everyone fruitlessly schemes to contain, the one who is so incredibly powerful and quick for his size that it is nearly impossible to figure out whether he is charging or being fouled on more than a dozen plays every game. Whether he puts up 40-point shock-and-awes or not, he is the focal point. He is the Wilt Chamberlain of our era.

And Tim Duncan (another guy I know you dislike, Michael, you hopeless misanthrope) may be this era's Bill Russell. That's what makes the inevitable second-round Spurs-Lakers matchup so enticing and--are you listening, Steve?--so tough to predict. The Spurs are all about fundamental, maniacal, team defense. The Lakers, this year, anyway, are all about magical individual performers who may not equal the sum of their parts. I honestly don't know who will prevail--if you put a gun to my head right now, I'd say the Spurs in six. But I do know there hasn't been a more compelling second-round playoff pairing in any team sport in the last five years.

--Britt Robson, 5:07 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

 

Let's Talk About Why Every Responsible Citizen Should Despise the Lakers P>

 

Britt, I'm not really saying that the season is meaningless and the playoffs meaningful--I'm saying, at root, that one of them needs paring due to their combined, overwrought totality. And you provide the best possible evidence for that conclusion in your very next sentence: "There are fewer upsets in the NBA playoff series than in any other team sport."

Then, if so much about the playoffs is so pro forma, why are so fucking many teams in the playoffs to begin with? You've tacitly admitted that half of them are there solely to give the playoff-worthy teams someone to play in a superfluous-but-lucrative first round.

But enough of that wrangling. Let's talk about why every responsible citizen should despise the Lakers. Pro basketball is the most vulnerable sport there is when it comes to the boorish, vain celebrity antics of athletes--because individuals have a greater impact on the fate of a basketball team than of a baseball or football team. The celebrifying that goes on in the NBA may be the same as in the NFL or the major leagues from the standpoint of a Nike executive or a fan, but the fact remains that one or two guys with their heads on wrong can do way more to screw up an NBA team than it can in other sport.

What I'm circling around to saying here is that it's pretty fucking galling to watch two of the top three or four players in the whole league spoiling what ought to be an epic run of championships by going at each other in a celebrity cutting contest. I think Kobe Bryant is a self-centered jerk who will probably never get over himself sufficiently to lead a championship team. But you can't give Shaq a pass on the Lakers' chemistry troubles. It takes two to dance this kind of waltz for so long.

I even find myself wondering if Shaq might not relish sending Kobe away on a losing note, and winning next year without him. He can't be that petty, though--right?

--Steve Perry, 5:37 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

 

You Pay People Eight-Figure Salaries and You Get Vanity

 

Okay, if you're arguing that the regular season should be 65-70 games, or, better yet, a playoff round be removed by paring back the eligible teams from 16 to 8, I'm for it. But we all know it won't happen because it means less revenue. This isn't a problem limited to basketball, though. The NFL has jumped from 12 to 16 games (and expanded their playoffs), MLB has swollen from 154 games to 162 (and expanded their playoffs); hey, even the college ranks have increased their regular and playoff season menus. Surprise surprise, money talks in big-time sports.

I don't despise the Lakers. I think Kobe is a spoiled kid (albeit marvelously talented) who has never faced real, humbling adversity on the basketball court, in large part because he has gotten to play alongside Shaq. But I do feel good about giving Shaq a "free pass" because I think he's really matured over the years and I don't really think he's "part of the problem." I remember when Shaq was in Orlando and in the NBA finals against Houston, the Rockets management was so secure in the knowledge that Hakeem Olajuwon would dominate Shaq that they played Disney's "A Small World After All" on the PA system before the player announcements for Game One. (BTW, the Rockets swept that series.) I remember when Shaq was royally criticized for not concentrating on his game 365 days a year, having the gall to appear in movies and cut a rap record--terrible moves artistically, but certainly nothing to begrudge a kid in 20s for seizing when he had the opportunity. Besides, Shaq did steadily work on his game, most notably his passing, his footwork, and his defense, and three rings later, the critics were quiet. Because he exists in the celebrity bubble, Shaq does get his share of inane media questions and controversies, and I think his response to them has shown a great deal of humor, with a proper degree of absurdity thrown in to reveal his intelligence. They don't call him the Big Aristotle for nothin'.

Shaq was rightfully ripped for letting his body go some and then getting injured last season, probably costing the Lakers a fourth straight crown. But name me another player of his body type that hasn't battled nagging injuries--he could have been Stanley Roberts. Or Bill Walton, a notorious pothead who was forgiven his chronic foot injuries because he had one great season and is now allowed to reveal himself as the league's biggest blowhard with his courtside commentary. As for the ongoing Kobe-Shaq circus, that's almost all Kobe's petulance. You don't hear coach Phil Jackson--whose job it is to know and motivate his team--ripping Shaq but he does call out Kobe on a regular basis. When Shaq hits the news, it's because he's become tired of Kobe's antics, or is sick of getting hacked more than any other NBA player. (His customary, ongoing complaints in this area had begun to be ignored, so he thoughtfully dropped a couple of f-bombs into live microphones to get everyone's attention.) About the only thing I don't like about Shaq is his law and order fetishism, which is the opposite of vain, in some respects.

Which brings us to your tirade against boorish, vain NBA players. All I can say is, you pay people eight-figure salaries and you get vanity. Who's got their shit together better, Kevin Garnett or Barry Bonds? Tim Duncan or Tom Cruise? Jermaine O'Neal or Ray Lewis? Peja Stojakovic, Ben Wallace, and Tracy McGrady, or three high-profile citizens from whatever sport, boardroom, or music studio you want to choose? Don't be so reactionary.

Last but not least, another reason to like the Lakers--Phil Jackson. Any North Dakota grad who embraces Zen, motivated Dennis Rodman into the finest seasons of his career, gets the likes of Jordan and Shaq to say they'll retire if they can't play for him, and is currently living in sin with the owner's daughter is okay with me.

--Britt Robson, 6:39 p.m. Tuesday, April 20

 

Yeah, I've Rooted for Shaq Over the Years, and Not Just Because He's Cross-Eyed and He's Got a Girl's Name.

 

One of my proudest achievements as an adult is having picked up a rudimentary understanding of test cricket. It's a game of surpassing, even brilliant, boringness and I dare say I'm one of only a few thousand native-born American citizens who can follow its soporific plotlines. Though it's not nearly as arcane as its bastard colonial son, baseball, it's every bit as silly. Without giving away too many of cricket's occult nuances, I would roughly compare it to an interminable round of batting practice where the pitcher can't bend his arm, the base runners only move when they feel like it, and there's scant incentive to hit anything but ground balls.

Cricket's classic "five-day test" has the serial rhythm and pacing of one of the longer Philip Glass operas, with daily tea breaks thrown in. What is most profoundly perverse (or perversely profound?) about test cricket is that a goodly number of these epic, "first-class" contests, perhaps even a majority, end in a draw--five days having passed without both sides having finished their at-bat. Talk about sport being a metaphor for life: You do the same stupid thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over (I didn't cut and paste a single word of that, by the way) and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over (O.K.: now I did) and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, and at times it feels momentous and at times you're clearly going through the motions and at the end of it all you haven't won or lost anything. You're pretty much exactly where you started.

Would I be exaggerating any to say that a five-day cricket test is more dramatic than the NBA's seven-game, first-round playoffs?

Which is to say, Steve, that I agree with you wholeheartedly that the current NBA schedule is more bloated and grotesque and essentially farcical than Liza Minelli's last few bed partners. Life is a cabaret old chum: Give the goddamn eight seed a chance for an upset in a best-of-three battle. If you need to drain the fans' teats like a BGH-treated cow, go with a best of five.

Hey, let's make a deal: I could almost stand a seven-game series that would start and finish in, say, eight or nine days. (Israel used to win wars in that amount of time!) But with the constant two-day breaks between games, the fan's enthusiasm goes from a post-game boil, to a simmer, to a slow bubble, to a...wait, did I have something on the stove? No? Hold on: They're still playing NBA basketball and I already missed the whole croquet season?Well, maybe I'll just stick my head in the oven.

To look at the question from both sides, maybe the problem is that David Stern hasn't booked in enough downtime. How about a single playoff game every December? It worked for the Lord of the Rings thrillogy, right?

On the subject of evil empires, rooting for Shaq, my friend Jon once said, is sort of like pulling for NATO. True enough. But then I pulled for NATO in Kosovo a few years back and I haven't regretted it for a moment. (Everyone likes to say that European big men are good passers, but that Milosevic really didn't want to share the rock, did he?) So yeah, I've rooted for Shaq over the years and not just because he's cross-eyed and he's got a girl's name.

In his prime--which, alas, is waning--the man could probably have gone from first to third faster than Barry Bonds. I'd probably still take him in the 40 over half the Vikings' nickel package. And his sheer scale can only be compared to certain geographical landmarks on the Western side of Continental Divide. A few of the bigger rock masses in Monument Valley come to mind. My favorite Shaq quote came from an opposing coach who reported having felt a sense of dread when he couldn't see his center standing behind the man.

Though I've got some colorful theories about Tip's son, in point of fact I have no idea what he's like "as a person." Being that we haven't spent all that much time together--scratch that, being that we've never met and never will--I suppose I don't much care. That said, I know with absolute certainty that I'd rather ride shotgun in Shaq's Escalade while listening to a remix of "(I Know I Got) Skillz" off the Shaq Diesel LP than accompany Michael Jordan to his weekly, billion-dollar-stakes Bingo game at the Bellagio.

 

While I'm making shit up, this seems as good a moment as any to try to extract some actual hoop knowledge from you guys. For instance:

 

--Just what does Phil Jackson, or any other NBA coach, actually do during a game anyway? (No tawdry suggestions about the owner's daughter allowed). How can a team like the Lakers beat a well-known divisional rival (like Sacramento) by 24 points one week and then lose a fortnight later by 17? How did the Wolves drop a couple of games to Golden State? I ask you the following in a spirit of genuine and earnest curiosity: How many games do you think the Wolves would have won if I'd been coaching the team? Or to take it a step further, how many games would the Wolves have won if I suffered a blunt head trauma and became aphasic--and yet continued to coach. (This post suggests I'm not that far away, right?)

 

--What is the leading industry in Sacramento? No googling allowed.

 

--If we're in accord that coaches essentially have no immediate effect on the game, who's controlling the remote-control device in Michael Olowokandi's head that tells him to run out of the key at random intervals in search of WMDs or Halloween treats?

 

--I'm sure we're all in total agreement that the Wolves will be lucky to get out of the first round. How much further do you think they could go--or to allow the verb tense to color the question, how much further could they have gone--with Rasho the Gentle Slovenian in the middle?

 

--Who looks more like a dinosaur: Wally or Kevin?

 

--Are the braintrust at KFAN being condescending when they praise Ervin Johnson for "knowing the right way to play the game"? I don't see him doing too much on the stat sheet. So what does that phrase mean in a practical sense and why is he starting (beside for the fact that they win when his name is penciled in the lineup)?

 

--I appreciate your forbearance here, but there's one last thing I absolutely must know. Which Logdog (not including the coaching staff) do you think has the greatest affection for Elton John and Bernie Taupin's elliptical-yet-maudlin anti-war ballad "Daniel"? (If the answer is Mark Madsen, please also select a credible second choice.)

--Michael Tortorello, 3:14 a.m. Wednesday, April 21

 

A Wolves Loss Against Denver Creates the Specter of a Paralyzingly Nasty Failure That Will Create a Train-Wreck Aura of Fascination Around the Rest of the Series

 

There's a reason only a few thousand natives have even rudimentary knowledge about cricket, Michael, and I won't pass judgment on your membership in that sorry little club. There's also a reason many more thousand will pony up more than $500,000 in net profits to the NBA (by Wolves owner Glen Taylor's estimate) tonight at the Target Center to watch the Wolves take on a #8 seed. It's not because, even with extended time outs for national television, the game will start and finish in less time than it takes to play nine innings of baseball, not to mention the interminable soccer games, hockey overtimes and, yes, cricket matches, you allude to. It's because the Wolves are playing against their history as much as the Nuggets, which makes this game mean something very much indeed.

A Wolves' win means Denver will have to take four out of five to advance to the second round. But a loss opens the door in the closet, where the ghosts of playoffs past will emerge, rattling their chains. If Minnesota wins tonight, they essentially wrap up the series, and the rest of the playoffs--compared to preseason expectations for this team--will be nothing but gravy. But a loss creates the specter of a paralyzingly nasty failure that will create a train-wreck aura of fascination around the rest of the series.

Do I think the Wolves will lose tonight? Obviously not, Michael, since I gave you 3 to 1 odds back in January on any bet you wanted to make that Minnesota wouldn't win its first round series. (A proposal that only slightly quelled your season-long baiting of my affection for this year's Wolves. Then again, you also didn't accept my proposed wager rebutting your own NYC-biased belief that the Knicks might make at least a little noise over in the Eastern Conference playoffs.) But there's a little more drama involved than prancing around in shinguards in some Staffordshire meadow with Earl Gray leaking from the corner of your mouth.

On to your questions.

In my opinion, basketball coaches are more influential than baseball coaches and less influential than football or hockey coaches. As in all sports, the coaches' job requires two interrelated skills--creating a personality blueprint (a mixture of tone, style and attitude, abetted by strategic Xs and Os) for how your team will play, and generating enough respect from the players for them to turn that blueprint into reality. Different coaches are more adept at guiding teams during different stages of their development. Phil Jackson is obviously a master at transforming a playoff contender into a champion, but might be less capable of transforming a 20-win team into a 40-win team.

What coaches do during a game likewise depends upon their personnel. But to greater and lesser degrees, in-game coaches work to achieve and then exploit advantageous matchups, call time-outs to alter momentum, structure player rotations for maximum achievement without unduly taxing their stars or offending their key role players, and dictate what offensive and defensive sets (and in some crucial stages, what specific plays) should be deployed.

Teams get blown out one night and blow out the same opponent another night because the games are played by human beings. (That sounds sarcastically simplistic, but I'm serious. It's the same reason we're all hot sometimes and not hot at other times.)

If you were a coach, Michael, you would have learned by now that your underpants can fit around your ears after you've been dragged into the shower. That's that "respect of your players" part. Kevin Garnett would have reluctantly paid some people to beat the shit out of Gary Trent because Gary Trent unreluctantly had beaten the shit out of you. (So your "blunt head trauma" scenario is actually redundant.) And the Wolves would have won about 23 games this season. (Although I suspect even you might have found a way to beat Philly in Philly without Iverson and Glen Robinson.)

I'd rather have Ervin Johnson and Kandi at center than Rasho and Marc Jackson. Rasho needs a big brother in the paint on defense and wisely chose Tim Duncan for that role. (KG is not so paint-oriented.) EJ is more of a stabilizer on a team that already has enough emotional wild cards (and a shrinking violet like Rasho is in his own way an emotional wild card) and Kandi's potential to capably defend Shaq and Duncan is greater than Rasho's (which isn't to say he'll fulfill that potential). I don't have time or space right now to enumerate why Ervin Johnson is so valuable, but if you watch just him in the course of a game, you'll learn a lot about how to play team defense.

Don't know who is the most anti-war Wolf, but Freddie Hoiberg came out for John Edwards during the primaries, making him a rare democrat among the uber-rich NBA player class.

I'd guess the chief industry in Sacramento is government, it being the state capitol.

And finally, in the dinosaur battle, I'd call it a draw, especially from the neck up, where KG's profile exudes a pronounced brontosaurus vibe, while Wally favors that pterodactyl look, especially with those Vulcan ears, which approximate wings around his temples.

--Britt Robson, 3:23 p.m. Wednesday, April 21

 

Think Shaq should be running the FBI? Want to make a case for Kobe as a closet humanitarian? Think Dances With Wolves would be better with Kevin Garnett in the Costner role? Go to The Bulldog Edition for more hoops philosophy: http://babelogue.citypages.com:8080/brobson

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