Last night, the soon-to-be named MVP Dirk Nowitzki and his 67-win Dallas Mavericks choked up a 3-1 first round series lead to the not-even-supposed-to-be-here-today Golden State Warriors. This was quite a contrast to what had happened just a few hours earlier, when Steve Nash once again proved why he's the reigning MVP.
The Lakers won Game 3 of their series against the Suns for a variety of reasons, the primary one of which was that they used a series of aggressive traps and double-teams to keep the ball out of Nash's hands. But instead of blaming the refs, a lack of effort (by his teammates), a dearth of talent (in his teammates), or his teammates' inability to hit shots, Nash took the onus on himself...promising to keep the ball, split those traps, and make things happen for his team.
What "happened" was 17 points and a career-high 23 assists in a 113-100 smackdown of the Lakers. Those 23 assists, by the way, were one shy of tying the all-time playoff record co-held by Magic Johnson and John Stockton, the two greatest point guards of all time. They also came in a contest in which Nash outdueled the supposed "best player" in the league, Kobe Bryant.
What I love about what Nash is doing is his swagger and killer instinct. While his buddy Dirk was putting on the ten-fingered necklace he loves to wear in big games, Nash continued to attack the opposing team and his critics. And those who like to point at his talented cast of teammates should review Games 3 and 4 and watch what happened when Nash came out of the game. His value to his team, and in the league, should be unquestioned.
Like Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson before him, Nash is proving (or re-proving) that you can dominate the game of basketball without scoring 50 points. It's as beautiful and fun to watch as anything you'll ever see. Kobe fans like to make the claim that Bryant's efforts go unappreciated because of his sketchy past. But Nash's efforts often go unappreciated by the casual fan because he's short, white, unathletic, and probably will never go for 50 (although he'll probably dish for it). The fact is, this guy's the best player in the league
right now five minutes ago (see below).
It's official: Baron Davis is the best player in the NBA. Although I really wish this movement had started after the Warriors completed their upset of the Mavericks, because if Dallas comes back all of this talk will be forgotten in less time than it'll take Baron to get injured next season.
Lenovo Stat is a new plus/minus statistic that compares the point differential when players are both in and out of the game to determine how a team performs with various combinations, thus demonstrating [dramatic drum roll here] "the power of teamwork." According to this new measure, the Houston Rockets featured the most effective five man player combination during the 2006-07 NBA season. The Rockets' line-up of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, and Chuck Hayes led the Lenovo Stat rankings (+269), enjoying a significant lead over the second-best five man unit comprised of Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Erick Dampier, and Devin Harris (+215). The Phoenix Suns combination of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Raja Bell, and Leandro Barbosa came in a distant third (+165).
Something must be seriously wrong with this statistic, though, because only four of those five Rocket players managed to score in Houston's horrifying 81-67 Game 3 loss to the Utah Jazz. In fact, only four Houston players scored, period. Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: only four Rockets scored in last night's game. Yao Ming (26), Tracy McGrady (24), Shane Battier (11), and Rafer Alston (6) did all the "scoring" while their teammates did all the sucking. Although, maybe that's not a fair statement since only three other Rockets even attempted a shot: Juwan Howard (0-5), Luther Head (0-5), and Chuck Hayes (0-2). No, on second thought, they all sucked about equally. Only the ancient corpse of Dikembe Mutumbo -- who played only five minutes and couldn't score by himself in an empty gym full of 5-foot baskets -- is off the hook.
Overall, the Rockets shot 32 percent from the field and had 19 turnovers. The Rockets' bench went 0-for-10 and didn't score a single point (to go along with six rebounds and zero assists). The team's 67 points were the fewest in Rockets playoff history. And it was the only time in NBA playoff history that a mere four players on one team scored. It was a performance so spectacularly bad, so truly vomit-inducing, that David Stern should retroactively take away one or both of the Rockets' victories in this series. Look, I'm not trying to say that scoring is the only meaningful statistic, but last time I checked, the NBA was still using points to determine who wins and loses.
Now that something this sucktastic has finally happened, is anybody surprised that it was presided over by Jeff Van Gundy, the doleful mastermind of many a joyless "75-71"-type victory while coaching the Knicks in the late 90s? Somehow, despite the fact that it's 2007, despite the fact that David Stern has changed the very rules of the game to increase scoring, Van Gundy still manages to preside over 1990s basketball, which was actually just 1950s basketball in a taller, faster, more muscular package. I know Jeff has won a lot of games that way, but then again, barbarians used to win a lot of battles by chopping off the heads of their enemies and then hanging them from trees to induce a sense of fear and awe. I guess what I'm trying to say is that sometimes the ends don't really justify the means.
(I'd just like to point out that, until Wade caught fire at the end of the game, Antoine Walker and his 20 points kept the Heat within striking distance. That's right: if the Heat had come back to win this game, it would have been because of Antoine Walker. As a Bulls fan, I'm not okay with this.)
5. Shaq doesn't commit fouls. He just has big feet. No, seriously, his feet are like little, feet-shaped people.
The funny stuff
There's nothing quite like witnessing an NBA playoff game live. You get to experience things you never get to see on either local or national television broadcasts. Such as:
The Hinden-Bull Disaster: The Bulls have a blimp -- called the "Bull-imp" -- that soars majestically over the crowd during games, sometimes dropping little t-shirt patties onto the frenzied attendees. During Game 1, the blimp lost power and plummetted into the waiting arms of the fans, who grabbed onto and started hitting it. I probably don't need to mention that they sell beer at these events. Anyway, the blimp rested on top of a group of people for several minutes, undoubtedly obstructing their view of the game, before a group of maintenance workers showed up to retrieve it. But here's the thing: What can you do with a giant, powerless blimp in the middle of an NBA playoff game? The answer is: absolutely nothing. They tried to shove it into the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms, but it wouldn't fit. There must not be a way to deflate the thing, so it just sat there, stuffed halfway into a tunnel, it's big head bobbing in front of an entire section of fans who could no longer watch the game.
James Posey isn't any good: The absolute highlight of the game, aside from the Bulls' victory of course, was the Basketbawful gang leading the crowd in a chant of "PO-ZEE SUCKS, PO-ZEE SUCKS, PO-ZEE SUCKS!!" a record-setting three times (a fourth attempt fell flat). Even better: during the first chorus, they showed Posey's face on the JumboTron mid-chant. He just kind of shook his head and laughed, but you know that, deep inside, he was filled with a savage rage. Fortunately for the Bulls, this rage didn't turn into a flagrant foul or a scoring explosion. In fact, he immediately came out of the time-out and missed a three-pointer. For the record, he didn't score again after the chants. We were so totally in his head.
(Here's a little lesson in Fan Taunting 101: Never, under any circumstances, should you taunt a superstar. Chanting "KO-BEE SUCKS, KO-BEE SUCKS!!" might get a 15-point bomb dropped on your team immediately. Instead, choose a roleplayer with limited scoring ability. Bonus points will be awarded if he's overly aggressive and imminently hateable...like James Posey.)
Fat guys in party hats: The Bulls are one of the many teams who employ a group of singing/dancing fat guys to provide "entertainment" during timeouts. When the Matadors were unleashed during a break in the third-quarter action, they were met with a stunned silence from the crowd. No one seemed to know who these pork beasts were, or what it was that they wanted. Perhaps these lurching ham monsters had taken over the building in order to raid its concession stands? But...no...wait...they were here to perform the Truffle Shuffle while singing "YMCA." Remember that projectile vomiting scene from "Team America: World Police"? If so, then you can imagine how the crowd reacted when their shirts came off.
(Before you start accusing me of being insensitive toward the plight of the obese, allow me to remind you that their insatiable hunger has left them bereft of normal human emotions. In fact, their brains send out one message, and one message only, in an endless loop: "EAT NOW, ROOARRGH!!" Anyway, maybe you'll think my disgust is justified after you review this picture taken during the Bulls' St. Patrick's Day game.)
The Chicago Bulls have been one of the hottest teams in the league during the second half of the season. They're 20-8 since the All-Star break. They won 10 of their last 13 games, going 6-2 down the stretch. They finished with a record of 49-33, third-best in the Eastern Conference. That said, they have absolutely no chance of making it to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
I'm not saying this because their opening round opponent is the defending champion Miami Heat. I mean, the Heat are good -- they managed to win 44 games despite the fact that Shaq and Dwyane Wade combined to miss 73 games -- but they're not great. Shaq is past his prime, Wade isn't fully recovered from his shoulder injury, and the supporting cast is either old (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning) or achingly average (James Posey, Udonis Haslem, Jason Kapono). Are they a threat? Absolutely. Are they world-beaters? No so much.
But my feelings about the Bulls chances for success have nothing (or at least very little) to do with the Heat. It's not about X's and O's, or the matchups, or Kirk Hinrich's idiot mistake of suggesting to the press that the Bulls should have beaten the Heat in the first round last year (seriously, what was he thinking?!). Hell, it's not even about the fact that the Bulls are a team with no inside scoring threat that relies almost entirely on jump shots to win (a strategy that, to my knowledge, has never worked in the playoffs).
No, this is the reason they're going to lose: the Bulls have had two "gut check" games in the past month -- a March 31st home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a season-ending road game against the New Jersey Nets -- and they lost them both. These games were absolutely crucial to the Bulls' hopes of landing the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If they had won either one of those games, it would have meant the difference between going through Washington, New Jersey, and/or Toronto to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, or being forced to knock off Miami and then (most likely) Detroit.
The Bulls think they're okay, though. They're confidant...cocky, even. After all, they started out 3-9 and then steadily improved throughout the season. They won the season series against both the Heat and Pistons (3-1 each). They beat Dallas and San Antonio at home, and they beat Phoenix on the road. Going 3-3 against the three best teams in the league, and 6-2 against their probable first and (if they make it) second round opponents, has given them reason to hope.
But hope and a couple bucks won't even get you a double diet frapacheeny decaf ventie whatever at Starbucks. If you really want to be a contender, you have to come through in the must -win games. And regardless of what the media and the experts say, there are only a few of those very season. The Bulls had two -- one of which was at home, where they're 31-10 (best in the East) -- and got their buttocks handed to them in each case. The Nets weren't even a .500 team at the time! If you can't beat a sub-.500 team on the road in what's probably the most important game of the regular season, do you really expect me to have faith in you during the playoffs against teams with proven championship pedigree?
Had the Bulls won either of those games, I would believe in them...even if they hadn't ended up as the second seed. I really don't think seeding is that important, as long as a team has shown it has the mental toughness to win a game against quality competition when it really, truly counts. But they were outplayed by two teams that had been underachieving for most of the season. What this tells me is that the Bulls may play all-out every night, but they have only one speed. Teams like New Jersey, Cleveland, and even Miami...they can turn it on when they need to. And that, more often than not, is the difference between winning and losing.
The Bulls just aren't there yet. And I don't think it's even a case of needing a low post scoring threat. I think it's about having an unshakeable team leader who has proven himself in clutch situations. Chicago has a nucleus of young, smart, hard-working players and a bulldog coach who gets the most out of his squad on a regular basis. It's an inspirational story, but inspiration and a plucky spirit alone don't win playoff series. The best team is usually the toughest team. And that's why, yet again, it just isn't the Bulls' year.
Labels: Word of the Day
Labels: Word of the Day
We all know the story of how David Stern ditched the new microfiber basketballs after a vocal handful players -- Dirk Nowitzki, Richard Hamilton, Shaq, and Steve Nash in particular -- whined and cried about it for three months. But despite the complaints, and the allegations that the balls dried out players' hands to the point of causing tiny cuts, my interest was peaked. After all, the players who didn't hate the ball seemed to really like it. And why not? The ball was designed by Spalding using a new design and material that supposedly offered better grip, feel, and consistency than the traditional leather ball.
Based on his statistical analysis of the new ball, John Hollinger came to the following positive conclusion: "For all the complaints about difficulty in handling, players are making fewer miscues than a season ago and haven't seen an increase in bad passes. The one apparent change is that it appears shots from 15 feet and in have become slightly easier thanks to some kind rolls. Shots from midrange have changed by a similar factor, and while the close-in shots have increased by more, we may just be seeing an increase in easy layups rather than anything related to the ball." This only served to heighten my interest.
Once the balls were discontinued, I kept waiting for them to drop in price, since $100 is (for me) a lot to spend on a basketball. But the price never came down, so I finally (and somewhat reluctantly) paid the money and eagerly awaited the new ball. It arrived yesterday. I was stoked, and promptly toted the new ball to my Wednesday night pickup league.
The new ball drew a chorus of "oohs" and "ahs" when I pulled it out of my gym bag. Several of my buddies came over to test it out, feeling the material and hoisting up a few shots. My buddy Mr. P* said, "I like this ball. It feels great, good grip." Evil Ted thought the ball "stuck to the hand well, bounced well, came off the board well, and it seemed to get friendly bounces on the rim." It got a positive review from everybody who got a chance to check it out and use it.
Personally, I loved it. I was able to get a good grip on the ball, loved its physics off the dribble, and it shot well. Things were looking good. I was cautiously optimistic.
*Mr P. loved my post about pickup basketball nicknames, but was bitterly disappointed that I omitted his nickname: "Tape." So consider this an addendum. See, Mr. P has a few very specific spots on the floor that he loves to shoot from. I once suggested that he probably puts a piece of tape on the floor so he can remember where to spot up. After that, we started calling him Tape, and shots from his sweet spots are often referred to as "Tape shots." Oh, and during a game, if he's open at one of those spots, he simply yells "Tape!" and, no matter where I am on the floor, I can immediately get him the ball, regardless of whether I can even see him.
My league uses the Wilson Evolution basketball. This is partly my doing, because I've spent the last few years experimenting with different basketballs and bringing them in for league play (most notably the Wilson Solution, Wilson Jet, Spalding Never Flat, and Spalding TF-1000). The Evolution received the best response by far, and we've been using them exclusively (unless I bring in a new test ball) for almost two years.
We began the first game using the new microfiber ball. That's when the trouble started. People immediately began asking "What's that?" and "What's up with the ball?" One of the guys asked me, "Why do you keep bringing in all these funny balls?" The negative responses, for the record, came only from people who hadn't gotten a chance to use the ball prior to the game.
The first shot was an absolute brick, and someone actually said, "That new ball sucks." As if the new ball was so bad it caused a brick on the first shot of a pickup game (see, pickup players have honed their shooting to laser-like perfection). What none of the naysayers seemed to realize is that, other than in appearance, the NBA ball isn't very different from the Evolution, which also is made out of a composite, microfiber material. But according to Evil Ted, the different look was the problem.
"The look was striking. It's harder for you to justify using a new ball when it looks so different. People are used to their basketball looking a certain way. Think about it. If you had two hamburgers that tasted exactly the same, but one of them was purple, you'd probably think it tasted different, even if it really didn't. It's the same with a basketball. Even if it behaves the same way, because it looks different, people think it behaves differently. That's how the human mind works."
And he was probably right. The ball is bright orange and has two interlocking, cross-shaped panels, as opposed to the eight oblong panels found on traditional basketballs. The decidedly unusual look seemed to cause a lot of dismay, particularly since the players hadn't gotten a chance to use it outside of a game situation. So, despite the fact that, after the first shot, people were shooting well (Evil Ted was 2-for-2 from beyond the arc), the ball was discarded in favor of the more familiar Evolution about midway through the game. When I voiced my displeasure, the anti-new ball guys responded with their complaints, which amounted to "it looks funny" and "it feels weird." That was really all they had.
You know what it reminded me of? It's like when you're at a bar or dance club with a mixed group of men and women, and an absolutely gorgeous woman walks in. Half the group (i.e., the guys) become transfixed and ogle her at every opportunity, while the other half (i.e., the women) slowly and methodically pick her apart ("She doesn't look that good," "Her boobs aren't that big," "I can't believe she's wearing that outfit," "Those shoes make her feet look like baby goats smashed between two rocks," and so on). And the complainers in my league were "the women"...nitpicking over superficialities without really giving the new ball a chance.
Which is exactly what happened with the NBA players. They just didn't want to change what they'd always known. Doc Rivers admitted as much when he said, "I think there's a resistance to change in all of us. Whether it's cheerleaders, a dress code, a new ball, whatever. People don't like change. I just think that's the way life is."
Hollinger agreed. "And I think [resistance to change is] the real problem, in the end. People liked the old ball just fine and didn't understand why it had to change."
So, thanks to the fear of change, I'm out a hundred dollars and stuck with a great ball that nobody wants to use. Great.