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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An MVP at Stringing Us Along

The Fairly Detached Observers

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Five weeks have passed since the Milwaukee Bucks ended their season, and in that time the NBA has managed to get through two rounds of playoffs, producing conference finals of Orlando vs. Cleveland and Denver vs. the L.A. Lakers. It’s another five weeks until the NBA draft, and the Observers can only hope the playoffs are over by then. Not that they’re counting on it; the NBA has a way of keeping things going… and going… and…

Frank: Was anyone surprised the NBA had a pair of Game 7s Sunday?

Artie: A day when they could get a big TV audience, ain’a? And the games happened to be in what TV markets? Los Angeles and Boston. Who’d have guessed? 

ank: In a vault at NBA headquarters I’ll bet there’s a secret bylaw saying the Boston Celtics shall never play a Sunday game anywhere but home. In the ‘60s, we remember, every stinkin’ Sunday game on national TV was Celtics-76ers, and always on the parquet floor.

Artie: It’s like the Packers and Cowboys. Does Dallas ever play in Green Bay? All right, they did last year.

Frank: And they will again this year— just for you! But back to the NBA. While the Celtics were getting thumped by Orlando, TNT showed a beaming Commissioner David Stern and Marv Albert noted, “That man is very happy about two Game 7s today.”

Artie: Stern sure didn’t look stern.

Frank: There’s no proof the playoffs are scripted, but why does it seem so plausible? The Celtics and Rockets had superstars out with injuries, but the Lakers and Magic couldn’t put them away until those series went the distance.

Artie: And every year fans talk about how “the league wants” this or that team to win. Out of the big four sports, the NBA is the closest to Vince McMahon’s WWE wrestling operation.

Frank: You’re talking about expected results, but it’s also true of the hand-tohand combat that goes on.

Artie: And who gets suspended, or not.

Frank: There’s always screwy injustices in the NBA. Two years ago, San Antonio’s Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table but the NBA gave Phoenix a worse punishment and probably cost the Suns a shot at the title.

Artie: Horry got suspended for two games, but he wasn’t important to the Spurs. Phoenix lost two players for a game because they came off the bench— didn’t hit anyone, but they got nailed by an inflexible rule.

Frank: And one of them was the very important Amar’e Stoudemire. The Suns lost the next game, and ultimately the series. Now this year we have…

Artie: Mr. Rajon Rondo of the Celtics.

Frank: In Game 5 against the Bulls, Rondo whacks Brad Miller in the face as he’s driving for a crucial basket. It could easily have been called a flagrant foul, but it wasn’t. Then in Game 6, Rondo literally flings Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table…

Artie: I saw that live. So obvious I couldn’t believe it.

Frank: But Rondo didn’t get suspended for the first action, or the second, or even for what we might call his “body of work.” And I think that if he had missed Game 7, the Bulls would have won.

Artie: But Mr. Stern, the Puppet Master, would not let that happen. Can’t have Boston out of the TV equation too quickly.

Frank: It just seems easy to believe that what ultimately happens is what “the league wants.” Last year the desired matchup in the NBA Finals was Celtics- Lakers, the return of the classic rivalry from the ‘60s and ‘80s. Now it seems headed for Cleveland-L.A., or rather LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant.

Artie: Because they think that’s giving fans what they want. No, it’s giving the NBA the largest haul of dollars! I’m a fan, and I have no interest in Kobe vs. LeBron. But you just knew Friday night that Orlando and Houston would win to force Game 7s, even though the Rockets were missing Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

Frank: Does Stern make guys miss shots or throw bad passes? Of course not. But somehow…

Artie: It just smells. It’s fishy.

Frank: I suppose the league would have been OK with Boston- L.A. again. But who needs the whole “Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Ebony and Ivory, saved the league” schtick again?

Artie: The only good thing about the Celtics is Brian Scalabrine, the white guy with the headband who looks just like Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. He ought to get those nut-hugger shorts and do it up right.

Frank: That’ll have to wait. The next big show is the crowning of King LeBron.

Artie: This is what Stern has been doing since Michael Jordan—marketing the individual, not teams. Boy, I hope something gets in the way of that.

Frank: I’d like to see Orlando foil LeBron, just for variety, but I’m worried for Stan Van Gundy. Either he’ll explode on the sideline or one of his players will kill him.

Artie: He looks so out of control, and I think that mania carries over to the players. Contrast that with Rick Adelman in Houston. He’s always cool, under control, and it helps his team.

Frank: Not on Sunday, when of course the Lakers cruised after stinking in Game 6. I’m with you: Come on, Denver. Enough with Zen master Phil Jackson and Kobe.

Artie: And Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and the other celebrity fans. To me, the Lakers have no intensity. They think the game should be handed to them.

Frank: And besides, the Nuggets have this guy, this force, this something, with all the tattoos and the wild spiky hair, flying around and blocking shots.

Artie: The Bird Man, Chris Andersen, back from a two-year drug suspension. The guy’s got more tattoos than the audience at a hip-hop concert.

Frank: Just to be clear: I used to enjoy the NBA. Until about 15 years ago, I went to 15 or 20 Buck games a year, especially when Sidney Moncrief & Co. were battling Bird and Julius Erving in the playoffs.

Artie: The poor Bucks—in a given year they could beat Boston or Philadelphia, but never both.

Frank: I really got into those games, but somewhere in the ‘90s the NBA lost me.

Artie: I say it was Stern’s model of marketing individuals, because it affected the game. All that isolation—the marquee guy gets the ball and everyone else runs to the corner.

Frank: All the “look at me” stuff is irritating—the constant preening and chest-thumping. I know Bird used to back guys down one-on-one a lot, but he passed, too. Bird and Magic and The Doctor blended with their teammates to get things done.

Artie: And the Bucks, without a true super-duper star, may have blended the best of all. But they couldn’t get to the final step.

Frank: Another thing: I know the three-point shot was around in the ‘80s, but the longer it stays the more it distorts the game.

Artie: In the early years each team had its three-point specialist. Guys like Dell Curry and Dale Ellis and the Bucks’ Craig Hodges. But now everybody flings ‘em up.

Frank: Teams play their butts off on defense for 20 seconds but there’s always someone at the arc who can bomb away.

Artie: Often it’s a big guy who you’d think would be looking to rebound. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis on the Magic are classic examples.

Frank: One more thing about playoff fishiness. A year ago the NBA had a referee go to jail for gambling on games he worked. And one reason some people believe the NBA pulls strings is that every possession has so many things that can be called.

Artie: It’s all so arbitrary. Bill Simmons on ESPN.com, who really follows basketball, says the officiating is as bad as ever, if not worse.

Frank: When I covered some NBA games for the Journal and saw things up close, I wondered why guys could manhandle each other in the paint but fouls would be called when someone’s fingertips barely brushed a shooter’s wrist.

Artie: Bill Simmons has said, and I’m paraphrasing, that Stern doesn’t necessarily have the games fixed, but certainly they’re orchestrated. Individual games and the season.

Frank: A season that never seems to end.

Artie: Especially if the last two rounds go seven games. Gee, do you think that’s possible?

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