On the Second Round and Beyond (NBA)

By Chris Le

The most common reaction in sports is overreaction.  At the end of a season or series—hell, after one game—logic flies out the window and fans become prisoners of the moment.  We are captured by emotion, good or bad, and lose foresight of how the next months or even next days can reverse the present circumstances.  But if I’ve learned anything about sports, it’s that momentum is a powerful ally—and that it’s a fickle bitch.  Today’s success can just as easily be tomorrow’s failure.  The thing is, though, it’s hard to see past today’s success.

With three sweeps and the elimination of the league’s best player in the second round, hyperbole was inevitable.  Such decisive victories—or losses, depending on who you were cheering for—are ground zero for exaggeration.

Luckily for you guys, I’m here to provide perspective.  Here’s a list of what should and shouldn’t have you acting like Tom Cruise on Oprah.

The “Don’t Go Overboard” List

1.) People are high on the Suns. And it’s understandable.  Steve Nash and his bygone mix of underwhelming athleticism,  goofy looks (short limbs + baggy shorts = a junior high kid) and transcendent skills are so likable it makes me want to spoon my eyeballs out; the Suns’ slicing style of play is exceedingly fun to watch; and vanquishing of their longtime vanquishers, the Spurs, combined with the prospect of defeating the Lakers makes for a feel good story worthy of a Lifetime movie.  It just feels meant to be, like this is their year.  That’s why some are picking the Suns to beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

That’s foolish.

Don’t be conned by the Suns’ makeover, and their subsequent sweep of the Spurs: they can’t beat the Lakers.  Not the same way they beat the Spurs, anyways.  If Nash and Co. think the half-court game that so bedeviled the Spurs can do the same against the Lakers, it will be the Suns’ undoing.  Because—NEWS FLASH—the Spurs are not the Lakers.

The slow-down offense was successful for the Suns because (1.) the Spurs couldn’t rotate fast enough, and (2.) the Suns were afforded a slower tempo by the Spurs’ inability to score.  Timmy was wheezing by the fourth quarter, and the duo of Parker and Ginobili couldn’t get into the lane.  That’s 95 percent of their set plays gone.  The Spurs simply didn’t have enough firepower.  Credit the Suns’ improved defense but also Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow, which shattered Ginobili’s nose and, more damagingly, his rhythm, even if Ginobili brushes off such a suggestion.

The Lakers, however, have the requisite size, length and youth (which the Spurs so sorely lacked) to consistently score in a set offense or on the run.  If the Suns, even with Robin Lopez, fight power with power, half-court offense versus half-court offense, they’ll be sodomized on the block.  That’s why the Suns will need all the points they can get in transition.  Thus, they need to revert to the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and run the ball down the Lakers’ throats.  It’s their only hope, but I’m still not sure that’s enough.  Lakers in 6.

2.)  Cool it with the LeBron to New York talk. He ain’t going there. The only bargaining chips the Knicks have are the biggest media market, a great nightlife and enough cap space for two max-deal studs but no role players.  That isn’t enough.  Even if Bosh or Stoudemire join LeBron in New York, they don’t have an adequate supporting cast under contract.  Here’s a rundown of currently signed Knicks players: Eddy Curry, Danilo Gallinari, Sergio Rodriguez, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Giddens, Toney Douglas and Bill Walker.  I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.  They’d be worse than the present Cavaliers team.  So, if LeBron chooses the Knicks, it will prove being a global icon is more important to him than being the greatest basketball player of all time.

Where to, LeBron?

Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski makes an interesting case for the Cavaliers, however.  The Cleveland fans and media, Wojnarowski said, have been patient with LeBron.  They adore him and have literally built monuments to his greatness.  Understandable, as he is their “savior.”  But what shouldn’t be overlooked is how this eternal patience and faith have created a protective cocoon from criticism.  When he wears a Yankees hat, Cleveland fans begin to sweat but don’t scorn his disloyalty.  When he loses in the playoffs after having the best regular season record, Cleveland begs for his return and don’t bemoan his shortcomings.  LeBron can do no wrong in their eyes.  He won’t have such shelter from the high-expecting, harsh critics of New York and Chicago.  And if he’s as mentally fragile as he appeared against the Celtics, he should think twice about leaving his home state.

Here’s how I see the percentage breakdown:

33% He stays in Cleveland

33% He goes to Chicago and joins its enticing nucleus of Rose and Noah.

33% He goes to New Jersey.  That is, IF the Nets get the number one draft pick (John Wall) and trade Devin Harris for another building block.  But with high-potential players and a Russian playboy/owner with deep pockets who can sign expensive free agents and take the luxury tax hits, the New Jersey Nets are the wild card.  That’s not even mentioning LeBron’s bromance with Jay-Z.

So, at this point, it’s a crapshoot.  But I know he won’t be a Knick.

3.) Don’t read the Spurs’ obituary just yet. I’ll admit that I’m ever the optimist (read: irrationalist) when it comes to my Spurs.  But this isn’t a case of denial.  I’m not clinging onto false hope nor am I grasping at straws.  I honestly believe it true.  The Spurs’ near-future success, however, does hinge on a smart offseason, which should begin with the acquisition of Tiago Splitter, the 25-year-old 7-footer from Brazil.  The Spurs drafted Splitter in the 2007 draft with the 28th overall pick—a shrewd selection typical of San Antonio, as Splitter was considered a lottery-level talent.  But he had a huge buyout (which the Spurs weren’t going to pay), and then he pulled a Ricky Rubio, spurning the NBA for the Euroleague and its higher paychecks.  The Spurs still own his draft rights, though, and it appears he’s heading to San Antonio this summer.  Timmy will be happy, as he desperately needs another big beside him, and Splitter is regarded as the best big man in Europe.   He has a serviceable post game and is a good pick-and-roll defender.  (Think the Spurs could’ve used him against the Suns?)  So Splitter could be one piece of the remedy.  (Another piece would be keeping Tony Parker; shipping him would be idiotic.  Another piece would be the lump of trash disguised as Richard Jefferson making a jump shot once in a while.)

So please, Tiago, for the love of all that is good in this world, please come to the Spurs next year.  PLEAAASSEEE.

The “Go Ahead, Go Crazy” List

1.) Nash is a baller. He’s worthy of the effusive “All-Time Great” talk.  And he still might be underrated.  I don’t think people realize how unique he is or how fortunate we are to bear his witness.

Dude doesn’t even have to think about dribbling.  The ball is just permanently attached to his palm, no matter the circumstance: trapped in a corner, forced to go baseline, double-teamed at mid-court—doesn’t matter—Nash calmly spins, crosses-over and hops to clear territory like a running back, somehow with the dribble still alive.  Not even CP3, D-Will or Rondo have his overall handle.  And Nash is 76-years-old.

Equally impressive is the manner in which Nash scores.  His layups are a joy—yes, I said joy–to watch.  Pay close attention the next time he drives in the lane.  He’ll usually split a double-team or curl off a screen, slow down as he approaches the rim, creating contact with his chaser, and uses his body to distance the ball from the would-be blocker and then, nonchalantly hook the ball into the hoop, leaving the 7-foot defender to look foolish.  Right then, you realize you’re witnessing a master of the layup.  And the spectacle of it is like a magic show  The motions are slow, seemingly predictable (you just know the ball will be sent into the fifth row), but it works every time and you have no idea how.  You are amazed.  Nash is a wizard or something.  I’m sure of it.  How else can you explain why he never makes a mistake and always seems to lift his team when needed?

But that aside, Nash’s dribble, Mensa-level basketball IQ and pure stroke (heinously overlooked) combine to make him … wait for it … the third best closer in basketball behind Kobe and Wade.  Boom.  Yes, I said it.  Nash has developed into an absolute killer in the clutch, with the eye—quite literally, one eye—that says, “We are not losing, and I’m gonna make damn sure we don’t.”  That killer instinct displayed by the legends of the game, the presence of mind to step on an opponent’s throat to squish that last bit of hope—I see it in Nash.

If you’re playing against a Nash-led team, do not leave him within striking distance.  You better bury them with a 20-point deficit in the fourth, chop off their head and burn the corpse.  Otherwise, Nash finds a way to beat you or at least make you want to shit your pants from fear.  He’s done it countless times to me and my Spurs.  His clutchness and toughness and singular determination to win at the expense of his body are verging on—brace yourselves, Lakers fans—Kobe territory.

(Waits five minutes.)

(Is everyone okay?  Lakers Nation, you conscious again?  Okay, good.)

Add everything up, and Nash looks like a Top 10 All-Time Point Guard.  I don’t even care that he’s ring-less.

And coming from a grieving Spurs fan, this is a huge testament.  And that really is the ultimate test of a player’s greatness: The Rival Test.  I’m a prime example.  I just witnessed my favorite team in sports (the Spurs) get run off the court, with my favorite player of the last decade (Timmy Duncan) looking half-dead—all at the hands of Steve Nash.  I should be cursing his name and wishing him painful genital sores.  But I can’t.  He’s just too damn good to brush off.  He has forced me—through sheer will—to respect him.  My only option is to swallow some pride and realize his greatness.  Everyone should do the same.

And the fact that he’s Canadian, inexplosive, fundamentally flawed (defense) and weird looking makes it all the more captivating.  Dude looks like Skeletor.  With stringy hair.  And did you know he dated Elizabeth Hurley?  Puzzling, right?  Gives me hope with Beyonce.

Speaking of which…

2.) This isn’t basketball related, but I have to mention the Maxim Hot 100. Such atrocities cannot be ignored!!  I’m thinking of the children’s sake here, really.  They need to know who truly is and isn’t hot.  Here’s lesson one.

Firstly, Katy Perry at the top spot?  Really?  If she weren’t sporting Double-Ds or marketed to have a penchant for girl-on-girl action, she’d be a less-cute, trashier version of Zooey Deschanel (73).  Katy Perry is a full dozen or two spots too high.  (This is pretty catchy, though.  But catchy in the sense that I like it now but will likely want to eat a bullet when I hear it for the 34th time.)

Megan Fox (5), on the other hand, I can accept at number one—even though I don’t find her especially beautiful, and picking her has become cliché, like choosing Brad Pitt or George Clooney for the men’s list.  She just exudes sex.  Which I credit partly to her relentlessly wanton gaze, but mainly to her mouth.  It’s always agape, as if she’s panting or sex-hungry, and in any given pictorial, she’s either sticking something in her maw or licking her DSLs.  If I were to make a list of things girls should do to get attention, that’d be three of the top five.  Again, not the hottest to me, but understandable.

Of Maxim’s top ten selections, I would’ve gone with Brooklyn Decker (2).  Her bod is just … damn (bites fist) … it could launch a thousand ships.  Launched one in my pants just now.

But the list’s most egregious sin—one that cannot be forgiven—is the exclusion of Beyonce.  When I couldn’t find her, I almost threw myself out the window and unloaded a clip into the air with a soul-aching shriek, Johnny Utah from Point Break-style.  Her absence is baffling.  Even more baffling in light of some inclusions: Kelly Ripa (94), Kara DioGuardi (93) and Christina-freakin’-Aguilera (at 18, no less!).  But no Queen Bey?  Blatant injustice, and I’m pretty sure it’s against God’s will.  As I understand it, this list is a composite of beauty, aura and general persona.  So why Christina Aguilera?  She hasn’t been relevant since, when, 2004 with “Beautiful”?

Number 1 in my heart - always and forever

Beyonce pretty much rules the modern world.  And you have to go retro to find a comparison.  Not since Elizabeth Taylor has an entertainer simultaneously garnered the admiration of women and men’s lust—the rare “Women want to be her, men want to be with her” status.  She is gorgeous (several of my very straight female friends have said they’d switch-hit for her), the best performer in recent memory, has a ghetto booty, is one-half of the most powerful couple in entertainment, stays out the tabloids and had a banner year with the most iconic video of the decade.  And if you want to argue relevance, only Lady Gaga can contest her for Top Female Artist honors.  (The ‘09-’10 power rankings look something like this: 1.) Lady Gaga, 2.) Beyonce, 3.) Taylor Swift, 4.) Rihanna, 5.) Everybody Else.)

You’re telling me Regis’ sidekick, Simon’s ho on the side and the irrelevant Christina Aguilera are more desirable than Beyonce?  That’s like eating at gas station hot dog over a dry-aged ribeye.  Which proves that the Maxim editors are either blind, idiots or gay.  (Scratch the last one; gay people love Beyonce, especially drag queens.)  Because I’ve said it before: It’s a metaphysical constant—like the speed of light or gravity—that Beyonce is the most beautiful woman in the world.

Phew.  Okay, now I can breathe again.

3.) The Celtics are healthy, they’re confident and they’re good. If I had any balls whatsoever, I’d pick them to come out the east.  Magic in 7.

4.) I’m not sure if LeBron’s supporting cast sucks or if he isn’t who we thought he was. The fact that I have to ask this has huge implications.

On the one hand, LeBron proved to be, for better or worse, the most valuable player in the league.  That statement, I should point out, is more an indictment of his supporting cast than it is praise of LeBron.  I can’t remember a group of role players so dependent on not only their superstar’s production, but also their superstar’s mentality.

When LeBron is on, they’re on.  When LeBron isn’t in top form, they blow.  It’s symbiosis, with the only constant being LeBron.  Translation: They don’t have mental grit.  Which is just one way of saying, they aren’t good basketball players independent of their superstar.  Another way of saying it would be, they suck.  And yet even another way would be, they’re a bunch of chokers.

Jamison will be on fire if the Cavs are up by 12 in the fourth, but a brick machine when facing a deficit.  Anthony Parker will drain threes when riding high on momentum but will fail when the team needs an injection of energy.  Mo Williams will display scoring outbursts in the first half, but then disappear in the second when he’s most needed.  It’s a classic case of front-running.  They cannot be relied upon to lift LeBron out of a slump, like Gasol can for Kobe, or VC, Rashard and Jameer can for Dwight.  When LeBron’s game is off, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison prefer Karl Malone’s technique of curling up in a ball.  And LeBron knows this.  He has no confidence in his teammates whatsoever, and far more cancerous, he now views them as a liability.

The current roster is what Peyton Manning and the Colts used to be: a team built for the regular season but gets exposed in the playoffs.  And I don’t see a change in the future.  With the Magic looking more formidable by the year, the Cavs need an overhaul.  This isn’t an overreaction in my opinion, for the reasons stated above.  The Cavs, though, don’t have the trade assets or the cap space to drastically improve.  So, I’m sorry to say, Cleveland, but it’s time that LeBron go elsewhere.

But at the same time LeBron’s body language scared me.  He was listless, routinely careless with the ball.  Confusion and apathy alternately washed over his face.  And I couldn’t help but be nervous by his always-known habit of fingernail chewing—which now projected not as an involuntary mannerism but as a sign of weakness.

Maybe he’s finally cracking under the astronomical expectations.  Would you blame him?  As an 18-year-old, he was anointed the savior of a star-crossed town starving for a championship.  When he drops 25-7-7, we ask what’s wrong with him?  This is a kid who will end up being a Top 15 Player of All-Time—and that might not be enough.  The advertisements, the hype, maybe it was even our own desires, but we saw him someday surpassing Jordan.  That’s the biggest burden to bear since Jesus and the cross.  And maybe his free agency was the final straw, the entire spectacle becoming too overwhelming and the pressure swallowed LeBron.  Maybe.

But I’m hesitant to say he choked or quit because he’s been clutch in the past and has no history of surrender.  But I do know he allowed his team to quit.  Whether scorning them or using positive reinforcement, LeBron did nothing to galvanize his teammates.  Kobe or Nash, in moments like these, would have instilled in their teammates the fear of losing or the confidence to win.  LeBron stood there, stolid, gnawing his fingernails.  And that’s the most glaring weakness in his game.  Not the jump shot or the high turnover rate or the lack of a post-up game—but his lack of leadership.  LeBron is a great teammate (maybe the best in history), but he’s not yet a great leader.

It’s too soon and too unfair given his supporting cast to define LeBron’s legacy or even label him a choker.  But the series against the Celtics did show a hint of his psyche—a peek into his personality that could be the tipping point of how he will be remembered 100 years from now.  How it tips, I have no idea.  But I’ll be watching.

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8 responses to “On the Second Round and Beyond (NBA)

  1. 1) On your last possession, Steve Nash would be your third choice to give the ball to? Paul Pierce is rarely talked about in the topic of clutch players and is easily in my top five – over Nash, for sure.

    2) No chance in Miami for LeBron? I agree with Jeff Van Gundy, though. Chicago’s cast isn’t good enough to win with LeBron. The Nets’ cast is worse.

    3) The Maxim Hot 100 is an uncredible source. Their list is a joke.

    4) After the Cavs’ elimination, I may be in the minority of those whose view of James’s greatness hasn’t diminished one bit. LeBron has the worst best teammate out of any of the top guys, and it’s so disappointing that people don’t even acknowledge how badly Mo and Antawn played in the Boston series too.

    It’s impossible to win by yourself, and no, Lakers fans, Kobe couldn’t do it either. I read a great article about how symbolic it was when James ripped off his shirt in the tunnel, liberating himself from the Cavs. He should go.

  2. Your breakdown of Nash’s game is on point. I’d also like to point out the way he picks up his dribble with ONE HAND before finger rolling his layups over big men. It’s one silky smooth motion from a goofy white guy who has no business being that… er, um, smooth.

    I’d happily rank him in Kobe territory end-game.

    I have to say, New York IS making a big stink about landing Lebron– there’s a strip club offering him free lap dances for life. FOR LIFE. I’m pretty sure even Patrick Ewing had to pay in his prime.

    Lastly, your Beyonce obsession is realer than real.

  3. Extension to my #4. In Sunday’s L.A. Times, Plaschke and Simers both wrote about how we all forgot about Kobe throwing the game away in Game 7 against Phoenix in 2006. Same don’t-care demeanor as LeBron, it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s recognizing you can’t win and conceding defeat.

  4. 1.) If you’re talking about ability to create an open look for a buzzer beater, then Nash won’t rate very high. But the overall ability to control and, yes, take over a game in the final minutes? Nash is up there with the best. He’s not gonna make dumb mistakes. He can make any shot, from any range; you also have to respect his passing, which only makes his scoring ability more dangerous. With a lead in crunch time, he can extend his dribble to eat the clock, avoiding a trap, thus, also the need to call a timeout. Teams are then forced to foul, and, oh yeah, he’s a 90+ percent free throw shooter (this shouldn’t be overlooked). And he’s not afraid to miss. The last one is the kicker. There are maybe 5 players in the league who truly have no fear of missing a game-winning shot, and Nash is one of them.

    2.) Miami is definitely intriguing. And you better bet the house that Pat Riley comes back to coach the duo of LeBron and Wade. Damn, I’m liking this more and more. But their supporting cast isn’t better than Chicago’s. This might sound crazy, but I’ll take Rose and Noah over Wade and anyone on the Heat.

    I agree, however, that the Bulls roster isn’t a sure thing. But it’s worth the gamble. Because do you know what is a sure thing? That the current Cavs are not winning a title. And I don’t see them making a significant change by July. The Bulls and Nets (if they get Wall and another piece via a Devin Harris trade) have the POTENTIAL to be title teams.

    Also with the prospect of LeBron going to Miami, you have to mention pride. Bill Simmons said it best: Wade might be TOO good. LeBron doesn’t want people saying he won because of Wade. But, shit, it would be awesome to watch.

    3.) Good point about Kobe stinking it up in 2006. But people lambasted him for that performance. It’s only fair we do the same to LeBron, the best player in the league.

  5. That would be a foolish reason for LeBron not to join Wade. People say Kobe is two rings away from tying MJ, but he’s not even close. In only one of his four championships was he the Finals MVP while MJ was 6 for 6! Start winning some rings, and you won’t be worse than Kobe.

  6. You might’ve convinced me about Miami. I’m beginning to think it would work — the dynamics of LeBron and Wade, that is, not necessarily that team winning a championship. As long as LeBron out-produces Wade (which LeBron would) then people will view him as the alpha dog. But can Wade handle that?

    But if LeBron signs with Miami, the team will be different. They’d probably have to trade Michael Beasley and/or Mario Chalmers/Daequan Cook in order to free enough cap space to sign LeBron and re-sign Wade to max contracts. That leaves little money to acquire role players.

  7. I think Wade should be able to handle that for the same reason as LeBron, who’s not a lock to be the team leader. Either can be the aggressor on any given night, which is a good thing. It all comes back around to winning that first ring, which I think both players are willing to put aside their egos to play together.

    The NBA salary cap and player contracts aren’t always as clear as they should be, but correct me if I’m wrong. The Heat, and most of LeBron’s suitors (i.e. Knicks, Nets, Bulls), have the most cap space this offseason. Jermaine O’Neal’s $23 million contract is up, and let’s not overlook players like Amare, Boozer or Joe Johnson, who might be enticed to join if LeBron goes, much like what happened in Boston a couple of years ago.

  8. People tend to forget that Wade already has a ring. He has already climbed that peak, he has answered the critics, and he–not Shaq–was the biggest reason why they won. So Wade, more so even than LeBron, has earned the label of leader. I would like to think that Wade for the sake of winning could handle being overshadowed. But I’m not sure.

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