On Forcing Game Seven and the NBA Playoffs

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salmons.jpgYou should know going in that I hate the NBA.  This isn't because I hate basketball, it's because basketball (and the NBA) have been unkind to me.  The team of my youth, the New York Knicks, has never failed to disappoint.  The team of my present, the Brooklyn Nets, doesn't exist and won't ever exist.  And the team of my future, the New York Knicks starring Lebron James, might never happen.  But there's no way to tell at this point and it's all immaterial right now anyway.  Because I've just watched a series-tying game six in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest NBA playoff series ever played.  The Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls took it to three overtimes and the Bulls came out with a one point win at home to force a deciding game seven Saturday night in Boston.  I never thought I would fall in line with the great NBA marketing machine, but the truth is that Amazing did happen.  And I was watching.

Let's jump right to the third overtime because trying to recount the entire game could never do it justice.  There were a myriad of mind-blowing plays which included, in no particular order, Boston's Paul Pierce fouling out on an And-1 dunk by Chicago's Joakim Noah that gave the Bulls a two point lead.  Kirk Heinrich missed a layup in traffic that would have made the end entirely different.  Big Baby Glen Davis fouled out on the most awkward steal attempt I've ever seen and Eddie House had his foot on the line making a corner three that would have tied only a two.  And in the defining possession of the game, Boston point guard Rajon Rondo was rejected by Chicago point guard Derrick Rose.  All this and about five other ridiculous things happened in the last few minutes of that third overtime, and when it was all said and done, Ray Allen scored 51, John Salmons scored 35 and Boston will host Game 7.

I hadn't watched a moment of regular season NBA action all year, there was always a reason to watch something else.  Either it was the World Series, the NFL, the NFL playoffs, March Madness or Spring Training.  But even now that there's no football and the Mets are worse than ever, there's no reason that I would start watching NBA basketball.  Except I love the playoffs.  Because they are wholly different from the regular season; it's almost like watching two entirely different sports.

The NBA regular season is a stream of isolated incidents, and while that makes each individual game challenging to a certain few, it makes them wholly uninteresting to many.  I'm not breaking any new ground by bringing up the general fall from cultural awareness grace that the NBA has suffered in the last ten years, as the NFL has risen to prominence and the NBA teeters on the verge of the purgatory that the NHL finds itself in.  The problem is that each individual regular season NBA game means nothing.  There are too many games for each one to hold any significance the way NFL games do.  And they aren't organized the way baseball games are such that importance can transfer from the game to the series.  When two NBA teams meet up in January, it's tough to discern the real importance of performing well in this particular one, there's little to separate this game from the one two nights later in another town in front of another dwindling crowd, and there's plenty of time to make up for this loss later.  This is why we are able to separate the great players from the good ones by deciding who takes nights off and who never does.  This is why it's so easy to ignore individual games if you're a casual fan, and thus ignore the NBA entirely.

Obviously there are greater problems with the league.  Officiating continues to be the largest issue facing the games as calls, both good and bad, have way too much affect on each contest.  Certain teams are in major trouble financially having made their revenue stream dependent on the sale of luxury suites and incredibly expensive court side seats.  But I think it's the way in which each individual game is wholly disposable that causes the bigger problems: the nights off that star players take, the "I'm gonna get mine tonight" attitude that so many stars have on so many random nights in February, the working out of the kinks that you see so often, when it's clear that a team is working on high pick and rolls on one night and the point guard is focusing on assists.  Each game is the same as a single at-bat between a closer and a slugger, one guy does what he does best while the other does that too.  And what we miss is adjustment.

Playoff series in the NBA are a game of adjustment, a game that we don't get during the regular season and something that is always on display in a great series like the one between the Bulls and the Celtics.  We get the nip and tuck of a real battle, because these teams have seen each other and know what they want to do and what they can do.  Great players are the focus of tough defenses and other lesser players must step up, and we truly measure the worth of the team.  Maybe the NBA would be well served to have teams play each other twice before moving to the next opponent in the regular season; this would make things much more interesting for me as a fan.  In baseball, because the most influential player on the field changes daily, the starting pitcher, it's only natural that the battle between two teams would have to encompass multiple games, because one starting pitcher does not a team make.  This is how games are unimportant per se, but series are.  A rubber match, the sweep, fighting off getting swept, tipping a road trip from four and five to five and four, the big picture in baseball is always in play and the NBA could not only increase the importance of each individual game by making it part of a larger contest, but could probably also increase devotion amongst casual fans.  Tuning in to the third quarter of a game when your team is playing a team that is so far from a rival you can't name two of the starting five might mean a little more if you could look for ways to beat them the next night, and do so with the knowledge that the coaching staff was doing the same.  Because beating a team when they are doing whatever they can to take you out of your element is truly the measure of your worth, and a reason to keep watching.

No two teams have done this as well as the Bulls and the Celtics and that's why they have played seven overtime periods in six games and why their series is one of the best that's ever been played.  These teams keep doing whatever they can to slow the other one down and thus have to keep finding new ways to win.  It's what makes this a battle and nothing like the stompings that the Cavaliers, the Lakers, and the Nuggets inflicted on their opponents.  The Bulls came in ready to stop Ray Allen and did in Game 1.  Defensive schemes were worked out and Ray went wild in Game 2, only to be focused on again in Game 5 while Paul Pierce carried the load in the fourth quarter and overtime, ending the game hitting 5 of 5 from the field.  The Celts shut Derrick Rose down with flashing picks in Games 4 and 5, but that left Ben Gordon free to do his thing, and reversed that tonight, letting John Salmons get his thirty-five points, while rendering Gordon all but moot.  But more important than what was done is what they might do next.  How can Chicago contain Kendrick Perkins on the offensive glass, how can Boston keep either Allen or Pierce from fouling out too early?  How can each team adjust their schemes to allow one fewer basket than they did tonight, because that basket made or missed will win the series?

These are questions that might be answered with hours of tape and countless diagrams on wall-sized white boards covered with X's and O's.  They might not be answered at all and Game 7 could be another tight game that goes on seemingly forever.  Either way, I'm just gonna sit back and enjoy it and hope that it lives up to what this series has been so far, with its myriad clutch shots and last second threes, the difference between victory and defeat something less than a quarter of an inch or a quarter of a second.  And I'll hope it lives up to what I watched tonight, and what I keep hoping each NBA game can be.  I hope that each game can end as dramatically, with a blocked shot with twenty seconds left, another chapter in a great battle of young point guards.  With missed free throws that may or may not give life to the other team.  When it was over, I sat on my couch watching David Aldridge interview Derrick Rose about the meaning of the win and what it will be like to go to Boston for Game 7.  TNT switched to the Rockets beating the Blazers by almost twenty at the half.  And I turned off the television, because there was nothing left to see.


  • 1

    As a fan of a fellow looser team (Denver) I have to say that my nipples are just a little erect right now over their dominating performance in the first round. I sure hope that by some fluke Houston knocks the Lakers out of the next round. Go Nuggets!

  • 2

    "...that the NBA has suffered in the last ten years.."

    I hope you're not insinuating that the rise of the Spurs had anything to do with this.

  • 3

    During one of the 14 commercial breaks in the last minute of the fourth quarter I changed the channel to "Renovation Nation" on the Green Channel and forgot all about the game. An hour later, after learning how to install a sustainable concrete kitchen counter top, I remembered I was watching an NBA game. How about this one? DVR could save the NBA...

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