EDITOR'S NOTE: With the NBA Finals finally set, Page 2's Eric Neel and Scoop Jackson got together to let us know what we'll see from the Spurs and Pistons in the next couple weeks. Here's their conversation.
Eric Neel: Scoop, in the true spirit of playoff-frenzied hyperbole, let me say this: For years now the title of Most-Important-Late-Season-Added-Ingredient (in any sport) has belonged to Fred McGriff and his timely, homer-mad arrival in Hotlanta once upon a time. For years now, other late-season arrivals have been known in my world as "McGriffs." Steve Finley was a "McGriff." Nazr Mohammed is a "McGriff." But after Monday night, things are going to be different. After Monday night, McGriff ain't nothing but a "'Sheed."
People say all the time that the Pistons lack a personality, lack an identity. They say maybe it's Larry's team, maybe it's Joe D's club. Forget that noise. This club belongs to Rasheed Wallace.
Scoop Jackson: Ain't nothin' but a 'Sheed thang, baby! But he got the "McGriff" award last year, didn't he? I mean, without him they don't even have Belt One. There's a difference between someone who makes the difference and someone who is the reason. The Pistons have too many ball players for one player to be the difference in whether or not they win games, but they do have someone that often is the reason they win games. And that player happens to be Roscoe.
Neel: Tell me more. Reason it out for me. Get Kantian about it if need be.
Jackson: 'Sheed gave that team an id (as in id, ego, superego). It's just that simple. So far, the Pistons have been able to benefit from it. And everyone in the locker room knows it. Even though he got a chip last season, I think it was this final game against the Heat that "absolved" him of that Game 7 against the Lakers in 2000 when he was with the Blazers. I think this game got 'Sheed off the hook.
Neel: Too bad the same can't be said for Steve Smith, eh? An id is right. And that may be Deeeeeeeeetroit Baaaaaaaaaaaasketball's biggest edge in the Finals: They have a molten center, the one thing the ice cool Spurs lack. I know Manu brings heat, and I know TP brings the Energizer, but that's not the same thing. In Rasheed (did you see him jawing at Bavetta last night, tightroping on the line between fired up and T'd up?) Detroit has strut, has some Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. It's an id thing, TD will never understand.
Jackson: Now, you know how I feel about TD. I'm like the poor man's David Dupree when it comes to him. I've told you before: If I were to start a team ... he's that cat with me. That spit, I don't know how much strut is going to get by on the Spurs. They got rings too. And it's not like the Lakers last year didn't have rings, but they had drama. Pop has a drama-free team playing in a drama-free system. And as much as I love 'Sheed and I do believe that he'll play well the Pistons can't get away with winning this series against the Spurs playing the way they did at times against the Heat. There's no room for BS against Texas, baby!
Neel: I'm with you. I said "biggest edge," but I should have said something more like "only edge." I know they have heart, and I know they D up and all that, and I know I'm going to get beaten about the head with nasty e-mail after nasty e-mail when I say it, but San Antonio wins this series. Six at the outside.
Jackson: Wow! I can't argue though. Heck, if you go back and check, I had SA out in Round 1 to Denver. That's because I thought Tim was hurt for real, but still ... SA has proven me wrong one time too many. I've learned my lesson, son. Stop betting against 'em. So you sayin' in six? I don't know if I can commit to that yet, but I feel you.
The matchups will be bananas!
Manu vs. Rip. Choose.
Pop vs. LB. Choose.
Tay vs. BB. Choose.
Neel: Manu, because like Wade, he will find the gaps in the defense and make the Pistons choose between him and the big fella.
Pop. This is tough, because they're both good, but for me it comes down to a certain flexibility in Pop, a certain willingness to experiment. I'm still thinking about the Ginobili-off-the-bench bit, I guess. And I'm still thinking about how, even when the circumstances were desperate, LB left LeBron and Melo on the bench in the Olympics.
Jackson: Don't forget Amare.
Neel: And Amare, thank you very much. And as for your last pair, I'll says this: Tayshaun should take off in this series. Assuming the Spurs are using Bowen on Rip, Tayshaun should abuse Horry, Barry, the ghost of Larry Kenon, whomever.
Jackson: True indeed, but like Ben Wallace, Tay seemed to be Swayze in games during the last series. So I don't know if he's going to snap off in this one.
Neel: You're right about this, and I'm not sure what the deal is. It's like he doesn't know what he has yet. He's like a young Clark Kent or something, unsure of his powers, worried about abusing them and maybe slaying some innocent mortal bystanders in the process. The kid is a McHalian freak. He's near unstoppable if he'd just make like Pan and believe.
But OK, here's the $64K Q: Why should anybody watch this series? No Funball. No Diesel and D-Wade. No TNT, no drama. What's the point?
Jackson: Because, bottom line, theses are the two best teams in basketball. This is the NBA's version of this year's NCAA. No excuses, no injuries, no frontin' allowed. Anyone who doesn't appreciate this ... shame on 'em.
Neel: But aren't you just talking paper talk? If we talk aesthetics, and if you don't live in Detroit or San Antone (where folks are rightfully geeked up about their clubs ... please note bone-throwing by writer about to incur the wrath of the yellow rose and the curse of Berry Gordy), isn't there a chance that this is going to be one ugly, Ernie Shavers-meets-Larry Holmes sort of fight?
Jackson: To me, for years, it's never been about the major cities or the stars. It's been about the squads. I think San Antonio is not the same stoic team we saw two years ago. Manu and Cuz (TP) have each come into their own. And if these people don't enjoy watching Manu-Ball, like my moms used to say: "Feed 'em beans."
Neel: All right, but make mine like Louis Jordan's, make it "beans and cornbread," if you please.
Jackson: And by now, I think the general public has finally gotten around to learning how to appreciate Duncan's game/style of ball. His situation, for real, is really like Pete Sampras in tennis. When Pete came into the game McEnroe and Connors were on the way out, and Agassi was the new cat. All flash. Pete got slept on because everyone said his game was "boring" and no one wanted to watch him play. After about 10 years, people started to get it. Once they got it, they never missed another Sampras match again. He became a ratings cash cow for a lot of the networks. That's TD now. I think the public "gets it" with him now. Finally.
And with the lovely shots of Eva in her Tony Parker jersey, the general televison audience should be happy regardless.
Neel: I was wondering how long it would take you to get to that. You were high-roading it for a while, giving me the human drama of athletic competition crap.
Jackson: Yeah, I'm back. Hey I just wanna see how bad she is. Think she's going to show up in Detroit? Man, if she does that ... she's gangsta for real.
Neel: If she shows up in Detroit and flirts with Kid Rock for a bit, before leaning away just as he goes in for the cheek kiss, then she's hardcore.
Jackson: If she does that, just for the TV ratings, Pam will show up and claim that she and Kid Rock never "officially" broke up. Then you'd have two of the illest desperate housewives on the planet in the same arena. The only thing missing would be some towels and Terrell Owens.
Neel: Did you see Pam on the cover of, I think it's Maxim, saying "I think of my breasts as props"? I was like, um, who doesn't, sister?
Jackson: Yeah, but the photo spread to me was wack. They tried to do the "dark" thing with her and it didn't work. She needs to be bright at all times her face is too pretty to pull off gothic. But yeah, I saw the quote, and while Trix are for kids, props are for grown-ups. All that said, on the strength, if they put Eva or Pam next to Chauncey's wife, it's a warp. They're over.
Now here's the Detroit thing that gets me: For some reason and I blame Chauncey for this the Pistons play better the deeper their hole is, the further their backs are against the wall. It's like they enjoy the pressure. They feed off of it. Can they get away with that against SA? Chauncey likes it like this. He lives for this pressure. He's like the kid they said Kobe was in high school, Norelco-ing points so that the game will be tight and he can win it at the end; you know, Burt Reynolds in the original "Longest Yard," giving ol' Eddie Albert the 21-point cushion before he got into Capt. Save-A-Game mode. That's Chauncey. But what I'm fearing is that, the team may have taken on that demeanor, and everyone ain't like CB.
Neel: I can see both teams playing it so cool as to get themselves in trouble, actually. Parker seems almost bored at times. And Duncan, with the bum ankle and the constant threat of a bum night at the line, can, as great as he is, be a non-factor. I can see a scenario, particularly in the first few games, where both teams, like jockeys heading into the clubhouse turn, try to put on a rush in the late-third and early-fourth quarters. That'd be some very good TV, by the way.
On the historical scale of matchups, where do you reasonably anticipate this series will fall, if the height is Lakers-Celts in, say, '87, and the low point is maybe Spurs-Knicks or Celtics-Rockets?
Jackson: On the historical, I think it will be in between. Better than last year's Finals, I can say that.
I will say this: Robert Horry is going to win one game at the buzzer. Without a doubt.
Neel: Fun Horry facts: .350 career number from three in the playoffs, and .430 from the field. Not to say that he's not legit, and not to say that I don't love him just to say, you know, there've been some big misses, too.
What other predictions are you feeling? Here's one of mine: Somebody achieves icon status. These two teams are appreciated, but only in a roundabout way, like you said about Duncan and the Sampras effect (talk about damning with faint praise, by the way). And I think in this series, when they go head-to-head, we're in for some defining moment some night when someone steps up, like D-Wade tried to do Monday night, and overcomes pain or illness, or the relentless distraction of Eva Longoria, and pulls a Willis out of his backside and enters the pantheon once and for all.
I'm not talking about a one-shot, Dave-Roberts-steals-second, Keith-Smart-sinks-Cuse sort of thing, either. I'm talking about Schilling in Game 6, or MJ with the flu in Game 5 of '97. And my hunch is that it's either going to be Tony Parker or Rip Hamilton who pulls it off.
Jackson: Is Ms. Cleo sitting next to you with her crystal meth, I mean, ball? You tryna put someone in the Big Game James file? If anyone, I think it may be Rip. He's due. I just had someone the other day come up to me and comment on how they didn't know how nice Rip was. If anyone elevates, it'll be him.
But again. Ben can't be BS'n. That six-rebounds-a-game deal gotta cease. People talk about 'Sheed and Rip, but Body is the only All-Star on that squad last time I checked. And if he goes vapors on Tim it'll be the quickest six games you'll ever see in yer life.
Neel: You're right about Ben (my daughter's favorite Piston ... she likes saying, "Big Ben is grabbing it, Daddy!"), and he's going to have his hands F-U-L-L with the Nazr/Duncan situation, can I just say ...
But on this other thing, let me clarify: I'm not saying anyone will be worthy of Worthy Chick Hearn would smite me just for being in the room when such blaspheming was going on I'm just saying circumstance is a part of the icon thing, too. And this year it isn't about the Lakers, or even Shaq, and it isn't about an upset, or a plucky band of brothers, or any of that. This year, like you said, it's about the two best teams having all our attention for two weeks. And in that circumstance, where the story lines aren't already claimed or cookie-cuttered out ahead of time, a man can rise up, if the lighting is right, if the twine is kind, and become something more than what he is, or what he ever has been up until that point. It happened to Hendrix at Monterey Pop, and it can happen to Rip in the Finals.
Jackson: It's his time to shine. But to me the key is offensive rebounds and turnovers. This series is not going to be called like the last one (horrible ... the league needs to look into possibly using some of the younger refs in the playoffs). And because of that, whichever team is more aggressive on D, causing turnovers, and whoever is strongest on the offensive glass will become famous.
Neel: Offensive glass and turnovers ... an ABC programming director's dream come true.
Jackson: I also think that Detroit's willingness to walk the ball up the court will take away the Spurs' strongest suit: Transition defense. Not to get "coachy" on you, but those three things could be the difference in the series.
Neel: You sound like you're headed for a prediction of the series winner, here, Champ ...
Jackson: I was itchin' a bit, but I think I've talked my way into a prediction. But before I settle, isn't it funny how neither of us mentioned Glenn Robinson's name once? Has he dropped like that, or is he primed to be a factor in the next 10 days?
Neel: I had some feeling for Big Dog before the Seattle series, but he never surfaced, unless you count the occasional (huh?) defensive stop. He's a mystery to me. Can he no longer shoot? If he can shoot, shouldn't he be a factor in a series that stands to be a whole lot slower than the one the Spurs played against Phoenix? He does, right?
So can he still shoot or is it gone? Is this something you just lose one morning, the way DeNiro apparently lost his good judgment the morning he agreed to "Analyze That"? I don't know, but if I had to guess, I'd say he can still shoot. And if that's true, like John Daly, Pop ought to, just once, just to see what would happen, sit back and let the Big Dog eat.
Jackson: But here's the real reason my gut is telling me San An will win it this year. Because next year they're going to have to play Miami in the Finals. And next year, the Heat isn't losing to anyone. East or West. Shaq's going to get his before his contract is done.
Neel: I have a Shaq devolution theory I'm working up; it involves a not-so-favorable comparison between him and Arvydas. But I'm going to save that for another time. Except to say this: Mix in a pass, big boy.
Now, about that call of yours?
Jackson: Damn. I knew you were going to reel that predict back in: All right, I'm (reluctantly) taking Detroit in seven. But understand this ... I believe San Antonio is the best team in the NBA and my gut (abdomen, ribs, lower extremities, etc.) feels SA winning this thing easy. Like I said, in the last month they've proven to me that I should never pull/bet against them. But I said at the beginning of the season the DP were going to double-up. So I'll stick with my original selection. Too late to be a punk now and flip, right?
Neel: Right. Now, given my Spurs pick earlier (like last July), what's the bet?
Jackson: The loser has to tell his wife about his Eva fantasy.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.