So much to discuss. Really, I'm about to burst. Let's play another round of America's new favorite game show, "NBA Fact or Fiction."
FACT OR FICTION: Game 2 of the Pacers-Pistons series was the first ESPN Classic game with a point total under 140.
That's a fact. Remarkable game. Just remarkable. Was anyone else disappointed by Barkley casually dismissing it with his "that was just crappy offense" barb? I can't remember seeing a team protect the rim like the Pistons did. It was like watching a hot goalie in an NHL playoff game. Nineteen blocks? Are you kidding me? And has there been a better block in a big moment than Tayshaun's rejection on Reggie in the closing seconds? That looked like one of the blocks at the end of "Above the Rim," when the crazy guy who practices without a basketball -- because that's certainly a realistic thing to do -- joins the climactic game wearing jeans and tennis sneakers, then starts swatting layups off those nine-foot rims.
Here's the problem: Since there isn't anyone in the series who can create his own shot -- like Kobe and Cassell in the Western finals, or even guys like Mike Bibby or Dwyane Wade -- the defenses are just too good for the offenses. This isn't like those Heat-Knicks series from the '90s, with both teams pulling a Johnny Ruiz, slowing things down and thugging it up because they couldn't think of anything better to do. These Pacers and Pistons teams are too much alike -- it's like watching two boxers slugging it out with the exact same styles.
Now it's coming down to one question: "Who wants to win more?" In many ways, it is like a boxing match. A good one.
(Note: This could change. Near the end of Game 3, the Pacers finally figured out that they needed to push the ball, wear out the Wallaces and take their chances with fast breaks and transition 3's. For some reason, it took Rick Carlisle 11 quarters to figure this out, which was 13 less quarters than it took Flip Saunders to figure out that KG could probably beat someone off the dribble who was playing on one leg. As you can tell, I'm not exactly doing backflips about the coaching this spring. Back to the column ...)
Anyway, I always thought that Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern finals between Boston and Philly was the most competitive game of all time. Those two teams hated each other to the point that it evolved into something beyond just basketball. It was like Ali-Frazier III -- they reached the point where they would have done ANYTHING not to lose. Bodies were crashing to the floor on every play down the stretch. I'm not kidding. Watch the tape. The referees basically just gave up with six minutes left and said, "Screw it, we're letting these guys settle it the old-fashioned way." Throw in the Garden and that remains one of the all-time underrated playoff games.
From a talent standpoint, Game 2 of Indy-Detroit couldn't hold a candle to that game. Nobody from either team would have gotten crunch-time minutes over Bird, Maxwell, Parish, Toney, Cheeks, Jones, Tiny and Doc. It's not happening. And maybe the intensity isn't quite as good, but it's damned close. So start watching if you like this stuff. Don't listen to Barkley.
And if you're still not sold, I offer you four carrots:
1. The ongoing chess match between Rip Hamilton and Reggie Miller -- "Who can run the other guys through more screens before keeling over?" Two generations colliding. Good stuff.
2. This has been such a stressful series, Rick Carlisle's hair is actually receding by the quarter. If this baby goes seven -- which it won't, because the Pistons will win in six -- he may even surpass Jerry Sichting as "Baldest guy from the '86 Celts."
3. Darko cheering from the bench with tape over his earlobes ... he's either hiding earrings or this is some sort of bizarre Serbian fashion statement. Either way, putting Darko in this series is like putting Corey Haim in "Saving Private Ryan."
4. Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest ... actually, let's give them their own segment.
FACT OR FICTION: Rasheed Wallace is the craziest person in the Pacers-Pistons series.
I'm going with fiction. Maybe Rasheed acts more consistently insane, but on those rare days when Artest loses his cool, everyone's in danger: Players, referees, coaches, sportswriters, fans sitting in the first few rows, even the ballboys. So it's probably a draw. Comparing them to movie villains, Rasheed is like Ganz in "48 Hours" (just a complete lunatic, overreacting to everything), while Artest is more like Nicholson in "The Shining" (silently smoldering, ready to erupt and start swinging an ax at any time).
More importantly, why hasn't anyone made a bigger deal of Artest and 'Sheed being in the same series? Who's going to have a full-scale flip-out first? What happens if they ever cross one another? Would they fight to the death? Would their teammates break it up or be too scared to enter the fray? Should we implant electroshock devices in their tibias like the ones Brando used in the "Island of Dr. Moreau"?
(One other question on 'Sheed: Have you ever wondered what he's like in other aspects of his life? Like if you were playing Scrabble on him, and you used a word like "queue," and he never heard of it -- which seems highly possible -- would he jump back from the table, throw his hands in the air and start stomping around the room and laughing sarcastically to himself until you picked up the tiles? I need to know these things. And can you imagine Rasheed guest-starring on a reality-show like "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," screaming at Coral because it's her turn to go into the inferno and she's trying to back out? We need to explore the studio space with this guy. Seriously.)
FACT OR FICTION: The Timberwolves could have beaten the Lakers with a healthy Sam Cassell.
Fiction. Minnesota rolled the dice with Cassell (34) and Sprewell (33) last summer, hoping that they would stay healthy over a nine-month season for 100-plus games. Didn't happen. That's not bad luck ... that's a direct result of their second- and third-best guys being a combined 67 years old. You are what you are.
FACT OR FICTION: By the time the Summer Olympics take place, our USA Hoops Team will have a starting five of Brian Cardinal, Mark Blount, Kyle Korver, Earl Boykins and Brian McKnight.
That's fiction. Although I think we're headed that way. Here's what I think we should do: With everyone backing out, we're going to lose, anyway. Right?
Why not bring back the original Dream Team? That's right ... Bird, Magic, MJ, Ewing, Robinson, Malone, Stockton, Mullin, Barkley, Laettner, Pippen and Drexler!!!!
The Dream Team Reincarnated!!!!
Here's the plan: We give them two months to play themselves back in shape, work out the kinks and see what happens. if anyone gets injured, we immediately substitute Shaq, Duncan and/or T-Mac, any of whom would be happy just to be in the same room with these guys. The other countries would be so psyched out, they wouldn't know what to do. So what if Magic and Barkley weigh a combined 800 pounds? So what if Larry's back is made of paper mache at this point? This is the Dream Team! Like they wouldn't get every call -- the Olympic Committee would be gleefully cloning Dick Bavetta just to keep the magic going. Just imagine the boys making it to the gold medal game ... my God, that baby would be like "USA 4, USSR 3" multiplied by 10. I'm not even kidding. I think I would lose control of my bowels.
(See, you think I'm joking, but the more you're thinking about it, you're like, "Hmmmmmmmmm." Isn't it nice to have me back? Come on ... you missed me. Admit it.)
FACT OR FICTION: KG's Game 7 performance against the Kings belongs on the short list of great playoff performances.
That's fiction. Look, I'm happy for KG. He's one of the few genuinely likable superstars in the league. He deserved his turn in the limelight, the SI cover, the ludicrous comparisons to MJ, all that stuff. Thanks to that Kings series, even my mom knows who he is now ... although she calls him "KGB."
There's just one little problem: What took him so long?
Last time I checked, there wasn't a single guy on the Kings who could guard him. And I'm not even talking about "Keep him in check" or "Make him work as hard as possible to get that 30-20." The Kings didn't have anyone. Miller and Divac were far too slow. Peja didn't have the height. And poor C-Webb was limping around like his knee surgery had been performed by Dr. Dre. It was like the old "White Shadow" episode where Ken Reeves contemplates a comeback, then ends up getting his butt kicked in a one-on-one workout. All Webber was missing was the cheesy '70s knee brace.
If KG tossed up a 32-21 in a Game 7 against a healthy Duncan, the Wallaces or even a healthy Webber ... absolutely, get the guys from ESPN Classic on the phone. But I watched every minute of that entire series. He should have been killing the Kings from Game 1.
(Put it this way: If the late-'80s version of MJ was playing in this series, and Craig Ehlo was trying to guard him with a bum knee for seven games, do you think we would have waited until Game 7 for MJ to lay the smack down? Please. Pantheon Guys take care of business, and Pantheon Guys definitely do NOT mess around. That's why KG is still sitting in the waiting room while we review his application.)
FACT OR FICTION: As their NBA Lottery representative, the Suns chose Diana Taurasi for this week's lottery draft.
Sadly, that's a fact. Usually I enjoy when randoms represent the lottery teams -- like Toronto's hysterical choice of Chris Bosh, who looked right at the cameras after they drew the seventh pick, then gave one of those "Man, I don't give a (bleep), I'm just psyched to be on TV!" smiles. Or seeing B.J. Armstrong sitting there with a hostile, "I took John Paxson's job 11 years ago, and don't think I can't do it again" vibe about him.
But those choices always have SOME connection to the team. How does a WNBA player end up as a lottery representative? What would have happened if the Suns landed the first pick? How would that interview have gone? Congratulations, Diana ... even though you have no connection with the Suns, and you're only here because the NBA will stop at nothing to promote the WNBA, even if it means alienating its diehard fans and making a joke of the lottery ... um, congratulations, anyway. I'm sure Suns fans would have LOVED to hear her thoughts on the No. 1 pick.
Reader Jason Willan from Louisville thinks that the league should swing the other way on this: "Wouldn't it be more interesting if every team in the lottery sent a representative that made absolutely no sense, yet still had some obscure tie to the city or franchise? My interest in the Draft Lottery telecast would increase exponentially. Representing the Cleveland Cavaliers ... Jim Brown! Representing the Washington Wizards ... Colin Powell! Representing the Miami Heat ... Phillip Michael Thomas!"
(I loved the Philip Michael Thomas joke ... that killed me. Imagine him sitting between Mike Dunleavy and Pat Williams in one of those white linen suits?)
One other note on the lottery: When they announced Pat Williams was representing the Magic, was anyone else absolutely convinced that the Magic would win? How did I not gamble on this? For God's sake, I gambled on Shaq's combined points and rebounds in Game 1 -- 37.5, and yes, I covered -- and I couldn't have thrown $100 down on the luckiest man alive? I hope he's available for my next Vegas trip -- his presence would almost make up for the Siegfried and Roy sign being gone from the Mirage.
Speaking of Williams ...
FACT OR FICTION: It isn't a big deal that Orlando won the lottery since there isn't a LeBron-caliber guy available.
That's fiction. Emeka Okafor will be a much better pro than people think, especially in the East. As Mike Francesa would say, "Lemme tell you something, Okafor and McGrady, that is not a bad foundation ... that is NOT a bad foundation." Now they need to send Paulie Walnuts and Sylvio over to Grant Hill's summer house to "talk to him" about retirement.
Four other lottery notes:
1. Cleveland picks 10th. Charlotte picks fourth and needs bodies. I would love to see Luol Deng end up in Cleveland and become the Pippen to LeBron's MJ. What about DaJuan Wagner, his prostate infection and the No. 10 pick to the Bobcats for No. 4? Can't the Commish call this one in? I'd hate to see the Cavs waste that pick on a high schooler -- they're ready to win now.
2. Ben Gordon is probably falling into the 10-13 range, which means everyone who passes on him is going to feel very, very dumb in about nine months.
3. Where does Elgin Baylor get off skipping the lottery? Couldn't they have just inserted stock footage, or a CGI digital image of him smiling when the Clippers landed the second pick?
4. I took a quick glimpse through Chad Ford's mock draft ... I mean, I didn't recognize half the names. These were people I have NEVER heard of before. We may have to hook my Dad up to an EKG right now just to be safe. Remember the days when you could read up on the upcoming draft and have more than two or three opinions about the proceedings? Now we're sifting through 20-letter Euro names and random high school kids trying to remember who's who -- it's like studying for an AP History exam or something.
Speaking of Chad -- a good guy, by the way -- here's something he wrote after last June's draft:
"Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3 and plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5 positions. OK, a few other guys can do that too; what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, Milicic plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. While he won't be asked to carry the Pistons, he's capable of doing this earlier than you think."
(I've said it before, I'll say it again: It sucks having an archive page. Just check out my takes on Yao vs. Jay Williams, the Eddie Griffin trade, the 2003 Celtics and every other inane argument I've ever made. Hey, every columnist has had a few stinkers over the years. But in the Pantheon of "Wow, I Wish That Wasn't In My Archives" moments, doesn't that previous paragraph dwarf everything else? I almost feel like sending Chad flowers. Let's just move on.)
FACT OR FICTION: The 2004 playoffs has featured more replays of players running back up the court after a basket and angrily muttering the word "Mother******" than all the other playoffs combined.
That's a fact. For instance, KG's Game 2 display against the Lakers was off the charts -- it was like Wilt's 100-point game for 12-letter words. Really fun for the whole family.
FACT OR FICTION: The Lakers are on cruise control.
Fact. I liked Kenny Smith's "Walkman" analogy, how they look like they could just as easily be wearing Walkmans and launching half-assed jumpers in a shootaround. That's the Lakers right now, headed for another title, searching for mini-challenges to keep them interested, failing to connect on any sort of higher level. It's the worst possible champion -- too good to be beaten, not quite good enough to be remembered.
Take Shaq. He played inspired basketball in Game 1, just about decimating the Wolves by himself ... and that was it for him. He mailed in the next two games worse than Crystal and DeNiro in "Analyze That." It was like seeing someone playing with their little brothers, dominating them for a little while, realizing they had nothing to gain by trying so hard ... suddenly they're messing around and launching 25-footers from behind the Dodge Stratus. He just didn't care. Then he showed up for Game 4 and tossed up a 19-19. Good to see you again, Shaq. We'll let you know when the Finals start.
Kobe? Never has someone played at such a high level and looked so profoundly tormented, so singlemindedly joyless, so utterly disconnected from his teammates. Maybe there isn't any other way. It's just been awkward. That's the only word to describe it. There was a jarring scene during the postgame of Game 4, when the cameras caught Kobe walking in the runway towards the locker room. He spotted his wife and baby, raised his arms happily and skipped over to them, kissing them both as the security guards and hangers-on pretended not to watch. Everyone was probably thinking the same thing: Hi, honey, how was your rape trial today? Just plain awkward. Poor Ernie Johnson couldn't throw it to the break fast enough.
As for Malone and Payton, neither one of them seems to be enjoying themselves. It's like the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for, it may come true." These guys wanted a ring, but not like this -- not as replaceable parts in a traveling soap opera. Poor Malone can't even make a 15-footer anymore; he's basically turned into PJ Brown or Brian Grant, a role player who does underappreciated, nitty-gritty things that rarely get noticed. Let's be honest: He's not even 50 percent of the same player he was in Utah. During Games 4 and 5 against the Spurs, he was legitimately terrified to shoot.
Then again, so was Payton, whose season has been so dreadful from start to finish, writers were making a big fuss this week because he outplayed Darrick Martin in consecutive games. Yikes. This offense couldn't possibly be worse for him -- he can't shoot 3's, he hates standing around, he needs the ball in his hands at all times. It's like Chinese water torture for him. Plus, he can't guard anyone anymore, so he basically had to stomp his feet after Game 2 of the Spurs series and beg for help. Because he looks exactly the same as he did 10 years ago, it's hard to separate Hall of Fame GP from End Of His Career GP. Trust me ... we're watching the latter.
And yet the Lakers are going to win another title, for the same reason they won the first three titles: Kobe and Shaq. They lost to the Spurs last season because their supporting cast was so mindbogglingly awful, even those two guys couldn't overcome it. Now they have a mediocre supporting cast -- and let's face it, as far as 3rd-thru-6th guys go in this league, Fisher, Malone, George and Payton are average at best -- but that was enough for them to (barely) fend off the Spurs. Still, nobody looks like they're having fun. And they clearly aren't playing to their potential; they were much more dangerous back in November.
For me, Phil Jackson has been the most fascinating figure here. He seems exhausted from managing egos and diffusing various time bombs, like one of those dads who fathered too many kids and sits around fantasizing about when everyone will finally be out of the house. Even when Fisher beat the Spurs in Game 5, Jackson looked like he couldn't wait to drive home and catch the last 20 minutes of "CSI." According to the rumor mill out here, Jackson and Kobe barely speak; one of them won't be back next year, and since nobody on the team feels like dealing with Kobe anymore -- regardless of how the trial turns out -- Kobe will probably be the one to leave. He's like Johnny Sack. He needs to run his own family, anyway.
That doesn't change the fact that Jackson's coaching has been lazy and uninspired all season (the team was genuinely unprepared for the Spurs series). Players openly took shots at him all winter, as he stubbornly stuck to the triangle and refused to cater to Payton's few remaining strengths (they ran maybe six pick-and-rolls with Payton and Malone all season). Good coaches adjust their system to their players; after nine titles, Jackson pompously assumes that his players should adjust to him. Win or lose, it's probably time for him to go. At a later date, we can delve into the question of "Great coach, lucky coach or both?"
And on that note ... see you for the Finals.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine