In case you're scoring at home, we're still running down a dream. Here are 12 burning questions as we head into one of the more fascinating weekends in recent NBA history ...
Question No. 1: What has been the unsung story of the playoffs?
Dirk Nowitzki. Although that could change after his torching of Phoenix on Thursday night -- 50 points, 12 rebounds and one of the all-time "we're not gonna lose this game" explosions (scoring 24 of 34 Dallas points in one stretch to put the game away). I know Nash won the MVP, LeBron and Wade have more upside, Duncan is the best all-around player, Kobe is the most explosive ... but if you could count on one franchise guy in a playoff series this spring, would you pick anyone other than the world's most famous Hasselhoff fan?
It's been refreshing to watch a great player refine his game and make the necessary fundamental/philosophical changes to become a dominant force -- like realizing that it's not OK to bitch out teammates on national TV, or finding a consistent way to punish smaller defenders on isolation plays. Even before Thursday, I thought Dirk took a Bob Beamon-level leap from "Franchise Guy" to "Potential Pantheon Guy" over the past six weeks, capped off by his incredible seven-game stretch from Game 3 of the Spurs series through Game 3 of the Suns series where he averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds a game and made the single biggest play of the playoffs: the three-point play in Game 7 against the Spurs.
Considering the circumstances, didn't that play rank with Magic's sky hook against the '87 Celtics, Bird's steal-and-pass against the '87 Pistons, MJ's basket-steal-basket sequence to end the '98 Finals, Jerry West's half-court bomb to save Game 2 of the '70 Finals and every other I-need-to-come-up-big-RIGHT-NOW clutch play in NBA history? Think about the context: Dallas was 20 seconds away from blowing a 3-games-to-1 lead, trailing by three with 20 seconds left, reeling from a blown 20-point lead and a gut-wrenching, go-ahead bomb from Ginobili, and they were playing on the road to boot. So they call the play for Nowitzki, who would have settled for a fallaway jumper as recently as last spring. Not this year. He takes Bruce Bowen into the paint with that herky-jerky, back-you-down move he developed over the summer, sneaks by him, gets to the rim, absorbs the contact from Ginobili, finishes the shot, draws the foul AND buries the free throw.
Ask yourself this one: How many superstars have singlehandedly altered the course of the playoffs with one play?
One more: Is there anyone who can guard Nowitzki right now? Opponents don't bother sticking the taller Duncan/Garnett types on him (Dirk beats them off the dribble whenever he wants). The Bowen/Bell types don't have a chance because of his creative post-guys-up-at-the-foul-line game, which has become unstoppable now that he mastered his fallaway turnaround. So who's left? Lanky forwards like Shawn Marion or Tim Thomas would seem to have the best chance -- they haven't come close to stopping Nowitzki but at least made him work for his points -- but even when Dirk's shot isn't falling, he's adopted the Larry Bird trick of crashing the offensive boards and making up those points on putbacks and foul shots. And we haven't even mentioned his 3-point shooting yet. I just don't think there's any way to fully shut him down.
Which brings me to my point: Dirk is playing at a higher level than any forward since Bird. Everyone else from the past 25 years was flawed in some way. Garnett and Malone had trouble taking over games. Barkley was better suited as a second banana; teams could handle him in the final minutes because of his shaky shot selection. Duncan is the best all-around power forward ever, but his poor free-throw shooting makes him a dicey option down the stretch. (Just look at what happened at the end of regulation in Game 7: the Spurs ran the final play for Ginobili.) But Nowitzki doesn't have any holes -- he scores against anyone, makes his free throws, grabs big rebounds in traffic, protects the rim, even doles out the right amount of sneers and chest bumps. He's been a killer all spring, a true assassin, and I certainly never imagined writing that about Dirk Nowitzki.
One more note on this: we get carried away with basketball statistics nowadays, as evidenced by the new book that rated Allen Iverson as the 90th best player in the league during his MVP season. Why make it so complicated? Just add up the point, rebound and assist averages for franchise guys during the playoffs: If the number tops 42, you're probably talking about a pantheon guy. You could even call it the 42 Club, just as exclusive as the Five-Timer Club on SNL, only without the NBA equivalent of Elliott Gould.
Since it's my idea, I only allowed guys who played 13 or more playoff games in one postseason to be eligible, since that's a legitimate sampling (more than a month of basketball at the highest level). Here's what the 42 Club looks like since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976:
Michael Jordan (six times) -- 49.4 ('89); 50.7 ('90); 45.9 ('91); 46.5 ('92); 47.8 ('93); 43.8 ('97)
Shaquille O'Neal (four times) -- 43.6 ('98); 49.2 ('00); 49.0 ('01); 43.9 ('02)
Larry Bird (four times) -- 42.0 ('81); 44.4 ('84); 43.4 ('86); 44.2 ('87)
Moses Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('81), 43.3 ('83)
Magic Johnson (twice) -- 43.8 ('86), 42.5 ('91)
Karl Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('92), 42.9 ('94)
Hakeem Olajuwon (twice) -- 44.2 ('94), 47.8 ('95)
Tim Duncan (twice) -- 42.7 ('01), 45.4 ('03)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- 47.1 ('80)
Charles Barkley -- 44.5 ('93)
Kobe Bryant -- 42.8 ('01)
Allen Iverson -- 43.7 ('01)
Kevin Garnett -- 44.0 ('04)
LeBron James -- 44.7 ('06)
Dirk Nowitzki -- 45.1 ('06, ongoing)
Here's why I love the 42 Club: There isn't a single fraud on that list, with the possible exception of the Mailman (that's a whole other column). Every memorable spring from the past three decades is represented except for three: Bill Walton in '77 (didn't score enough); Bernard King in '84 (played only 12 games); and Magic in '87 and '88 (he just missed). Just like in real life, the best seasons of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Clyde Drexler fell short. Those career year/MVP seasons for KG, Barkley and Iverson all qualified, as did Kobe's ridiculous 2001 season (when he peaked as an all-around player). MJ leads the list with six appearances, which seems logical because he was the most dominant player of that era. And LeBron cracked the list at age 21, which was fitting because we'll be electing him lifetime president of the 42 Club within the next 12 years.
Did I ever believe that Nowitzki would crack the 42 Club? No way. Just two summers ago, I skewered the Mavs for refusing to part with him in a Shaq trade; by my logic, they were passing up two or three guaranteed championships to keep someone who wasn't quite a franchise player. Well, I was wrong. (Although not completely wrong -- would you rather have Nash and Shaq or Nowitzki and Dampier?) Regardless, he's the most unstoppable player in basketball, a true franchise guy, and I think he's headed for his first championship in about two weeks.
(The only catch: Does it scare anyone else that the NBA's alpha dog could end up being a German guy? Remember, this is the same country that started two World Wars last century and deliberately crippled Pele in "Victory." We need to be careful here -- we don't want to give them their confidence back. I'm willing to accept Dirk's reign, but only if he accepts the championship trophy by re-enacting Rocky Balboa's speech from Christmas Day, 1986 -- "If I can change, and you can change, EVERY VUN can change!" -- as a sobbing Mark Cuban hugs David Stern in the background.)Question No. 2: Speaking of Hasselhoff, did his interview with Craig Sager during Game 2 double as the Unintentional Comedy moment of the year?
Nahhhhh ... not in the same year that featured Rey Mysterio Jr. giving a heartfelt speech about Eddy Guerrero at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremonies while wearing his wrestling mask. But when you combine it with the shot of Hasselhoff crying in the stands after Taylor Hicks won "American Idol" ... yes, he's the Unintentional Comedy MVP of 2006. Although we still have seven months to go. My favorite part of the Hasselhoff renaissance -- the thought of his agent calling him to say, "You're not gonna believe this! You're Nowitzki's favorite singer! He whispers one of your songs to himself when he's shooting free throws! We gotta jump on this! I have you booked on a plane to Dallas; you're leaving in three hours! This could get us into the 'Surreal Life' house!")
(By the way, we had to recalibrate the Unintentional Comedy Scale thanks to this William Shatner clip on youtube.com -- everything once rated 100 out of 100 has been dropped to 99 so the ShatMan can stand alone (yes, even Carl Lewis' national anthem performance). This will never be topped. I'm calling it right now. We have hit the comedy ceiling, my friends.)
Question No. 3: What was the most perplexing story line of the 2006 playoffs that didn't include the words "Mike Dunleavy" or "Daniel Ewing?"
I'm going with these two ...
1. DeSagana Diop, Series-Changing Presence. Anyone who followed basketball wasn't surprised that he's having an impact in the playoffs -- I even voted for him over Diaw for "Most Improved," if only because Diaw was a D-plus in Atlanta and became a B-plus in Phoenix, whereas Diop was a B-minus in Dallas after being an F-minus-minus-minus in Cleveland. But imagine being a Cavs fan? Your team picked this guy directly in front of Joe Johnson, Vlad Radmanovic and Richard Jefferson. You had to watch him flounder for four solid years. Then he went to Dallas, lost 80 pounds and became the homeless man's Bill Russell. How does this happen?
(By the way, I'm trying to start that "homeless man's" trend so we have more options for the "poor man's" analogy. For instance, Mark Madsen is the poor man's Jack Haley, and Sean Marks is the poor man's Mark Madsen ... which should then make Marks the homeless man's Jack Haley. Think about it. You don't have to decide right now if you're with me.)
2. Tim Thomas, Indispensable Playoff Performer. Here's someone who broke hearts for nearly nine seasons and was probably the sixth man on this century's "It's Too Bad That Guy Didn't Give A Sh*t Team." Now he's guarding Elton Brand and Nowitzki, protecting the rim, draining clutch 3s, torturing smaller guys in the low post, bringing out bigger guys to the 3-point line and shooting over them ... in two months, he justified every best-case scenario projection that anyone made since his Villanova days. And sure, it's easy to say that "this just proves anyone could be happy playing with Steve Nash on a team that never practices" -- or to simply hand him the 2006 Jerome James Award and be done with it.
But don't you see? This is why the draft drives people crazy. This is why we have to hear about upsides and ceilings every June. This is why teams get sucked in with workouts, why they tend to ignore game tapes and tell themselves things like, "So what if Rajon Rondo couldn't make a jumper in college to save his life, he was nailing them in that workout!" or "Who cares if Rudy Gay didn't give a crap at UConn, I've never seen anyone run wind sprints like that!" You never know when the light bulb might start flickering with these guys. In Tim Thomas' case, it took eight years and 10 months. And I'm still not totally sold on him.
Question No. 4: What triggered Hubie Brown's incredible decision to announce the entire playoffs in the second-person?
You have to look at it this way. You are Hubie Brown. You have done everything you could EVER imagine in this league. You KNOW that you are done with coaching, and you KNOW that your broadcasting career is coming to an end soon. You know that your legacy will live on through ESPN Classic, through basketballreference.com and through your proteges spread throughout the college and pro ranks, of which you have MANY. You know that you need to take a sabbatical soon to work on your upcoming book, "The 750 Greatest Timeouts From the Past 35 Years." Now ... you know there is only one accomplishment left for you -- you need to sustain the second-person on live television for TWO months. You know this is a long time. You also know that you cannot waver from this goal, because it could be your legacy. ...
Question No. 5: Have there been any other broadcasting breakthroughs?
I'm not sure if this is a breakthrough, but Jeremy from Portland raises a pretty good point: "Doug Collins dominates the 'You can't give a struggling shooter a layup to get him going' market as thoroughly as Kenny Loggins dominated 1980s movie songs. One time Steve Kerr got there first, and it was like Loggins losing out to Lindsey Buckingham for the 'Vacation' theme in 1983. Now, imagine Doug Collins belting out 'Meet Me Halfway' at a karaoke bar."
Question No. 6: Flip Saunders' weird nervous tick, the one where he juts his chin out and tilts his head back during tense moments ... umm ... has he always been doing that?
I would love to tell you that this started midway through the Cavs series, but yes, he's always done that. It's just a little more pronounced now that he's coaching a 64-win team into the ground.
That reminds me, after watching Flip for the past six weeks, I'm willing to reconsider the whole "KG has been wildly underrated all along and never got any help except for the one year with Cassell and Spree" thing. No wonder KG looked like he was ready to commit a homicide all season.
Question No. 7: Is it true that Ben Wallace's agent was found in his garage with the car running after Game 4 of the Miami series?
Not true. Although you couldn't have blamed him.
Question No. 8: Why is Paul Westhead secretly rejoicing about the success of the Suns?
Because this was his idea! Remember when the Nuggets hired him from Loyola Marymount and he installed that crazy run-and-gun offense where Denver genuinely didn't care if the other team scored, as long as the Nuggets were getting it back? There were three major outcomes. First, that Nuggets team threw a major monkey wrench in everyone's fantasy league -- I distinctly remember washed-up guys like Orlando Woolridge and Walter Davis going in the top five rounds and everyone wanting to throw up, as well as Michael Adams becoming a top-10 guy. Yikes. Second, they gave up a whopping 130 points per game, a record that will never be broken unless they merge the NBA and WNBA some day. And third, the idea failed so miserably and was considered such a joke that Westhead -- a fairly accomplished coach to that point (he even had an NBA championship ring with the Lakers) -- was basically blackballed from coaching in the league.
Here was the real problem: Westhead just had the wrong guys. You can't run that system with Adams and a bunch of castoffs, but you can run a bastardized version with Nash and some legitimate scorers, right? Kobe said it best during his "Inside the NBA" cameo when he was dressed like Mr. Rogers: You don't beat the Suns by outscoring them, because that's impossible; the higher the score, the happier they are. Plus, when they're making shots, that picks up their intensity across the board -- guys start flying around the court, challenging shots, protecting the rim and everything else. Kobe thought you beat the Suns by slowing them down and getting stops on the defensive end, almost like keeping a great football offense off the field by controlling the clock with your running game.
And you know what? The Mamba was right. If the game is frantic and unpredictable, Phoenix thrives. If it's slow and predictable, they struggle. You would have figured that a team like the Mavs -- blessed with an excellent coach, a 45-man coaching staff and about 600 scouts -- would have known not to run with the Suns, but guess what happened? They succumbed in Game 1 (and lost). After that game, Avery Johnson vowed that Dallas wouldn't run with them again and kept his word until Game 5, when they nearly blew the game by speeding things up until Nowitzki saved them down the stretch. (We won't see the Mavs running with the Suns in Game 6. Unless they're crazy.) But Westhead has to feel vindicated over this whole thing. His formula worked. About 15 years too late.
Question No. 9: What day do "The Closer" and "Saved" start?
June 12. Only on TNT. We know drama.
Question No. 10: When Wallace violently stuffed Shaq's dunk during Game 5, did Shaq's reign as a dominant center officially come to an end?
I say yes. Five years ago, Shaq would have either broken Wallace's arm or stuffed him through the hoop with the ball. Now he's looking like Sam Elliott's character during any of the fight scenes at the Double Deuce -- a little overwhelmed, surprisingly feeble, getting by on reputation alone. He's still good for a 20-10 every night, but his body has pretty much straightened out -- he can't bend his knees anymore, which kills his explosiveness when he's standing still (especially on putbacks around the basket), and he's starting to get that clumsy, mummy-like feel to his game that always destroys centers in their waning years.
Again, these are just flashes, but they're happening more and more, and he's inevitably headed for a serious decline over the next 2-3 years. Hopefully he won't hang around for too many seasons like so many other great centers did (Kareem, Parish, Gilmore, Hakeem and Moses, to name five). I always appreciated that about David Robinson -- he could see the writing on the wall, so he retired and never looked back. Then again, he was the only All-Star center who cracked 1300 on his SATs.
(By the way, if you were Dwyane Wade, and you were trapped on a team with aging players and no cap space, and you knew Shaq's career was winding down ... would you be that eager to sign an extension in Miami this summer? Or would you want to keep your options open? He would be CRAZY to sign. If that were me, not only would I be planning my escape, my No. 1 goal would be to find a city where the fans didn't dress in all-white for big playoff games like they were attending a theme wedding in the Hamptons. I'm picky that way.)
Question No. 11: In the history of organized sports, has a coach or manager ever done a better job of reacting to a bad call than Mike D'Antoni?
No way. Nobody works themselves into a foot-stomping, squinting, aghast frenzy like the Suns coach, who hasn't been this convincing since he was promising Maverick, "And if you can't find anyone, gimme a call, I'll fly with you" right before the final battle scene in "Top Gun." But every time he flipped out, I kept getting déjà vu ... where else had I seen that stamping routine before?
Fortunately, Kansas City reader Daniel Warren was able to fill in the blanks: "Seeing D'Antoni react to the botched shot-clock violation in Game 3 made me stop short. Where had I seen a mustachioed man stomp around and frown so abruptly in response to an unfavorable decision? It took a while, but my buddy Andrew and I finally realized that a pissed-off Mike D'Antoni turns into Channel 4's Ron Burgundy when Veronica Corningstone is named co-anchor."
Perfect! Now D'Antoni's tantrums are twice as enjoyable because you can pepper them with jokes like, "Hey Bavetta, why don't you go back to your home on Whore Island!"
(One more classic D'Antoni maneuver: Whenever an opponent is shooting a free throw on the side near Phoenix's bench, he always pretends to be complaining about the call, only he plants himself in the corner of the shooter's eye and deliberately wanders back and forth right as the guy is shooting. Utterly devious. That's a team of floppers, cheaters and guys who push off every time they drive to the basket; they're about four more flops away from being eligible for the 2006 World Cup. How does Ginobili not play for these guys? It must kill him. All right, I'm babbling ...)
Question No. 12: Are the Pistons done?
Let's rephrase the question: How are the Pistons still alive? The Cavs should have finished them off in Game 6 and lost because Detroit banked home two lucky shots and tipped in a couple of rebounds. Truth be told, the Pistons haven't played a quality, all-around game since Game 1 of the Cleveland series, when they annihilated the Cavs and apparently decided that "we can turn it on and off whenever we want."
You can do that if you have a great team. But as we're learning, this isn't a great team anymore. First, Joe Dumars did nothing to help his bench other than sign Antonio McDyess two years ago -- none of the draft picks or trades helped, and the Darko debacle, from beginning to end, ranks among the most mishandled personnel sagas in the history of the league. Second, you can't grind out those 72-70 wins anymore, not when the various rule changes reward teams that can shoot 3s and attack the basket, and it's just too much of a chore for these guys to score against good defensive teams (especially when they're playing four-on-five with Ben Wallace). Third, they have the wrong coach -- it's obvious now -- and it seems like he's getting more overwhelmed with each game.
But here's the biggest thing: These guys played with a collective chip on their shoulder for two solid years. Nobody thought they could beat the Lakers -- they crushed them. People wondered if they could defend their title -- they made it to the last game of the Finals. Nobody respected them as much without Larry Brown -- they rolled off a 38-6 streak to start the season and crushed the Spurs twice. And everything was going great, and they looked unstoppable ... and then the All-Star picks came out. Billups, Hamilton and the Wallaces all made it. They spent a weekend in Houston getting their butts kissed. And then the wheels came off. It was like the scene in "Rocky III" when Mickey tells Rocky that he needs to retire, that the worst thing happened to him that could ever happen to a boxer -- namely, he'd been civilized. And I think the All-Star Game civilized the Pistons.
In their heyday, they resembled one of those boxers who overpowered opponents simply by outpunching them, by knocking the crap out of them, by coming forward again and again and breaking their will. Since the All-Star Game, they morphed into something different, more of a finesse team, definitely more inconsistent, the kind of team they would have gobbled up two years ago. The wakeup call happened in Game 4 of the Cavs series, after Rasheed guaranteed a victory, when they squandered a winnable game against an inferior team. Great teams show up for those. Even during Game 5 of the Miami series, a deceiving double-digit win for the Pistons at home, the Heat were in striking distance despite shooting an abysmal 6-for-20 from the charity stripe. Six-for-20! And they still had a chance to win?
Sure, the Pistons still can salvage the Miami series. But Young Flanagan taught us that everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end, and this Pistons team reminds me of some other fading powerhouses that were symbolically blown out in a series to end their reign (the '88 Celtics, '91 Pistons and '04 Lakers, to name three). I don't think they have a chance tonight.
More importantly, I hope they get knocked out -- not because I'm tired of watching them, but because I'm bored by the whole we're-trying-harder-tonight-because-our-backs-are-against-the-wall mind-set. Is that an acceptable excuse anymore? Just look at the Western Conference, where the undermanned Suns have been killing themselves for 19 straight playoff games (and counting). No excuses, no empty promises, no tough talk ... just a gritty team that loves playing together, keeps showing up and seems determined to keep winning or go down fighting. And you thought Detroit was the tough one.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.