NBA's think, know and prove: Part 2
If you missed Part 1 of my two-part season review and playoff preview, click here. Here's Part 2.
I know the Celtics are going to lose in Round 1
On Tuesday, I thought Dwyane Wade could beat by himself what I described in a recent e-mail as a "decrepit, non-rebounding, poorly coached, dispirited, excuse-making, washed-up sham of a contender" (admittedly, I was a little angry) and that was before the Celtics tanked Game 82 on Fan Appreciation Night in a pathetic attempt to land Milwaukee in Round 1. Nope. They got Wade and Miami. The karma gods hate that crap. And that's what this season was: crap. The Celtics have been a .500 team for nearly four months. Everyone has a glazed, "As soon as we get eliminated, we get to start summer vacation, right?" look on their face, and if you could describe Garnett's bizarre clinging-to-the-past-and-not-getting-the-hint-that-he's-done-as-an-impact-player season with a movie character, it would absolutely be O'Bannion from "Dazed and Confused."
All this shocked the die-hards who loved the 2008 and 2009 teams and never thought they'd become, for lack of a better word, weak. Yes, we won two years ago. Putting us well within my self-proclaimed five-year grace period -- see rule No. 12: "No fan can complain about a team that just won a title for five years" -- and making me a hypocrite for everything you read in the previous paragraph. Of anything I ever wrote, I regret the five-year grace period most. I created it three weeks after the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI, my first Boston title in 16 years. It had been so long since one of my teams won anything that I had forgotten what it felt like. So really, my creating rules for fans of championship teams was like Kate Moss releasing a manifesto for eating fatty foods. How the hell would I know?
Here's what I learned from 2002-10 (six Boston titles in all): You can't stop being a sports fan just because your team won a title. Sports are all about the highs and lows. If you don't get swept up in them, you become detached, and eventually you won't care as much. Just because the Celtics won two years ago doesn't give them the right to embrace "Don't worry, we might not care now but we're gonna try in the playoffs" as their team mantra two years later, just like I shouldn't be obligated to accept their recent foibles out of some twisted sense of gratitude.
I thought the Celtics played their fans this season. Don't rope us in with "ubuntu" for two years then turn your back on it like it was a kabbalah fad or something. Don't tell us to embrace "The New Big Three," then shop Ray Allen for eight months like he was a used car. Don't tell us our best forward's knee is fine when we see him limping. Don't blame the effort of your players after a loss when you played all 12 of them like they were Little Leaguers, or when you keep playing the one guy who exhibits no effort whatsoever without calling him out once. Don't sign a second center for big bucks, then act surprised when the incumbent center bristles about his playing time. So on and so on. It was an empty season filled with excuses, half-truths and false promises. Just because they won two years ago doesn't mean fans had to blindly condone it.
I once wrote that Miami's 2006 title run was like a group of guys in Vegas spending crazy money at dinner, having a great time, ordering dozens of dishes and drinks and never once worrying about the check and the 2007 Miami season was like the 10 sobering minutes when the check arrives and nobody can believe the bill. The check just gets passed around so everyone can stare it in horror, then the one dude with an MBA grabs it and figures out what everyone owes, and you limp out of the restaurant saying, "I can't believe we just spent $250 apiece on dinner, I gotta hit an ATM," but it takes an extra 10 minutes to leave because somebody has to take a dump and somebody else thinks they have a chance with the waitress, so the rest of the guys are just clustered in the lobby, totally full, a little bit drunk, a little bit tired, trying to rally for a big gambling night but knowing they're about to get their asses kicked because you can never win in Vegas when you're drunk, full and tired.
Welcome to your 2009-10 Celtics postseason. The check has arrived. I hope I'm wrong.
I know Cavs-Mavericks is a smart Finals wager in Vegas
The good news for Mavs fans: great chemistry; fantastic free throw shooting; very good crunch-time scorer (Nowitzki); quality 3-point shooting; low turnovers; legitimate shot-blocking/rebounding thanks to the Brendan Haywood trade and Erick Dampier's contract year; some genuine toughness; home court through the first two rounds (and possibly Round 3 if L.A. chokes); and even a water-bug point guard who could bother the Parkers/Nashes for a few minutes per half (Roddy Beaubois).
The bad news: no low-post scoring; too many jump shots; two or three guys who never want to shoot in crunch time unless they have to; a lack of athleticism (noticeable against lanky/young/athletic teams like OKC and Atlanta); too much J.J. Barea; any point guard with a first step can drink Jason Kidd's milkshake; any explosive 2-guard will single-handedly annihilate them (see: Ellis, Monta); and even though the Caron Butler trade was a no-brainer, he's a world-class ballstopper. In other words, when he gets the ball, everything stops. Hmmmmm I have the ball clear out for me OK hmmmmm what move should I try? maybe I'll dribble a few times I hate guys like that.
And yet, throw Kidd, Dirk, Haywood, Marion and Butler out there at crunch time, and that's a tough group of mother-you-know-whats. If Jason Terry catches fire for a half, even better. (Again, the steal was Haywood, playing in a contract year, with a vested interest to give a crap for two months before someone signs him for $40 million and he stops caring again. In a related story, this is why we need a lockout.) The key, as always: Nowitzki. You win the title when your best player plays better than everyone else's best player; Nowitzki's crunch-time performance this season, according to 82games.com (46.7 points per 48 minutes, 45.2% FG, 14.0 FTM, +98) was more efficient than anyone except LeBron (66.1 points per 48, 48.8 FG%, 21.0 FTM, +116).
NBA FINALS ODDS
Vegas odds for NBA Finals matchups:
Now look at these Finals matchup odds from Vegas (see sidebar). You're telling me a Cleveland-Mavs Finals is conceivable once every seven times? Please. It's too bad gambling isn't legal or I would have stepped in here.
WHAT CAN I PROVE
I can prove that Andrew Bogut's fluke injury was unfair
Because it was. If that doesn't happen, Milwaukee grabs a 5-seed, "shocks" Boston in Round 1 and has everyone excitedly babbling about Brandon Jennings, the "Fear The Deer" crusade, John Salmons' homeless-guy beard and the similarities between Scott Skiles and Norman Dale. Life ain't fair.
I can prove that Brandon Roy will miss the playoffs
And he will. Too bad, because the Blazers had evolved into "grind-it-out, get stops, make you conform to their style, hell to play them at home" contenders after the Camby trade. The real shame is that we wasted Camby, who should have played a major role on a contender this spring and now looks like he's heading home after Round 1. He should blame OKC's Sam Presti for not trumping Portland's crappy offer for him under a foolish "Nah, that's fine, we're young, we don't need to do anything like that right now" rationale.
I believe the opposite: You can never be too young to make a run when you have one of the best scorers alive. Why not now? What's the big deal? So you sacrifice expirings and a protected lottery pick to get Westbrook, Green, Ibaka, Harden and especially Durant some crunch-time playoff reps? That's a bad thing? You never know what might happen when someone starts getting reps.
For instance, this season's "American Idol" has a kid named Tim Urban who looks like a "Beatlemania" extra. He made the final 24 only because someone else got booted for already having signed a record deal. He stayed a couple of extra weeks only because he was "cute" and young girls were voting for him. Then he nailed Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" and bought himself a couple of weeks. Last week and this week, he found his voice -- like a cross between Joe Jonas, Jason Mraz and 90 other people on Sirius' coffeehouse channel -- and for all we know, he might win this thing. I would have given it 1,000,000-1 odds about six weeks ago. You just never know what might happen until someone gets those reps.
A good basketball example: 13.8 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.4 RPG, 42.2% FG, 17 FTs, 5 games.
You know what those numbers were? Dwyane Wade's first playoff series, back in his rookie year (2004), when Miami upset New Orleans in five games. Nothing special, right?
Here was Wade's Round 2 against a really good Indiana team: 20.6 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.4 RPG, 47.2% FG, 58 FTs, 7 games.
That Indiana series had a profound impact on Wade's development as a future superstar; he had his sea legs under him from Round 1, then he went out and did his thing. Two years later, they won a title. Anyway, I think there's a humongous difference between "getting your feet wet in the playoffs" and "doing damage in the playoffs." Oklahoma City could have accomplished both. Remember we had this conversation when Pau Gasol is abusing Nick Collison in a big playoff game next week because Serge Ibaka fouled out.
I can prove that the 2010 Orlando-Cleveland series will be different than the 2009 Orlando-Cleveland series
Wrote it before, I'll write it again: The 2009 Magic were kryptonite to the 2009 Cavs because of the Turkoglu/Lewis duo, which could only happen because of Dwight Howard's ability to handle the shot-blocking/rebounding by himself. Teams had someone to cover Turkoglu or Lewis, but not both of them. It just worked. Swapping Turkoglu for Vince squandered that trump card. Throw in Jamison, Shaq and LeBron's vengeance factor and this feels like a totally different series than last year. Of course
I can prove that you can't win four straight playoff series by relying on Vince Carter
You know why? Because he's Vince Carter! Ask the Nets' fans about him. Ask the Raptors' fans about him. They know.
I can prove that Magic fans just muttered to themselves, "We don't need to rely on Vince to win four straight series -- we had a +12.2 point differential after the All-Star break, you jackass."
My counter to your muttering: Where are you going in the last three minutes of a tight game? Last spring, you cleared out for Hedo and let him create shots for himself or someone else. Worked all the way to the Finals. What about this spring? Dwight Howard takes 10 shots a game and disappears down the stretch. According to 82games.com, Howard averaged 16.0 crunch-time points per 48 minutes, such a staggeringly low number that Al Horford (17.0) and Udonis Haslem (23.9) topped him, Andrew Bogut (16.0) tied him and Joakim Noah (15.6) nearly tied him. And that's fine. He was still the third-most valuable player in the league. (At least in my opinion.) But you can't win in the playoffs without someone creating quality shots in the last four minutes.
Orlando's "clutch" numbers, according to 82games.com (fourth quarter or OT, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points):
|2010 PLAYER||PPG PER 48||FGA PER 48||FTM PER 48||FG%||RECORD|
|2009 PLAYER||PPG PER 48||FGA PER 48||FTM PER 48||FG%||RECORD|
So where's it coming from? Jameer Nelson has slipped since his shoulder injury last season. Lewis' numbers have fallen off without Turkoglu. That leaves Vince. (See the sidebar to the right.) Is anyone buying this? What happens the first time someone gives him a hard playoff foul on a drive? What happens if he tweaks his ankle and has to play through pain? What happens if he has menstrual cramps? (Jokes! I'm joking. Stop it. Settle down.) What happens (hypothetically) in a Game 6 in Charlotte or Atlanta, with Orlando trailing three games to two and facing a giant upset, tie game, two minutes to play, win or go home? Who gets the ball? Who takes over? Who is everyone looking at and saying, "Save us?" That's right Vince Carter. The most disappointing superstar of his generation.
You might be an optimist. You might believe in redemption. You might believe that, after A-Rod, Manning, Duke and Kobe, the thought of Vince Carter being the top creator on an NBA champ isn't far-fetched.
I am a pessimist. At least when Vince is involved. Even though he's playing for his most talented team ever, I can prove he will destroy them in the end. Why? Because he's Vince Carter. Did you miss the past 12 years or something? Why do you think Orlando got him for 20 cents on the dollar? Why do you think Toronto fans still jeer him lustily even though he left six years ago? Why do you think Kidd pushed for a trade to Dallas? Orlando fans, remember we had this conversation when there's a big playoff game in a few weeks and Vince is rolling around on the floor like he's been shot as you're screaming, "Get up! GET UP, VINCE! HE BARELY FOULED YOU! IT'S GAME 7! GET THE EFF UP!!!!!!!!!!!!"
I can prove that the Disease of More exists
Our latest example: the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Just a classic year-after season, highlighted by Kobe grimly refusing to give up shots because he can smell the faint fumes of Karl Malone's scoring record; Gasol griping about Kobe's shot selection; Odom cruising through the season with "I just got paid and I just got married" intensity; Bynum griping about his minutes; Ron Artest launching a reality show; Farmar pressing because he's in a contract year; and the utterly amazing fact that DJ Mbenga has a publicist. You win a title, you get soft and everyone wants more: more shots, more money, more minutes, more everything. That's why Pat Riley called it the "Disease of More." That's why Bill Russell once wrote, "it's much harder to keep a championship than to win one."
Look, I know it's confusing as hell that a team as loaded as the Lakers might not make the Finals. Just know that we have decades of NBA evidence to back this up: You can't win without chemistry. Which reminds me
I can prove that chemistry matters
Group 1 (has it): Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Atlanta, Portland, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Phoenix.
Group 2 (doesn't have it): Boston, Los Angeles.
Group 3 (unclear): Orlando, Utah, Miami, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver.
Those are the 16 playoff teams. Thought that was interesting. We're clearly gravitating toward some sort of Chemistry Era.
A great example: Wednesday night, Phoenix at Utah. If the Suns lose, they land a 4-seed and a preferable matchup with Denver (which plays an open style that favors Phoenix). If they win, they jump to a 3-seed and a tougher matchup with Portland (more size, slowdown style, great crowd). General manager Steve Kerr heads to the locker room that night thinking, "We should bench the older guys [Nash and Hill], play our subs and settle for the 4-seed." What happens? Everyone wants to play. Better yet, they're excited to play. Kerr talks it over with Alvin Gentry; they decide to go for it and end up winning by 20. In their euphoric locker room afterward, Grant Hill tells Kerr the Suns have better chemistry than any team he's ever played for. And he means it.
Those are the stories I need to hear about my title contenders. As far as I can tell, only six teams have a chance to win the title: Cleveland (the favorite); Dallas, Los Angeles and Orlando (the contenders); Utah (the wild card) and Phoenix (the people's choice). If this truly was a Chemistry Season, that means Cleveland would play the winner of the Dallas-Phoenix Round 2 series in the Finals. Up until Robin Lopez got hurt, I would have picked Phoenix mostly because of Nash and Amare Stoudemire, who quietly spent the past three months becoming the guy who torched Duncan in the 2005 playoffs again. If Lopez can come back for Round 2, this is Nash's best chance for a title. My favorite subplot of the playoffs. See
I can prove that Steve Nash was a worthy No. 4 MVP choice this year
Name me a star player with a harder job this season. His shooting guard went into a funk for half the season. His sixth man missed half the year. His meal-ticket power forward obsessed over his own future for three months and nearly got dumped at the deadline. He's had two starting centers, and just when the second one was hitting his stride he got knocked out indefinitely. He had to carry the offense in crunch time for half the season (his 82games.com "clutch" numbers: 43.4 points per 48 minutes, compared to 27.5 for Amare); not really his game, and besides, he's too freaking old to do that. Or at least, he should be. None of it mattered. Phoenix won 54 games and has the most momentum of any Western team heading into the playoffs.
The Suns' season could have fallen apart at a bunch of different points. It never did. Nash gets the credit. I remember hearing he re-signed last summer for three more years and thinking, "Why the hell would he do that?" The Suns seemed like a sinking ship. In America, we're used to superstars who find themselves stuck on a sinking ship, then bolt for greener pastures or selfishly demand a trade without considering the ramifications of that request. (Basically, they just announced to their teammates, "I don't think you guys are good enough to play with me." The situation immediately becomes irreparable. They don't care. They just want to leave. It's like self-sabotage.) Nash never would have done that. He's Canadian. He's loyal. He's the leader. Leaders are supposed to lead.
So he stayed, and he led, and they followed, and now they're here.
I thought it was his greatest season because of the degree of difficulty: Thirty-six-year-olds shouldn't be milking their statistical primes (16.5 PPG, 11.0 APG, 51% FG, 43% 3FG, 94% FT, unprecedented numbers for a point guard his age), performing open-heart surgery on teammates (in this case, Amare) and turning fringe playoff teams into explosive contenders. As recently as this winter, Steve Nash probably thought his Finals chances had come and gone, remembered the bad breaks in 2005 (Joe Johnson's broken face), 2006 (Amare's knee), 2007 (the suspensions) and 2008 (Duncan's 3), then said to himself, "I wish I could press the RESET button and get one more chance." Consider it pressed.
Either way, his brilliant 2010 season reinvented him historically. Now we're looking at a career. Ten straight top-notch years, nine 50-win seasons, two MVPs (whether you agreed with the choices or not), seven All-Star games, three first-team All-NBAs, the best shooting percentages in the history of the point guard position, and pole position for the "guard everyone in his generation would have loved playing with most" contest over Kidd. A Finals appearance would be the cherry on the Steve Nash First-Ballot Hall of Famer Sundae. As always, stay tuned.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
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