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Friday, April 23, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:21 PM ET
Jetting through the NBA playoffs

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Before we get to the NBA playoffs, a quick flashback to Thursday afternoon ...

There I am in Seat 5C, traveling over 600 miles an hour on an airplane, surrounded by white clouds and blue sky, headed to Manhattan for the weekend ... and thanks to JetBlue, I'm watching a Marlins-Phillies game on ESPN. For God's sake, I could have wagered on the game and watched it on the flight! Wouldn't that have been like joining the Mile High Club of Gambling?

JetBlue
For travelers, there is no site more welcome than the JetBlue DIRECTV console.
Now I'm hooked. Between free wireless service terminals and DIRECTV on flights, Jet Blue could be one of the most important inventions of the past 25 years, right up there with TiVO, Baked Lays, DVD's, iPods and Mel Kiper Jr. It's almost too good to be true. I keep waiting to find out that the airline is owned by George Steinbrenner or something

Originally planning to write a column on the plane, I ended up sidetracked by a whopping 24 TV channels. Of course I did. Some of the highlights:

  • Lots of draft stuff. In a five-hour span on the four available ESPN channels, Archie Manning was interviewed roughly 720 different times, which was about 130 times less than Chris Mortensen. In fact, I think Mort had his own channel on Jet Blue. Around 6:45, he was giving different interviews on ESPN News and ESPN2 at the exact same time, meaning that there either was a Pardon the Interruption re-run or John Walsh and Mark Shapiro quietly had Mort cloned after the Super Bowl.
  • (By the way, could somebody break the news to Eli that there isn't a better place to live in America than San Diego? Does he know this? Who cares about wins and losses? San Diego has seals! And hot chicks! And 80-degree weather! Somebody remind Eli of this stuff when he's shoveling snow in front of his condo in Hoboken next November.)

  • I finally got to answer the question, "What do they show on VH1 Classic?" Let's just say that Journey and Joan Jett are involved. Not that this is a bad thing. I kept flicking back on the off-chance that they would show "Separate Ways" -- the funniest four minutes of the 80's, and maybe any decade -- but it never happened.
  • ESPN Classic showed a Blue Jays-Sox game from 1989, one of those "Why the heck are they re-running this thing?" games which featured an 18-pitch Marty Barrett at-bat in the ninth against a young David Wells, capped off by Marty legging out a grounder, blowing out his knee and crumbling into a heap by Fred McGriff. Was this why they were showing the game? Marty Barrett's last great moment? As always with ESPN Classic, we will never know.
  • Amanda Bynes
    Don't worry, Amanda from "The Amanda Show" turned 18 ... three weeks ago.
  • Here's something unfathomable: There was a lady sitting in my aisle, in the window seat, who didn't go to the bathroom during the entire flight. That has to be a record. Then again, she may have been scared of me ... I was watching "The Amanda Show" on Nick at Nite and she may have mistaken me for a child molester. Or she was a man. Or she was freaked out when I asked her if she wanted to bet $5 on the Jays-Sox game. Again, we will never know.
  • I found out that Lew Ford was white. Between him and Khalil Greene, it's been a banner season for the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars so far in 2004.
  • Ah, the Game Show Network. They were showing a $20,000 Pyramid episode featuring former Vegas star Bart Braverman as one of the celebrities. Even then, he was available. During the final Pyramid run, Dick Clark did his classic "Time's up... hey, I know you just lost $20,000, but lemme throw a few more clues at you in the smarmiest way possible, so you'll finally get the answer and feel like a complete jackass" routine. I used to love when he did that. If there was a God, somebody would have stood up and punched him in the face.
  • GSN followed that baby with a vintage "Match Game" -- Brett Somers (stinking of nicotine), Chaz N. Reilly (not quite at his sailor-cap-wearing apex), Richard Dawson (with mustache) and Jimmie Walker (in his absolute prime) all in the house, which was like seeing the '27 Yankees in action. These shows (Match Game, Pyramid, the wildly underrated Joker's Wild and so on) deserve their own column, and dammit, they'll get one some day.

    Needless to say, it was quite a flight. If only the 2004 NBA Playoffs were half as much fun.

    (How 'bout that segue?!?!)

    With the notable and substantial exception of the Mavs-Kings series, there hasn't been any excitement in Round One. (Why do you think I'm procrastinating here?) If the Bucks hadn't grabbed Game 2 in Detroit, the higher seeds would be 18-0 right now. Terrible times. There's a good chance that only two series will reach a Game Six -- not even a Game Seven, a Game Six! -- and that depends on Milwaukee winning at home and Dallas winning two of the next three.

    And sure, three teams (the Knicks, Hornets and Celtics) had no business making the cut, and two others (Denver and Memphis) seem overwhelmed. But I blame the league for expanding to a "Best-of-7" format last year, which was the worst idea since the McDonald's Lobster Roll. Hoping for more TV dates and more revenue, the league ended up killing the competitiveness of Round One.

    George Karl
    Then-Sonics coach George Karl ponders what to do with all his free time in the summer of '94.
    Back in the days of "Best of Five," underdogs knew they had a chance. Steal one of the first two, protect serve at home, you advance. That's why two or three series per spring delivered the goods, because the favorites were always teetering one or two plays from disaster. In a seven-game series, with more time to prepare and less overall urgency, the better team should almost always win -- basically, you're removing the "Denver over Seattle in '94"-potential.

    Now there's an inordinate amount of pressure on the road team in those first two games. Realistically, they know they can't win four of the last five, so we're seeing more blowouts than ever. Instead of "frenetic," the first round has become "sadly predictable." We don't get those do-or-die Game Fours and Game Fives anymore; we're lucky if one series reaches a seventh game. It's like spring training for the real playoffs.

    From an entertainment standpoint, would they be better going back to best-of-five? Of course they would.

    But they won't.


    And since there isn't much else to talk about other than ...

    1. Kings-Mavs (hasn't played out yet)
    2. Duncan-KG (ditto)
    3. The Lakers (double ditto)

    ...and I'm not nearly drunk enough to write an entire column about Eduardo Najera ...

    ... let's discuss the Knicks.

    They had Manhattan buzzing as recently as two months ago. That's the way it works in New York. They make the classic panic trade for Marbury, look good for a week in January and naturally everyone starts thinking about the Lakers in June.

    You can guess where I stand. Right after Isiah Thomas was hired last December, I predicted in The Magazine that he would run the team into the ground. This franchise was already headed nowhere -- no cap space, no All-Stars, little hope. It was a situation thatcried for patience. Whomever took over for the Artist Formerly Known As Scott Layden needed to blow everything up, create cap room and start over. In other words, the Danny Ainge Approach -- clean house, make some panic trades, ignore the cap -- couldn't possibly work here.

    The Jerry West Approach seemed like a much better plan. Take your time. Stockpile assets. Only deal from strength. Think four years instead of four months. And most importantly, don't panic.

    Isiah? He panicked.

    Unable to wait even three weeks after moving into his new office, Isiah pulled a Jim Fassel and pushed his chips to the middle of the table, dealing his few tradeable assets (two coveted Europeans, two first-rounders and cash) for Marbury and Penny Hardaway -- two more ghastly contracts -- in the process, blowing his long-term cap flexibility to smithereens and insuring that the 2006 Knicks would look exactly like the 2004 Knicks.

    Trish
    Let's face it, every one of us would keep Trish around.
    Seduced by Steph's pedigree and anxious for a change -- any change -- New York fans embraced the trade. It was like the current Bachelor becoming enamored with Trish, the trashy, conniving, homewrecking model who looks stunning in a cocktail dress. You can have a million warning signs, you can even have a friend planted in the house telling you this girl is sleaze ... and you still can't help picking her for the Final Six. Just to see what happens.

    And yes, there's something about Marbury's game. He always makes you feel like his team has a puncher's chance, that he can catch fire at any moment, maybe even take over an entire game, win a series by himself, carry you a couple of rounds. Even though it hasn't happened yet. And may never will. But that potential gets people talking about the team. Gets the arena buzzing before games. Gets people calling into the Fan. Gets those blue No. 3 "MARBURY" jerseys moving out of the Pro Shop like hotcakes.

    With all this commotion, it was easy to forget that, if this was a Texas Hold 'Em Tournament, Isiah had just gone "all-in" after two hands. Knicks fans happily chugged the Kool-Aid, conveniently ignoring the fact that their GM just mortgaged the next 3-4 years for someone who ...

    A. Hadn't won a single playoff series.
    B. Was playing for his fourth team in eight years.
    C. Monopolizes the ball.
    D. Didn't get along in New Jersey with one of the best players on the Knicks (Keith Van Horn), which meant there needed to be a second trade.
    E. Only played unselfishly last season (when he was gunning for a contract extension).
    F. Ditched a once-in-a-lifetime situation in Minnesota with KG.

    Seems like a pretty big gamble just to sell some tickets and make the back page of the Post, right?

    Again, New Yorkers didn't care. Back in January, I remember discussing the deal with my Knicks fan friends, spelling out exactly what had happened, then listening to them respond with the same thing: I don't care, I'm just happy they're interesting again. It was like watching a buddy who hadn't gotten lucky for a few months suddenly fall in love with a stripper.

    They felt differerently after Isiah hired Lenny Wilkens -- apparently Red Holzman was the second choice -- then gave Van Horn away for Thomas and Mohammed, a classic "I'll give you a quarter for two dimes" trade. This had evolved into a soft, rudderless team built around a shoot-first point guard, flanked by mediocre defenders and guys who couldn't rebound or contend shots. I'm not even sure they run any plays. When Lenny holds up one finger, I think he's signalling that he needs to pee.

    Anyway, the inevitable losing streak followed, along with the questions about Isiah and Marbury, as well as the birth of a new face: The Isiah Thomas "If I Look Angry Enough When I'm Watching This Blowout Loss, Maybe People Will Forget That I Brought Most Of These Guys In" Face. Well, you did.

    Hey, we know about Isiah, who burned bridges in Detroit and Toronto, bankrupted the CBA and failed miserably with a talented Indiana team. Pretty cut and dry. But what about Marbury? How do you explain last year's remarkable season in Phoenix, when he reached his ceiling as a player and seemed poised to finish his career with the Suns? How could someone fall from "Franchise Player" to "Trading Block" in less than seven months? Could he ever regain the magic?

    That's why, with the obvious exception of KG, Marbury was the most interesting player in Round One. Nobody knew what to expect. As Pierce and the C's proved last spring, the right player and the right crowd can be a pretty dangerous combination in Round One. You never know.

    Stephon Marbury, Jason Kidd
    What do you suppose Phoenix thinks of the Kidd-for-Marbury trade now?
    Alas, the Nets looked better than ever. And the Knicks looked downright dreadful. Especially Marbury. He spent the first half of Game 2 launching jumpers, rarely driving to the basket or getting his teammates involved. In the second half, with the game slipping away, he started penetrating and setting up Kurt Thomas and Shandon Anderson -- yikes -- who predictably couldn't hit anything. When he tried to take over the game again, it was too late. It was a kooky performance, one of those games that reminded people why he's been traded multiple times. Even the TNT announcers were calling him out.

    Back at MSG for Game 3, Marbury pulled the same schizo routine, displaying little of the toughness he showed in that Spurs series last spring. And yet the Knicks kept hanging around; you could sense the fans clamoring for Marbury to take over the game. Never happened. He missed two threes in the final minutes that would have brought the house down. And that was that. On Sunday, the Nets arrive at MSG with brooms.

    Here's the kicker: Thanks to Isiah, this same Knicks team will return intact next season. And the year after that. They don't have any choice. Everyone makes big money. The only tradeable commodity on the team is Marbury, heading into his ninth year, and he isn't going anywhere. So Knick fans will spend two more seasons being tantalized by a potential superstar, someone who should be one of the better players in the league, but he isn't, and there really isn't a definable reason why.

    Did Isiah screw the Knicks for the foreseeable future? I think so. It's a not-quite-a-playoff-team led by a not-quite-a-superstar, with no real way of turning things around in the next three years, and the wrong guy calling the shots to boot. Not exactly a recipe for success. Then again, you could say the same thing about the Celtics.

    In fact, I think I just did.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC