North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

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Basketball Hangover

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It’s been hot here lately, maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so lethargic w/r/t summing up my thoughts on the NBA Finals. It’s not hard to compress things into a few sentences, but still: a lot happened over the seven games and there’s a few things I want to cover.

Games six and seven were two of the most intense games I’ve seen live. They were easily the most exciting games of this year’s postseason and I can’t remember too many others that gave me the same emotions: game seven of the 2010 Finals immediately comes to mind, as does game five of the 2005 Finals. I don’t bring this up to make some Simmons-esque  point about legacy or how I’ll remember things in five years time, but to say this was a hell of a series. It was intense, even for someone who didn’t have anything riding on it; bad enough I had to switch to the radio for game six because I was getting so wound up in the fourth that I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep if I didn’t.

Going into the series, I picked the Spurs to win in six. I was off by a bit, but I’ll get to that in a second. I picked them for a few reasons: rest, their defence, the play of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in the postseason. Conversely, I wasn’t high on the way Miami had looked against Indiana: Bosh and Wade struggled against a strong defensive team and LeBron James seemed like he getting flustered by carrying the team.

The Finals started in this vein, with the Spurs defence coming up huge late and Parker hitting a crazy game winning shot in game one. It was another game where James was amazing – 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists – but at least Bosh and Wade scored in the double-digit range. Game two was a Miami blowout, although it was pretty close even going into the fourth quarter, before Miami went on a run and took a big lead.

Before long, each team was trading blowouts. San Antonio took game three and Miami game four, each by wide margins. The Spurs had good nights from role players like Danny Green and Gary Neal; Miami’s big three combined for 85 points in their win. Game five was a little closer: a ten-point Spurs win, on Manu Ginobili’s big night (24 points, 10 assists). At this point, each team was winning every other game. People in the media were saying it was unlike anything they’d ever seen, although it reminded me of an Atlanta/Milwaukee series from a few years back. The Spurs were in position to win the Finals in six games as the series moved back to Miami.

They came close, really damn close. They led late, by five points with 28 seconds left. Tim Duncan had arguably his best career game: 30 points, 17 rebounds against a stifling Miami defence. And the Spurs played with a remarkably short roster: four players would finish the game with over 40 minutes played and just nine checked in at all (including a ten second stretch for Matt Bonner). But LeBron had one of his best nights, too: 32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and the nerve to take three different three pointers in the last 30 seconds. That’ll be my lasting memory: listening to him take those shots on TSN Radio’s scratchy broadcast sometime around midnight on a Wednesday am.

What about game seven? Well, what do ya need to know. It was close and Duncan just about tied it up late. It was intense and I felt glad I didn’t have any professional obligations to cover the game. It reminded me of the time I interviewed Roger Lajoie: he told me the worst event he ever covered was game seven of the 2001 World Series. He was writing for Reuters then, working as their main sports guy. He told me he had to write, erase and re-write his story three, four times as the game swung back and forth. And because he was writing for a wire service, he had to get it out there was soon as he could, going against the AP. Game seven was one of those games, close enough that had Duncan hit that basket, you’d have heard hundreds of columnists slamming their delete key into oblivion.

People are going to try to spin these finals into a greater narrative. It’s one of those sportswriting tricks everyone falls into now and again. Maybe this will be The Last Gasp of the Spurs Dynasty (is this it for Manu? I’d be surprised if he left the NBA but I doubt he’s got much left in the tank either). Maybe it’ll be The Time LeBron Shed His Labels (a stupid idea: he’s been unquestionably the best player in the league for at least four years now). It might have something to do with Kawhi Leonard or Chris Bosh, each resting at the opposite ends of Expectation and Results: 19 points and zero, respectively, in the final game.

But it doesn’t have to be put into anything. It was just a damn fine series: seven good games and at least three I know I’ll be thinking about all summer. It had two of the best players of their generation playing at the highest level; it had a few players standing out beyond what anyone expected, too. I have a bit of a basketball hangover right now – I don’t plan on watching anything, even highlights, until sometime in July – but the nights were worth it.

A Quick NBA Finals Prediction

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Last week, I wrote about the Western Conference champs and a few days ago, about the Miami Heat going to a game seven, so I’ve already written a bunch about the Finals already. But here’s a few more loose thoughts and a prediction for the Finals, which start tonight.

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Not the Finals we expected, but that’s cool

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At year’s start, I’m not sure anyone would’ve guessed San Antonio would be the team to come out of the Western Conference. Even at the start of March, I doubt many thought the Miami Heat would be tested so hard by Indiana. And as the Finals gear up, this is not the outcome anybody expected. And it’s probably the best outcome we could’ve hoped for.

All the way back in November, the smart money was on the LA Lakers to win the West. They’d taken an already talented team – Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, etc – and augmented it. Steve Nash was the point guard who’d mesh with Bryant, freeing him from bringing the ball up court and directing play. And Dwight Howard was the center that Andrew Bynum was always supposed to be. Concerns? No way! As Sports Illustrated said on their cover, “This is going to be fun!”

It was fun, just not in Los Angeles

But what happened wasn’t much fun. Nash, who struggled with injuries when surrounded by the best training staff in the NBA, was hurt and played in just 50 games. When he did play, he was nowhere near as effective: his scoring dropped to under 13 points per game while his assist numbers, long his bread and butter, fell through the floor. It’s almost as if Bryant is a playmaker himself and best functions when he can dictate the offence, usually through the triangle.

Howard, meanwhile, struggled in his role. He scored fewer points per game than he had since 2005-06. His rebounding numbers were almost as bad: the lowest since 2007. Even his PER – a stat all but tailored to big men like himself – plummeted down to 19.4, his lowest in years. And how, it looks like Howard’s ready to leave. Bill Simmons went on at length about this, especially about Howard’s decline. I’m inclined to agree: he was a tremendous bust this season, all things considered. The Lakers lucked into the postseason, scraping in as Utah fell apart in the late part of last season. They fired a coach, seem likely to let another go soon and were soundly swept by San Antonio in the first round. Do people still think the SI Jinx is a thing?

If you didn’t have the Lakers, you probably had Oklahoma City getting to the Finals. It wasn’t a bad risk: they had the duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both of whom were both some of the best players in the NBA and still improving. And they did have a very good season winning 60 games, their division and holding the top seed in the conference. And then, in game two of their first round series, Russell Westbrook hurt his knee and was done for the playoffs. Without him, Oklahoma City roughed out a series win against Houston and fell in five games to Memphis. There goes another Smart Pick.

So it’s been San Antonio who slugged it out through the postseason. After sweeping the Lakers, they slipped past Golden State in a pretty fun series, especially the double OT game one thriller which I’ll probably rewatch next time it’s replayed on NBA TV. In the conference finals, they swept Memphis in a series I bet most people won’t really think about much, other then to call it ugly. It’s too bad: two games went to OT, one of them featuring an insane Memphis comeback, and game four was pretty close, too.

If Miami gets past Indiana, as I hope they do, it’ll set up one hell of a NBA Finals: the closest thing to a real dynasty the NBA has had in years against the a new style of dynasty; the best player of one generation (Duncan) playing the best player of another (LeBron James); the team everyone likes to hate because they’re “boring” playing the team everyone likes to hate because of the way they came together.

It’s the best Finals we could’ve hoped for: there’s real storylines here, not the kind TV producers would’ve kicked up for a OKC/Miami series. There’s the idea of generational conflicts, or at least the kind that happen in pro sports. There’s Gregg Popovich going for his fifth championship, which puts him in the same class as people like Pat Reilly, Red Auerbach and John Kundla. I haven’t been as excited for a series all through these playoffs. I hope you’re feeling the same way.

Written by M.

May 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Handicapping the NBA’s MVP at Midseason

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With a little less then half of the NBA season left, it’s about time for lazy NBA writers – such as myself – bang out a column predicting awards.  Because after half a season, we all know who is likely win awards.

That’s the key word here: likely. It’s far too early to say for sure who is going to be the most valuable player in the league at the end of the season, but it’s not too early to make some educated guesses and handicap which player would be likely to win. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

January 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm