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NBA on ABC: Spurs vs. Celtics and Cavs vs. Lakers

February 8, 2009

"Looking at something changes it....  The more you look the less you really know."
                               --The Coen Brothers, The Man Who Wasn't There



This past week was a good week for the NBA, an extremely good week.  Kobe and Lebron teed off against the New York Knicks.  The Lakers and Celtics met in a showdown, and today the Lakers, Cavs, and Celtics are all showcased again, only the San Antonio Spurs are too.  Whenever ABC or ESPN put up a list of the top teams, it obviously includes the Lakers, Cavs, and Celtics.  The fourth team on the list, however, is the Orlando Magic.  The numbers would tell us that they are the fourth best team in the League, but having watched the last decade of basketball, we know the bigger threat to Kobe, the King, and KG are the guys in black and silver--"looking at something changes it."

The Spurs face off against the defending champions the Boston Celtics today.  I believe deep down in my heart that this matchup would have been last year's Finals matchup if one of two things had happened last season.  If the Spurs had earned the #2 seed instead of the #3 seed, they would have come out of the West.  A #2 seed last year would have avoided them an emotionally grueling series against the Phoenix Suns, and it would have allowed them to have the home court in the second round, as opposed to them traveling to New Orleans.  Having the #2 see would have also prevented the Spurs from spending the night on an airplane the day before the Lakers series.   Remember in Game 1 how the Spurs dominated the Lakers for 3 quarters and then collapsed in the 4th quarter.  As a Spurs fan, I have to blame Game 1 of last year's Western Conference Finals on the night spent on an airplane.  The other factor that might have changed things in that Lakers series is Manu's health. These observations allow doubt to enter into the reality that the Lakers were the best team in the West last season.  These observations allow for "reasonable doubt."

What we observe does not just change how we view the past, but it affects how we view the present.  Based on past statistics and observations, we accept two truths about this Spurs team.  We label them as old, and we label them as a great defensive team, but the observations we've made this year change what we once held as true.  This Spurs team is not that old.  Yes, Tim Duncan is 32, Michael Finley is 35, Manu Ginobili is 31, Kurt Thomas is 36 and Bruce Bowen is 37, but Tony Parker is only 26, George Hill is 22,  and Matt Bonner and Roger Mason are 28.  Of those 30 and older guys, Bowen no longer starts and only gets 20 minutes a game.  Bowen, Oberto, Udoka, and Vaughn are all more likely to be found on the bench these days than in seasons past.  The Spurs have become younger on the sly.  Of course, the turn to youth has made them less of a defensive team.  In the past, this team was always top 3 in defensive field goal percentage.  This season they've hovered around 15th in the league. What we come to accept as truth is now always true.

Last night, in Arlington, Stan Yuengling and I got into a conversation about what was more impressive--Lebron's "triple-double" or Kobe's 61.  I felt that Lebron's "triple-double," even if he did only grab 9 rebounds was the more impressive feat. My argument was that Lebron clearly had the better all-around game, and that while he only scored 52 points to Kobe's 61, he more than made up for that because he had 11 assists to Kobe's 3 assists and zero rebounds.  Lebron's assist total means that he accounted for at least 74 points, while Kobe's assists, even if they all went to guys shooting 3's, would add up to at most 70 points, and that doesn't even account for the impact of Lebron's 9 rebounds and Kobe having none.   I felt strongly about these facts.  

I know I felt strongly about these facts because my voice is hoarse this morning, which means I must have been on my soap box last night, surrounded by cigarette smoke and alcohol.  I was preaching hard, slapping the table and rattling the glasses, but I'd already lost my congregation.  Stan Yeungling shrugged his shoulders and said, "yeah, Lebron had a better all-around game, but Kobe's was more fun to watch.  Kobe's was better.  He made me say wow a lot.  Lebron didn't make me say wow."  This theme crept into our next debate also.  

When Stan gave his top 3 most important players of the past decade, he listed Shaq, Kobe, and Allen Iverson.  He made his list after I said that the careers of Shaq and Tim Duncan are a toss up.  Shaq averages 24 points a game for his career.  Duncan averages 21 points a game for his career, but edges Shaq's career numbers for rebounds, blocks, and assists.  Plus, each has four rings.  They've combined for 3 MVP's, and each has 3 Finals MVP's.  Stan's response was, "Duncan isn't even one of the top 3 most important players of the last decade."  I later got Stan to revise the title of his list.  Instead of calling it the most important players list, he made it the player I liked to watch over the last decade list.  The point is if watching something changes it, then there's the possibility each of us is viewing a different truth.  

Stan Yuengling believes AI is a great player.  I believe he's earned his reputation for greatness under false pretenses.  I know he went to the Finals in 2001, but I also know all he had to do was beat Vince Carter's Raptors and the Glen Robinson, Sam Cassell, Ray Allen Bucks.  I know that when Iverson's Sixer teams mattered so did the Antione Walker and Paul Pierce-led Celtics.  He was playing in a watered down conference that inflated the reputations of good players into very good players and very good players into great players.  What I've seen Iverson do since 2001 in Philly, Denver, and now Detroit has caused me to doubt his accomplishments, but it hasn't phased Stan Yuengling one bit.  Stan looks at Iverson's career and sees one play, the crossover against Jordan, not the mediocrity of the majority of Iverson's teams or his inability to make anyone better, even other All-Stars, Olympians, and former champions.  

When we watch a basketball game, it comes down not just to what happened but how it happened.  It's not what we saw but how we saw it, and asking how becomes much more subjective than asking what. 

This past week the Celtic-Lakers game mattered because of how they played the matchup; they played like it was the playoffs.  When I saw Lebron go for 52 points, 11 assists, and 9 rebounds, I saw him come within one rebound of a feat that hadn't been done since the '70s, and I saw him do things on a basketball court that no other player in history could have done.  I was wowed.  Stan wasn't.  

When I saw Kobe, I saw Michael Jordan; and I missed his greatness, which brings me to the one point Stan Yuengling and I agreed on last night.  MJ was more impressive than Lebron or Kobe when he went for 55 against the Knicks six games into his comeback during the '94-'95 season because he did it against a great team.  

Kobe and Lebron posted their numbers against a 21-28 team that is coached by Mike D'Antoni, who doesn't believe in defense.  He made no adjustments against Kobe.  His strategy was to hope he starts missing, to me that's giving up.  In the NBA, a team has to make in-game adjustments.  When MJ went for 55, he did it against a team that had just gone to the Finals the year before. He did it against one of the best defensive teams in the history of the League.  He did it against Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, not David Lee.  He did it against John Starks, not Quentin Richardson.  He did it against Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, not Wilson Chandler and Jared Jeffries.  He did it against Derek Harper, Hubert Davis, Doug Christie, Charlie Ward, and J.R. Reid, not Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson, and it's the depth of that Knicks team that brings me to this last point.

This Spurs team, despite its 33-15 record, is not yet a threat to the Lakers, Celtics, or Cavs.  Thirteen of those fifteen losses have come to teams that are .500 or better, which is enough for me to have "reasonable doubt" about the quality of the team's wins. It's called the "uncertainty principle," and there's a guy looking into it with numbers (John Hollinger), and hopefully, RC Buford is looking to make one more move before the trade deadline because the NBA is clearly back to what it was in the '80s and '90s in terms of talented teams that can win a championship. 

And that Knicks team, even with all their depth and grit, only finished as a runner-up.   This Spurs team needs more of both attributes if it's even going to finish second to one of the big three.  Any other finish is like not even existing. Like being a black and white film in a world of color, there's a reason San Antonio's colors are what they are.  They're flying under the radar of human perception, which means they'll either sneak up on everyone or no one at all.

It's an uncertain prediction at best.



5 comments:

Langston said...

Jordans was far more impressive, especially when you consider it was only his fifth game back in the league. But Kobes game beat Lebrons because without it the Lakers would have been dominated. The doubt of their abilities without Bynum could be seen on their faces and posture. Kobe knew he had to put the team on his back and carry them to victory. He knew his team and the Laker fans needed to be reminded of their skills. Kobe did all that with a far better shooting percentage than Lebron and 20-20 from the line. The Lakers needed him to do that. That's why it was the better game.

February 8, 2009 at 3:05 PM
Langston said...

Oh and AI is vastly overrated. He is a talented scorer. But I agree with Shaq when referring to Iversons best season as a pro. If Shaq had shot the ball as much as Iverson he would average 50 a game. You may remember he routinely shot the ball 30 plus times a game.

February 8, 2009 at 3:13 PM
Anonymous said...

When I put A.I. at #3 on my list it was only because I was trying to think of somebody other than Duncan and that was the first name that came to mind. The top 3 players of the past decade have to be Shaq, Kobe, and Duncan in whatever order anybody wants to put them. This really isn't even up for debate. They have been on 8 of the past 10 Championship teams and have played in all 10 (Lakers losing to the Pistons and Celtics). Combined they have owned the past decade.

February 9, 2009 at 12:55 AM
Anonymous said...

I'd agree that Iverson is overrated. But I'd also say that over his career he's been one of the most entertaining players in the NBA. But being entertaining doesn't necessarily mean he's been one of the best. He belongs in a separate category with Vince Carter. Like I said the only reason I originally put A.I. on that list was because he was the first name that came to mind.

The last two comments are by Stan. I just didn't take the time to sign in.

February 9, 2009 at 1:14 AM
Teach said...

What's up, Stan?

February 9, 2009 at 6:47 PM

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