[This post was started this afternoon, during the fourth quarter of the game, and finished late tonight.]
Well, the big story going into this round of the NBA playoffs was that Dirk Nowitzki had never faced Kobe Bryant in the postseason, which is crazy when you consider that they’re two of the best players for the last decade, in the same conference, on teams that make the playoffs every year
The big story exiting this round of the NBA playoffs is that Nowitzki is 4-0 vs. Bryant in the postseason.
I’ve been giggling for the past 15 minutes, despite the fact that the punk-ass Lakers have been doing everything they can to effect Dallas’ fate in the next
round by playing like it’s roller derby. It’s rare that you get a chance to revel in a basketball win for something like an hour while the game is still being played. Rare that you get to just laugh at Phil Jackson’s smug face as he takes in what’s happening to his team. (I actually like Jackson, but now’s not the time for diplomacy.) It’s 101-68 right now — sorry, did you not get that? 101-68 — and the last two fouls by the Lakers have been, in the accurate words of the announcers, “a disgrace.” It looks like the WWF out there.
So, before I get to the two points I wanted to make about this series (but was scared to write about until it was officially over), let me just wish Lamar Odom, the pouty Pau Gasol, and the overrated Andrew Bynum a very happy summer.
Now it’s 112-78.
OK: The first point I wanted to make is about fandom. As a kid, I was a Knicks’ fan, and it was soon after I moved to Dallas that New York played its epic but futile string of playoff series against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. I spent those series spazzing out in front of the TV, rooting for the Knicks in a way that’s completely lost when you reach a certain age. I was sometimes elated but also truly suffered through those games.
When I moved back to New York in 2000, the Knicks were starting what could very kindly be called a Lost Decade. From the management non-stylings of Isiah Thomas to the selfish play of Stephon Marbury to the perennial bench-riding of high-salaried black holes like Eddy Curry, the Knicks were not just a bad team: they were entirely unlikable. So it didn’t take me long to stop rooting for them.
This was also the time when the Dallas Mavericks were becoming consistently competitive, which was a shock after the 1990s, when they were less a laughingstock than just a nonentity. With the Knicks languishing and the Mavs rising, it wasn’t difficult to be drawn to Dallas. Plus — and this seems key — I tend to live (in my head) where I’m not (in body). The nostalgia I felt for Dallas didn’t manifest itself in other sports; the Mavs got all of it.
This year, I should have regained some enthusiasm for the Knicks. They finally turned things around enough to get a couple of stars on the roster and spark some hope for the future. But I felt nothing. I didn’t care at all whether they beat the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
The second thing to talk about is the result of the series itself. The way
it happened is obviously shocking — the two-time defending champs being swept and completely humiliated in Game 4. But from the beginning, the prevailing wisdom was that the Mavs couldn’t
win the series. That was silly. ESPN.com had 14 “experts” (their word) choose the winner of the series before it started. All 14 picked L.A. Not one person envisioned one 57-25 team beating another 57-25 team. One reason for this, I’ll get to below. But let’s stick with tangibles for now:
Bill Simmons said on Twitter during the game today: “This would be a stunning sweep. On paper, L.A. has 4 of the best 5 players in the series. Their 4th best player (Odom) would be #2 for Dallas.”
This misses the point on a couple of levels. The first is that it overrates Odom (and probably Bynum, too). As L.A.’s potentially second-best player, Pau Gasol could have been a difference in the series, except he didn’t show up. Past him, I think the talent gap at the top isn’t that extreme. But more importantly, look away from the top. Kobe put it simply at the press conference after the game: “Their depth hurt us.” Dallas has four or five guys off the bench who can contribute. Past Odom, the Lakers give significant minutes to Shannon Brown and Steve Blake. That’s rough.
It also ignores that there were specific areas where Dallas had a big advantage. One was Nowitzki, who presented a match-up nightmare (and does for most). Another was point guard. Yes, Jason Kidd is 503 years old (he’ll be 504 next March), but he’s also one of the best (and now “craftiest,” which is a much nicer way of saying “ancient”) point guards in the history of the league. His backup, J.J. Barea, is a bit of a magician himself. The Lakers countered with Derek Fisher, who shot 38% from the field and averaged less than three assists a game this year.
Lastly, the “choke” issue. This is the most obvious explanation for how 14 people could all pick the Lakers to win the series. The Mavs have been dogged by this ever since they lost the 2006 finals to Miami after almost going up 3-0. And the way they handled that series as it unfolded, yeah, choking was part of it. They got rattled. The next year, as a 1 seed, they lost to the Golden State Warriors. I could argue that wasn’t a choke, though it was horribly disappointing. Did the Spurs choke against Memphis this year, or were they just outplayed? Golden State was fast and high-scoring that year, and the Mavericks had played the regular season at an insanely high gear for the NBA. The most surprising thing about that series was that Golden State looked
like the better team. Odd, yes. Choking, not necessarily.
But I think back to A-Rod in the 2009 baseball playoffs. Had he come up small in the postseason before that? Often. But you give a guy that talented enough chances, and he’s going to make something happen. Likewise, you add some key supporting talent to Dallas, and L.A. loses a step, and here we are. It’s not shocking, and I think the choking theory, for any relatively high-achieving team or individual, over time, is a bit lazy. Now, get back to me if they lose the next series in four.