Monday, May 30, 2011

Dirk Takes His Talents to South Beach

This has the potential to be a great NBA finals, both on the court and in terms of "story lines," which I normally dread in sports. The Mavs being here was considered by most to be highly unlikely, so we didn't have a lot of time to anticipate or get used to the idea of a rematch of the 2006 finals. But what a great rematch.

In '06, as everyone knows, the Mavs collapsed and lost four straight after being up 2 games to 0 and leading by double digits late in Game 3. The other story was — oh, wait, I think a ref from '06 just called someone else for fouling Dwyane Wade — the officiating. The Mavs totally blew their collective top and deserved to lose that series, but even neutral observers noticed the whistles. I can vividly remember, in Game 6 in Dallas, one play where, just before pulling up for a jumper, Wade nearly fully extended his arm into a defender, and the foul went the other way. Star treatment in the NBA is part of the game, but this was something different, something bizarre.

That series was gut-wrenching on so many levels. Game 4 was — almost inevitably, after the disaster in Game 3 — a blowout by the Heat. But in the other three Miami wins, the total differential was six points (including a 101-100 overtime Game 5). The next season, the Mavericks lost their first four games, and then played the next 78 as if each one could somehow erase the previous season's result, finishing 67-15, tied for the sixth most regular-season wins in league history. They then lost in the first round of the playoffs to the lowly — but quick and high-scoring — Golden State Warriors.

In terms of back-to-back bad exits, it's hard to imagine worse. And I don't mean hard to think of one that was worse, but hard to fictionally engineer one that could be worse. After the Warriors' series, Dirk Nowitzki went off to Australia for a few weeks, forgot about basketball, grew a giant beard, and became the NBA equivalent of Al Gore after the 2000 election.

There won't be any neutral observers in this series. There will be Heat fans, Mavs fans, and Everyone Else, who, in this case, will likely be rooting for Dallas. LeWadeBosh made sure of that.

Dirk went 2 for 13 from the field in Game 5 of that Golden State series mentioned above, and it's hard to believe anything like that could happen again, the way he's been playing for the past month. Dirk's the big key, since he's one superstar against two in this series. But I still think Dallas' depth, though it's being mentioned, is being underrated in a league with a lot of shallow teams at the moment. This is not to mention Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, who, if the game plan is sound, should give Miami more problems down low than the East could. The 2-3-2 home advantage for Miami is huge. I don't like that at all, and I think it means Dallas has to win one of the first two to have any chance whatsoever. I've been predicting them every round (and not feeling crazy about it), so I'll continue: Dallas in 6. Dirk and Kidd's desperation and their supporting cast over two of the best players ever.

Enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

“A thousand pages of ideological fabulism. I had to flog myself to read it.”

Following on my somewhat recent post about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, here's a clip of William F. Buckley talking to Charlie Rose in 2003. He discusses Rand, her influence, and a negative review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers that Buckley commissioned:



Chambers' review of the novel ran in the Dec. 28, 1957, issue of National Review, and it's well worth reading in full, partly because it's hard to imagine a widely read conservative publication making a case like this today. Here's a piece:
[Karl Marx], too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment.

The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book’s aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned “higher morality,” which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.
(via Open Culture)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Big Sweep

[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.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama, Meet Obama

I was alone at home Sunday night when my younger sister called and told me that President Obama would be speaking momentarily about a national security issue, and no one knew what it was.

These were not calming words.

I don’t need to recite to you the litany of things that might be going wrong. (Yet I recite them to myself on a regular basis.) It was just a few minutes later when word about the subject circulated. Like everyone else, I reacted on a few different levels:

One level was sadness, just because anything that vividly takes me back to 9/11 and its aftermath is an inherently unhappy thing. Those were tough days, so I got choked up for a few seconds while waiting (interminably) for Obama to speak.

Another level — what might have been something resembling relief if bin Laden had been killed in, say, 2002 — was now more accurately described as weary satisfaction. In recent years, it already felt like al Qaeda was severely splintered (though not toothless), and that bin Laden was a mythic motivator rather than a real-life general. Capturing or killing him started to feel just as mythic — and more a Where’s Waldo?-like test of patience and vision than a top strategic priority. But of course, it was still good news. Mythic motivators are important. And so is justice, however long delayed. Bin Laden was not just a murderer, but a longtime, calculating, political one, so I see nothing wrong with him being killed in battle, as it were. It was his choice to make that one of his possible paths to the grave.

The resultant celebration was surprising to me. I have nothing against it, per se, though I’m more the type of person who would only gather and yell in public for something sports-related. When it comes to things like war — and a lot of other things besides — I’m more like the guy at left, who spent part of the night of bin Laden’s death mourning a loved one at the Pentagon memorial.

I didn’t lose anyone on 9/11, and I’m certainly not going to shed any tears for bin Laden, but overall I feel like this is one small, just event in a much larger string of incredibly sad events. And unlike V-E Day, to take one example, this is not a clear-cut finale to something. The battle we’re in (the world is in) is untraditional, and it can’t be stopped by one accomplishment.

I did take a moment to celebrate. One of the first things I did after hearing the news, being a 21st-century nincompoop, was happily post this video from the 1980s to Facebook and Twitter. But when I saw the celebration outside the White House, I was surprised by the size and demographics of it. So many of the celebrants looked like high school kids. Bruce Arthur, a Canadian writer whose work I’ve come to know through his entertaining Twitter feed, was in D.C. for it:
People climbed trees and lampposts, until they were asked to stop. Many were so young. . . . It was the primal hunger to experience history, to live a part of something bigger, to be on TV rather than watching on TV. They wanted to be the man swinging the hammer on the Berlin Wall, to be the Navy man or the nurse sharing a kiss in Times Square on V-J Day, to be the dancing crowds in Tahrir Square.
Arthur found a woman whose younger sister was killed at her desk in the Pentagon on 9/11, and asked for her reaction to bin Laden’s death:
“We were elated, but in the meantime we were also sad,” Monica said, “that someone’s life was taken. I would say that he deserved what he got. Can I say that? That he deserved what he got. Us being a Christian family, we’re supposed to learn how to love and forget, to forgive people. But it’s very hard.”
You can absolutely say he deserved what he got. Not being a Christian myself, but being quite nonviolent, I still think it’s a perverse extension of sympathy to waste much of it on someone like bin Laden. There are all kinds of people who do bad things who I can see deserving sympathy, even of the deepest, most radically Christian kind — people in terrible circumstances, otherwise decent people who do something awful in a fit of passion, stupidity, madness and/or panic — but he’s not one of them.

At the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, who was also in D.C., offered another perspective on the crowd’s jubilation:
Almost everybody was Twittering their excitement. (A Twittering mob is a less terrifying mob.) A lot of beer was drunk and spilled. The scene was boorish, of course. Triumphalism is often not a pretty thing. But still distinctions had to be made. This crowd burned nobody in effigy, nobody’s flag, nobody’s books. It had assembled to celebrate an entirely defensible act, whose justice could be proven on more than merely nationalistic grounds. After all, Osama bin Laden killed even more Muslims than Americans, and represented one of the most poisonous ideas of our time: the restoration, by means of sanctified violence, of a human world without rights.
Well said.

My other thoughts that night mostly revolved around the mainstream media (which is just embarrassing on almost every level) and Obama. When my sister called, I turned on the TV, which was on NBC, to find Donald Trump earnestly addressing La Toya Jackson in the boardroom. Earlier in the week, I had seen a video clip of Trump getting huge cheers from a crowd by saying that the country has no leadership.