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. 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.


Blogger ANCIANT said...

I'm interested to hear you like Phil Jackson. I find his whole "I'm an Enlightened Zen Sage" schtick endlessly irritating. One more reason (there are 124, at last count) to be overjoyed at the Lakers' fate this postseason.

The interesting question now is who do they keep, when the inevitable dismantling of the team occurs? To me, Odom, not Gasol, is in fact their second-best player. I wonder if management will see it that way. Probably not.

Good post.

2:22 AM  
Anonymous topher said...

One huge reason that the experts didn't pick Dallas (despite having the same record) was the fact that Dallas had an insanely hot start, followed by losing Caron Butler and playing much more poorly. There's no doubt that L.A. had a better second half than Dallas. OKC/Memphis vs Dallas is going to be great.

So happy that Dallas won, but there was definitely something going on with that Laker team. I can't wait for Phil to throw his team under the bus in his next book. Again.

9:37 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Good point about Butler, Topher. I love that guy's game. And a valid point about the second half of the season, though the Lakers did close out 2-5.

ANCIANT, the Zen shtick does annoy me, proportionately to its shtickiness. (Zen itself is interesting to me.) But Phil was a Knick way back when, and I respect the fact that he wins so much. Say what you want about having Jordan and Kobe, that doesn't guarantee the number of titles he's won -- look at other great players, like LeBron, Wade, etc. I just appreciate that Phil is really, really good at what he does.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

The result of the series was less about the Mavs than the Lakers. The Lakers imploded. The Mavs just happened to be there. Seriously. The Mavs will continue to be chokers and underachievers until they actually win a title. And I still contend that will not happen as long as 1. Mark Cuban owns the team, and 2. Dirk is their best player.

The Spurs do not look as bad now, as the mighty Thunder also appear to be struggling agains the the Grizzlies. They have to be the best 8th seed in memory.

I predict that the Mavs will face the Heat (again) in the finals, and the Heat will win (again). I dislike the Mavs, but hate Lebron and Co. more, so I would actually rather see a Mavs victory there. But it will not happen due to reasons 1 and 2 above.

8:06 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Dez, you're losing some of your basketball-fan bona fides with that comment. The Mavs "happened to be there"? I haven't heard one person bold/dumb enough to say that.

I have no idea what's happening with the Grizzlies. It's bizarre, and totally un-NBA-like.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Don't forget the Knicks loss to the Rockets in seven back in '94. That couldn't have been fun to go through as a Knicks fan. They were basically one Hakeem Olajuwon blocked shot (on Starks) away from winning the series.


12:45 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Trust me, Alex, I didn't forget the Rockets series. That year lacked some of the playoff-long drama of the Jordan years, but the finals were very disappointing. I had flown to NYC to visit my sister, and was taking a car from the airport to her place while Game 7 was going on. I remember listening to some of it on the radio and despairing. Looking back on it (with the help of the Internet), that was a great series: went 7, with the wins going 1-1-1-2-2 and no game decided by more than nine points.

1:28 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I'm obviously missing a total classic at the moment, with OKC and Memphis going to a 3rd OT. I very rarely miss having cable. The NBA playoffs is one of those times.

This game is a must-win for OKC, I think.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Well, now you have heard one person say that. I'm not saying the Mavs were chopped liver. But any good, motivated team could have beat that old, imploding Lakers team.

7:04 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

I don't know, Dez. I watched a lot of those Mavs games and I came away impressed. Dirk seemed at many points in that series to be unguardable. More importantly, his supporting cast was actually supporting him. True, the Laker looked bad, and I'm not saying you needed to play great to beat them. But whether they needed to or not, the Mavs did play great. If they play to that level for the rest of the playoffs, they have a chance to win it all. Or, at least to lose to the Heat in seven.

JMW--you don't have cable? How do you watch sports?

1:22 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I watch sports on network TV on the weekends, at my friend Jason's apartment two blocks away, and sometimes at bars.

2:25 PM  

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