Monday, April 18, 2011

The playoffs begin - tell the Lakers

Some thoughts on the NBA playoffs while I pull a Nixon and magically make 2 hours disappear from the tape of today's Lakers game.

* The Knicks can testify about the importance of the 3-point shot in today's NBA. But it wasn't always such a crucial factor. Check out the leaders from the 1982 playoffs, a season I picked randomly, which had nothing to do with the fact the Lakers won their second title in three seasons with a 4-2 victory over the Sixers. Look at the top long-range shooters that postseason:
1. Brian Winters, Milwaukee - 5
2. Mike Bratz, San Antonio - 5
3. Frank Johnson, Washington - 5
4. Andrew Toney, Philly - 5

Four guys, with five three-pointers. The next season Johnny Moore led the way with 9. Last year? Ray Allen made 56.

The champion Lakers made two 3-pointers the entire playoffs in 1982. They took 12 of them.

* Of the 16 coaches in the playoffs, who was the worst as an NBA player? Eleven of them played in the league, from the sharp-elbowed, joint-smoking Phil Jackson to the defensive-minded Nate McMillan. I originally thought Scott Brooks might get my vote, but the little guard and still-tiny Oklahoma City coach cobbled together a decade-long career in the league, including a few years with a young Timberwolves franchise. But I think the choice is Rick Carlisle, current Dallas coach and former Celtic. Carlisle played five seasons with three teams and averaged 2.2 points per game. He did pick up a ring with the '86 Celtics, as part of The Big Three, along with Bird and McHale.

* Speaking of McHale. Here's the old Hibbingite nearly killing Kurt Rambis in the 1984 Finals. Unfortunately for old Clark Kent, there are thousands of Timberwolves fans who would like to do the same thing to him now. When this play happened in Game 4, a mini-brawl broke out but McHale, ridiculously, was not thrown out of the game. Today he might be personally executed by David Stern at dawn, or at least suspended three games.

* The playoffs are my favorite time of the sports season, ahead of October baseball and March Madness. Just look at this first weekend of games, when six of them went down to the final minute. You had young teams like Memphis beating the veteran Spurs and you had the old guys in Boston holding off a revitalized Knicks team. You had new superstars like Durant and Rose lighting it up while seen-it-all guys like Dirk Nowitzki lifted their teams to victory with a limp and a fadeaway. And we get to watch those types of games for the next two months. But the playoffs also bring out my least-favorite people: conspiracy theorists. The NBA's always rife with conspiracy theories - having a ref involved in point-shaving scandals tends to lend some credence to those ideas. During the postseason, though, everyone sees black helicopters hovering overhead, or at least the evil hand of Stern.

I'd need a dozen sociologists, 10 mathematicians, Ralph Nader and Alex Jones to diagram the conspiracies that are supposedly at play. Who benefits? It depends on who's playing and who's complaining. An overview:

-The league wants LeBron and Wade in the Finals so they'll get the benefit of all foul calls. The league has promoted LeBron and Wade for eight years and this year will be no different. To beat LeBron, you'll have to beat eight guys - the five players and three refs. Conspirators often go silent when it's mentioned that these same fears were dragged out the last two seasons when James played for the Cavs yet somehow didn't make it to the Finals, despite the evil machinations of Stern's minions.

-The league doesn't want a big man dominating the game - it's too boring watching all those jump-hooks and dunks - so the refs will go out of their way to put Dwight Howard in foul trouble, or they'll just go ahead and T him up the first time his mouth opens or his eyes widen. This is the modern-day equivalent of the NCAA outlawing the dunk so Alcindor wouldn't dominate.

-The league wants the Knicks in the Finals. Of course. Conspirators will ignore the fact the Knicks were the victims of a ridiculous offensive foul call on Carmelo Anthony in the closing seconds tonight. Don't you see, they only called that so the conspiracy isn't so obvious.

-The league wants the Lakers in the Finals. Obviously. So Kobe can push off, Gasol can whine, Bynum can travel with every drop step and Artest can manhandle offensive players. There's no way the league will allow a small market team like the Spurs, Thunder or Hornets to win the West. Did the Spurs win four titles since 1999? Yes. But again, if you're following along with the complicated chart, that's just to make things look good. Each time the Spurs won, Stern wept - and plotted anew how to keep San Antonio out of the Finals and off of our TVs in June.

-But even Lakers fans get in on the fun. Incredibly, a fan base that has watched its team in nearly half the Finals in league history believes the league is out to get their favorite squad. Why? Because the NBA is - supposedly - sick of their dominance. Stern wants to promote young stars like Rose and Durant and is tired of Kobe winning titles so he won't get the benefit of any calls. As I type this people are creating threads on Lakers messageboards claiming these very things. In other news, Major League Baseball doesn't want the Yankees and Red Sox making the playoffs.

* Here's Magic hitting an 80-footer against the Nuggets in the 1987 playoffs. My favorite thing about this video is Chick Hearn calculating the length of the shot. He comes up with 80 feet. When they return from break, he's perturbed to find out it's not the official number. Perturbed and a bit incredulous.

* Former Laker stiff Travis Knight holds an NBA playoff record. As you could have guessed, it's not the type of record that will be on his resume when he earns entry into his high school's hall of fame. Knight has the fastest disqualification in NBA playoff history. It took him only six minutes to rack up six fouls in a 1999 game. The record had previously been held by a player who shared many of Knight's qualities - Will Perdue, who needed seven minutes to foul out.

Bizarrely - or not - there's youtube of Knight when the Bulls drafted him. Weird reaction from the crowd; it almost seems like the broadcast pumped in action scenes from some previous draft - perhaps when Jordan himself was drafted in 1984 - for Knight's selection. Why would there be this much noise for the 29th pick in the draft, a center who was a bit "slow afoot."

Rick Pitino provides the commentary on the Knight pick. He doesn't sound too impressed, but he was actually playing possum. In 1997, after Knight enjoyed a workmanlike campaign with the Lakers (he never played for the Bulls), Pitino, now with the Celtics, signed Knight to a seven-year deal worth $22 million. He averaged six points for the Celtics. Two years later he was back in LA, fouling out in six minutes. Somewhere, Jon Koncak smirked.

* Michael Jordan holds nearly every conceivable playoff scoring record. For all of Wilt's dominance with the regular-season scoring marks, it's Jordan's name that appears everywhere in the postseason. He has the most 20-point playoff games with 173 - in 179 games. He scored at least 15 in every playoff contest and holds the records for most 50-point games (8), 40-point games (38) and 30-point games (109). But one record he doesn't have is most consecutive 40-point games. In 1965, Jerry West hit the 40-point mark in a remarkable six straight games - all against the Baltimore Bullets. He averaged 46.3 for the series.

The playoffs continue Monday and the Lakers return to action Wednesday. If they don't win that one? Blame the conspiracy.

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