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Playoff Talking Points: Game On, Baby!

Apr 26, 2010 – 2:00 AM
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Bethlehem Shoals

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Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron JamesNo one with a wife and kids, or the need to eat leafy greens, has time to watch all this basketball. But we do. So, as a service to the public, here are the Playoff Talking Points you need to fake it at the water cooler:

• Perfect Strangers: Dirk Nowitzki is not an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has a player option for 2010-11, but will almost certainly decline it so he gets a new one in before the new CBA hits. The Mavericks have until July to offer him an extension; if they do not, then Dirk is on the market.

As Ziller has observed, Mark Cuban learned his lesson with Steve Nash. And Nash was a lovable sidekick on those high-scorin' Nellie Mavs; Dirk is the greatest player in franchise history. One friend, a resident of the area, suggested to me yesterday that he might be Dallas's finest athlete ever, regardless of sport. Since he's up against Cowboys like Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman, that's going to be a hard sell in the Metroplex. That there's no ring around Dirk's finger hurts his case. Regardless, Nowitzki does at least belong in the conversation. Excluding him from it reeks of anxiety.

Dirk is Dallas basketball; Dallas basketball is Dirk. Nowitzki isn't the type to bolt for greener pastures. He's loyal, even-keeled, and has a real, old-fashioned sense of faith, friendship and commitment. He's spent his entire adult life in Dallas -- the only American city he's ever known -- and risen and fallen with the franchise now more times than he can count. While Nowitzki is humble, he knows his place in the city's sports history -- a city that's like home to him -- and it's a source of pride.

Not as much, though, as a ring would be. As he gets even more remarkable with age, Dirk has gone from "soft" and a "choker" to a Kevin Garnett-like tragic figure (albeit muted somewhat by his personality). We admire his allegiance to the Mavs. And yet suppose Dallas, now down 3-1 to the Spurs, loses this series. Loyalty is one thing, but at this point, the team has been reconstituted several times over. You could blame Dirk-as-cornerstone, or simply ask, isn't it time he try his luck elsewhere?

This summer, super-dynasties will be formed, even engineered. Okay, if not dynasties, at least alliances of mercenaries along the lines of the 2008 Celtics. Everyone knows that LeBron James is looking for a dance partner. But few have noticed Dirk and James belong together.

Dirk's as versatile as anyone this side of LeBron. He can play inside, take his man off the dribble, and of course, hit threes for days; he's blessed with tremendous basketball IQ, can handle the ball and see the floor; he never forces anything, and is sometimes deferential to a fault; as a rebounder and defender, he's gotten grittier with time. Nowitzki isn't the defender or rebounder that Bosh is. He doesn't quite punish inside like Amar'e -- who might not be headed to free agency after all. Yet some lucky team can get defensive toughness, rebounding, and three-point shooting to surround these two stars. Those things come cheap; perfect harmony is a rare bird, indeed.

When Kevin Durant was coming into the league, those who consider themselves realists claimed Durant's ceiling was Dirk. Now, we should look at Durant and throw the comparison back the other way. What if now, LeBron James had the chance to play with an older version of KD? Would any other free agent even matter then?

• Making Over History
: I happen to call Seattle home these days; I moved here in the summer of 2007. I know a few people who, on principle, refuse to watch the Thunder. They know what I think of this stance, but the world needs hard-liners to put the rest of us in perspective. However, even as someone who only spent a year here before the Sonics, ahem, left, there's something about the coverage of Oklahoma City that doesn't sit quite right with me. It's almost as if they -- the league, the networks, and anyone else with a vested interest in making the past look tidy -- want to repress the whole Sonics fiasco and put the most positive gloss imaginable on this new market.

At first, I thought the constant cutaways to Clay Bennett were just an attempt to get Sonics fans riled up. I can assure you, they did; in addition to the real sense of loss Seattle's basketball faithful feel, there's an undeniable sadomasochistic streak that's developed there. Putting Bennett on the screen, repeatedly, may distract them, throwing them into a spiral of virulence and self-pity. But strong emotions means it's good theater, and good theater keeps eyeballs on the television.

When they return to the present, these viewers are that much more generally agitated. Certainly, that's what you want -- in a way, it doesn't matter how you get your spectators there. Just get them in some kind of heightened emotional state, and sports will get to them. What else is the point of cheerleaders, halftime freaks and T-shirt guns?

The unsettling part of this, though, is what accompanies these shots of Bennett. He's being cast as the white knight who brought the NBA to OKC, a city that embraced the league so hard it couldn't breathe, and now turns up to scream and hoot and holler at playoff games like no home crowd since Sacramento almost a decade ago. These are fans, good and pure. Dan Shulman and Doris Burke have referred to it as a "college-type atmosphere"; I want to assume that this slips out because they also call NCAA games.

What's more, rather than paint Bennett and his cohorts as energy market robber barons who plundered the globe and then bought a team with absolutely no intention of keeping it where it was (despite saying otherwise), we're told how they were on the right side of two of the more awful events in recent American history. Take that, Save Our Sonics.

The narrative we're being fed, and having reiterated by the broadcasting team, is one where Thunder-mania is inseparable from the Murrah Building bombing and that city's sheltering of the Hornets during Katrina. I'm not going to pretend to understand how that 1995 terrorist act affected that community. Only a total ass would try and minimize the long-term impact of such an event; the same goes for Katrina's with New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, which continues to this day. As Kevin Pelton pointed out today, sports can mean much more to a city than dollars and cents. However, it's simply not fair to say that the Thunder were a necessary part of that city's healing. Nor should OKC's willingness to take in the refugee Hornets be seen as charity.

Seattle losing a team is nothing compared to the Oklahoma City bombing or Katrina. But that's emotional bullying, even exploitation. The story of the Thunder isn't just about a man who helped New Orleans, and then saw the opportunity to make his hometown exorcise the past. That makes his actions absolutely saintly, beyond reproach. Anyone who was paying attention knows they're not, and attempting to hide them -- and him -- behind real suffering is more than a little questionable.

• At Long Last: "Wingspan" and "length" have become laughable draft buzzwords. You have said the following sentence at least once in your life: "Hey, Jay Bilas, froth about wingspan again so I can down this next shot of MGD Ultra mixed with grape-flavored acetone?"

But while "wingspan" and "length" may be the grand-superior punchline to all parodies of NBA scouting, this playoffs prove that, amazingly, there is gold in those there limbs. Some of this postseason's key contributors so far are defined or driven by their pterodactyl-like build, or have just plain realized what a tremendous advantage it offers. I had planned to make an All-Wingspan Team for this first round, so far, but so many of these guys defy position by virtue of this synthetic variation on height and reach.

The single most salient example might be Kevin Durant, whose ability to cover ground in the open court and bother certain Laker scorers have proven difficult for L.A. to counter. Rajon Rondo's play out of the point guard position is what holds Boston together through thick and thin, yet when an All-Star PG can also lock down any opponent in the back court, play passing lanes without even meaning to, and snag rebounds like a forward, you're getting way more than an effective floor general out of the one.

Kevin Garnett, the Man Who Invented Long, and long-before-his-time Marcus Camby have remained forces almost exclusively on the basis of their build (and their adeptness at using it). If size is a blunt instrument, length is a more advanced tool; however, it wears equally well. The increased pace, and decreased bulk, of the game certainly makes it more plausible that Garnett and Camby are the big man vets making late-career impacts.

But so far, this is just a list of All-Stars. The Spurs' George Hill, who has kept the starting point guard slot even after Tony Parker's return, had 29 points Sunday to spark the win over Dallas -- key in a game when Tim Duncan was held to just 4 points and Parker 10. Portland swingman Nicolas Batum has had big games before, but in Brandon Roy's (brief) absence he emerged as an unexpected force. He has all the look of what Travis Outlaw could have been.

Right now, the best player on the Lakers is Pau Gasol. He may not be the biggest or baddest Laker. Andrew Bynum is the still the center of the future; Ron Artest, the intimidator. But watching their games against OKC, it's evident that Gasol -- not the raggedy Kobe Bryant -- is all that's kept this team from suffering an upset that would put the 2007 Mavericks to shame. If Oklahoma City is winning with the tools of the future, Los Angeles is lucky that Gasol got there several years before the fact.

So laugh if you will next time "length" comes up on draft night. However, judging from these playoffs, and the direction the league is headed in, the attribute is no longer a gimmick or novelty. It's size without the drawbacks.

• Moving Target:
How good are the Celtics? That would depend on your view of the Heat. When Dwyane Wade went for a blistering 46 points on Sunday, Boston took their first loss in the series. Maybe Miami, or more accurately Wade, was playing for pride, all rabid and cornered and stuff. The fact remains, though, that the Celts couldn't slow him down this time. We might have to wait till next round to gauge if Boston really has any shot at contending.

• Shake it Up: We knew that the seeding in the West was tight, but suppose the Spurs and Jazz advance. We'll then have the number two and number four seeds out in the first round. Plus, we're talking about a Spurs team that has had to figure out its identity late in the season, and a Jazz squad that keeps getting more and more depleted. These are college-type upsets!

• Shake It Up, Part 2: Remember when the Blazers were the de facto team of the future out West? Something tells me they've been leap-frogged by the Thunder.

• Bring Our Hawks Back
: I know that the Bucks are a top-notch defensive team, and that the Hawks had troubles on the road during last year's playoffs. But what made Saturday's loss so strange was that Atlanta never looked like they grasped the concept of a comeback. This is a team that, for all the growing up it's done, remains predicated on explosiveness, big plays, runs, momentum, and other stuff that keeps us from laughing at their "Highlight Factory" marketing campaign.

That this still relatively young team can't win on the road, or mount a comeback, is troublesome, but not spooky. When you see Josh Smith and his teammates play like they've forgotten what makes them dangerous, we're past basketball and into brain-stealing and body-snatching territory. Maybe this is why Smith is seen as key to the team; he's most guilty on this, so maybe without him the team lacks ... leadership in dynamism? Without Smith, they're forced to rally around the example of Joe Johnson -- the franchise player, but decidedly low-key. Notably, Johnson had 25 points, 6 boards, and 3 steals in the loss. Smith went 2 for 12, but did manage 12 rebounds.

• The Old-Fashioned Way
: Technology is the devil. Twitter has allowed fans (and some media) to comment on games as they happen, giving what often amounts to blow-by-blow analysis. At the same time, DVR means that, if need be, you can suspend time, and put it on hold until you've got the time to finish watching the game. The two are almost in conflict with each other, if not moving in opposite directions.

The irony is, both this hyper-saturation in real time, and the attempt to put the present on hold, are both things that only the most devoted consumers bother with. What does this mean? That if I decide to leave the house for the second half of OKC/LAL for the sake of my own sanity, technology both allows me to pretend the game's on hold and makes it that much harder for me to sustain that illusion.
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