Playoff Talking Points: The Limits of Feelin' Good
No 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:
• Quality Control: The deer is loose. Do we capitalize "deer," or is just an ordinary deer that's gone to work for its fans, like the John Deere one? Can someone with a degree in Midwestern linguistic explain how "cheer the deer" doesn't just mean making some poor skinny animal's day?
So many questions, and I know that's bad writing. But today the mind reels. Despite my artful Val Lewton references, the Hawks still don't seem to get the concept of bringing your heart and soul on the road, and again, they couldn't pull past the meek, horned beasts.
I would like to raise the possibility here that Josh Smith's anti-Milwaukee comments are a smokescreen, meant to throw us off the party-trail he's blazed since showing up in town. It is the hometown of Latrell Sprewell, isn't it? Glenn Robinson has the keys to the city. Don Nelson once ruled the roost. There has to be some kind of secret network of gettin' down for NBA players that's just not public knowledge like South Beach.
It's fun off the grid, complete with the instruction manual on how to reinforce the secret. But I see through it all. Maybe.
Yesterday, I referred to the Spurs and Jazz as on the verge of "college-type upsets." They're not. The Spurs have been positively awe-inspiring, and Utah's just not messing around when it comes to making the most of their battered platoon. Having Deron Williams once and for all penetrate my All-Demonic rankings certainly has a lot to do with it; if you want to know when there's a playoff game you can't turn off, look deep into the eyes of the stars, like Bush did Putin. If you're scared by what you find there, that's a man possessed and well worth watching.
Kobe Bryant has mastered the art of pulling it off even when his game's not there. But this year, Williams is up there with Kevin Durant when it comes to this killer quality. Seems like Manu Ginobili has got some of it going, except it's blurred by translation.
I have probably wandered way too far away from any rational analysis, except when I see that in a player, it's no longer an upset. It's a player, and a team, who have chosen to treat the playoffs like a Western. One where there aren't many buildings or other people around.
Brandon Jennings has had a bit of that -- coupled with a good humor I don't think anyone expected of him around last June -- in Milwaukee's wins. The Hawks, despite Johnson's workaday heroics, have had none. And yet, while the Hawks seem low on motivation and inspiration, this would not be a good upset. Maybe Atlanta's following Boston's example, taking its time on the way to the Finals. I think you have to get old to do that, not just be barely on the right side of maturity. Regardless, a Milwaukee win in this series would make it all feel good.
But unlike in March Madness, this would hurt the playoffs. The Spurs or Jazz are playing like they can beat anyone; the Thunder, too, are clearly a team reaching new heights. The Bucks are holding their ground against a perplexing bunch of birds. Can anyone explain to me why Atlanta has Hawks and Falcons? That's just weird.
Anyway, at the risk of angering a certain supervisor of mine, the Hawks are the better team, still. The Bucks are neither elevating themselves nor tapping into previously unspoken reservoirs or emotion or fury. Fine, Milwaukee could advance. Then, they'd be slaughtered. I care about product, and at the end of the day, the Hawks in the second round means more good basketball.
I suppose someone could take me to task for being so pro-Atlanta in 2008, when no one gave them a prayer against Boston. At the risk of splitting hairs, though, that was a team whose play at home did look like youngsters reaching higher ground. Now, the table's have turned. The Bucks are playing well, but the Hawks are also abysmal out of town.
The chance of them solving this riddle seem higher than that of Milwaukee finding a way to put up a fight against a less disfigured team -- one that, at the end of the day, still has it in them to make a run.
• Old Ain't the Same Thing As Dead: Tonight, the Thunder and Lakers meet in what is, for me at least, the most eagerly anticipated basketball game since Hawks-Celtics 2008. Yes, my landmarks are simple. That's why I believe like I do.
I will hold off on further sanctifying the Thunder until we have an outcome -- not because they don't deserve it, but because I don't want to jinx them. And, it should be said, I am anything but a Laker hater. I have spent time upon time trying to make people see that Kobe Bryant is amazing, Pau Gasol not far behind and this team in the perfect position to fall into line right about now. Also, I have considered ordering some of Lamar's Odom's shirts.
All that said, we need to acknowledge a basic fact about this series: If Kobe Bryant were all-healthy, he would be able to put OKC in its place, at least figuratively, and deliver this series for LA. That's not hyperbole; nor is it overly literal. That's just the game Kobe plays in the postseason.
Except he's not. Bryant's trying his hardest to both not let his injuries too badly hamper the offense, while still figuring they need some semblance of him late. The question, though, is whether either of these is advisable. Once, he would have been able to battle through pain and unresponsive body parts, get by on a sliver, or lash out with will alone to guide him. That was a different Kobe.
The man is not done. He still has several years ahead of him as one of the game's best, especially since he's bound to keep retooling his game to address the awful toll of aging. But he is mortal. There are limits to how much can influence a game if he's not one-hundred percent. Go ahead, bring up the 2008 Finals. He was mortal there, too, right? What I'm trying to say, though, is that Kobe-LeBron really no longer makes any sense. We have our answer, without even need a star-studded Finals to prove it.
• When a Win Isn't a Win: Speaking of LeBron James, here's a Pascal-like thought about his playoff destiny. I know Orlando swept Charlotte, and no one else pulled this off. But they just aren't scaring me. The Cavaliers haven't even made it past Chicago, and yet they still seem the favorites -- especially with Los Angeles being challenged by OKC. Here's the question: If LeBron cruises to a title without appearing to exert too much effort, won't it just lead to a "things are too easy to him" backlash? And if James has to fight too hard to get there, then he's falling short of his celestial destiny. Poor LeBron.
• John and Jason: I had planned to write more about this, but I slept in. So here's something to chew on: John Salmons and Jason Richardson have had really weird careers, and yet both have been invaluable in these playoffs. Salmons probably more so than Jennings. Richardson might, long-term, end up having accomplished more than former Golden State teammate, and perpetual web favorite, Gilbert Arenas. Now that's weird.