If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve simply gotta love the two NBA conference finals underway right now. The San Antonio Spurs, sporting the best regular-season record in basketball, and without a loss since April going into their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, won their first two games against OKC and looked to have a chance to be the only basketball team in history to go undefeated in the playoffs. Their performance in Game Two of the series was a basketball clinic for the ages. But OKC had other plans. The young, and a bit mercurial, Oklahoma City Thunder, feeding off the energy of their home crowd, put game three away before the end of the third quarter, and then battled in a closer match to victory in game four to even the series at 2-2. Now, throw out what came before. It’s starting afresh as a three-game series, with two of the three games to be played in San Antonio. I think home court advantage is huge in this series, especially given the youth of the Thunder. It’ll be San Antonio in seven, mostly because the Thunder are too young to play through a hostile crowd against an evenly-matched team. San Antonio is far and away the more experienced team (Tim Duncan started his NBA career before OKC point guard Russell Westbrook could ride a bike), but OKC is more talented. Kevin Durant may be the most indefensible, unstoppable player in the NBA right now, except perhaps for Lebron. But for this one, I believe experience and cunning will triumph one last time for these Spurs. The Thunder are a future NBA dynasty, as in next year, and for many years to come. The Spurs have to know this is it for the Tony Parker/Tim Duncan era that brought them four NBA championships. If the contemplation of their impending demise can’t clarify their minds as to what needs doing, then nothing will.
The Celtics are in a similar position as the Spurs, so far as age and experience goes. The Celtics big three, Garnett, Alan and Pierce, are all getting long in the tooth. But the Celtics are still capable of championship-caliber basketball, proving their mettle last night (June 3, 2012) in the first half of their game against the Miami Heat, ultimately winning the game in overtime to even their series at 2-2. So the Celtics-Heat series, like OKC-San Antonio, starts over as a three-game series. Home court advantage shouldn’t be as important to the Celtics-Heat series as it is with OKC-San Antonio, as both the Heat and the Celtics are veteran teams that should not so desperately need instantaneous crowd confirmation of their heroics to motivate them to perform. The Heat should win the series. Lebron James is today what Kevin Durant will be in short order—an unstoppable force. A pretty strong argument could be made that the difference for the Celtics in last night’s game four is that Lebron fouled out in overtime with about a minute and a half left. With a little luck and a few calls going their way, the Celtics could win this series, but my guess is it will be the Heat in seven.
Regardless of whether the Celtics make it to the finals, Rajon Rondo deserves consideration as the playoff MVP. He is an amazing basketball player, playing inspired basketball. There was the 44 point performance in game two. There was the bounce pass to Pierce in the paint last night, and the alley-oop to Garnett. There are the no-look passes and acrobatic moves to find a clear path to the basket. There are the steals and rebounds. No single player in the playoffs has been more important to his team. He makes everyone around him better. While, like all great players, he has been blessed with loads of raw talent, he has a competitive fire not so prominently displayed since Michael Jordan. No, I’m not saying he’s as good as Jordan was. I am saying that he’s a fiery competitor with an extraordinary set of tools for stoking the fire. And his greatest tool lies between his ears. He knows what to do and when to do it. He knows his own strengths and weaknesses, and those of his teammates and of the opposing players, and is exquisitely able to exploit every opponent’s weakness and leverage to maximum advantage every of his team’s strengths.
And he brings it every night. He takes it personally when his team loses. Greatness on the order of a Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant takes talent leavened with the desire to do whatever the team needs in order to win. Rondo’s got the ability to will his team to victory, not so much with points or rebounds, but through running the Celtic offense like an NFL quarterback. His play has been nothing less than brilliant, and a joy to watch. Thanks, Rondo.
I want to see a Spurs-Celtics final, for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been a Celtics fan since Larry Bird played. I don’t live in a town with its own NBA team, so I can choose any team I wish, and a long time ago, I chose the Celtics, maybe because I’m a “Southy” at heart, as a flight school buddy from Boston once described me.
But more than my team allegiance, I’d like to see the Celtics and Spurs in the finals because the two teams, aging as they are, have had to play the best of team-oriented and intelligent basketball to stay competitive. While thirty-six (the age for Garnett, Alan and Duncan) might not sound old, for an NBA player, where a nanosecond slower speed might make the difference in making the basket or getting a shot blocked, it is nearing the end of the line, as the young bucks with fresh legs eventually learn enough to run circles around the wisdom that experience yields. I’d like to see these old guys have one last chance to spar for the prize before they hang up the sneakers.
It’s partly because I’m getting old that I want to see the old guys go at it one last time. Not basketball old, but old old. I’ll turn fifty in December (four days before the purported end of the world), if something doesn’t get me before then. I’ve always related to the world in a very physical way, and it sucks contemplating the inevitable deterioration of bodily functioning that comes with age. I still run and work out and can do most anything I did when I was younger, only now I do it slower, and more deliberately, and with a measure of greater pain. It’ll really suck when I can no longer do physical things even poorly. So I feel a measure of sympathy with these NBA legends as they lay it out there one last time for all its worth. I’m struggling too, not so much against guys younger and quicker, but against forces that eventually always win. I’d like to see one of these teams (preferably the Celtics) triumph over time and themselves one more time for the ages.
And like everyone else who doesn’t actually live in Miami feels (and I think quite a few who do), if it can’t be the Celtics or the Spurs, just don’t let it be the Heat. The Heat, because they have such stupendous talent, have never learned, at least since Lebron and Bosh arrived, how to play good basketball. The Heat are easily the most individually talented team in the NBA. But talent alone won’t cut it. It takes hunger, and not for individual glory, but for team glory. Taking one’s talents to South Beach is meaningless without the desire to use those talents to do whatever it takes to win.
And so now Rondo takes his talents to South Beach Tuesday night. Whatever the outcome, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the show. Go Celtics!
Coda: I think I may be the only white guy in my home town that follows the NBA. The sports section of the local catfish wrapper hardly mentions the sport at all, preferring instead to bring us headlines about the University of Alabama’s softball team. I can’t help but think that some of my white brethren are turned off (outside of their generally racist demeanor) by the proliferation of tattoos on NBA players. It makes the players look like thugs, black (Lebron, et al) or white (Miller, et al). The NBA players union should consider limiting tattoos—e.g., no neck or facial tattoos—or just ban them altogether. It might help bring the white guys back, which would bring more money to the league, which would ultimately yield higher NBA salaries (if such a thing is possible). In any event, the proliferation of grotesquely tattooed players shows that the league and the players don’t quite get that the NBA is entertainment and the players are performers. It really doesn’t do, if what you seek is the largest possible audience, to be visually repugnant to a large measure of the population that might watch you on TV, where, with HD technology, every insipid idea tattooed to a player’s body is visible for all the world to see. My two cents.