Thursday, May 5, 2011

All Things Must Pass. (A Eulogy for the Old Guard of the NBA Aughts.)

The thread has been running through these playoffs and gathering momentum since jump. The same question has been parsed in various forms over and over: is this the season for a tectonic shift in the NBA landscape? We've been waiting for the Thunder to make the leap for a few seasons now, and the Bulls have been on the radar ever since Derrick Rose's coming out party and their subsequent (and so-far disappointing) Carlos Boozer acquisition. The playoff-revelation Memphis Grizzlies chose to ignore an official media baptism in favor of a blindside self-declaration of legitimacy. And of course, the Heat are trying to make good on the "not one, not two, not three ..." proclamations of rings and glory that turned so many people's stomachs this past summer. Against those four challengers stood the Old Guard. Boston, L.A., San Antonio; the teams that have collectively owned the league for the past decade. All season we've been watching, waiting, and wondering: was their reign crumbling before our eyes, or worse, had it already dissipated?

Honestly, I wanted to ignore it. Much as I love the process of watching young teams find themselves, and seeing young stars like Durrant and Rose ascend towards their ceilings, I wasn't quite ready to bid adieu to the teams that defined my twenties as a basketball fan. Maybe I'm overly sentimental, or maybe I just didn't think the change was coming so soon or so completely. The storylines of the incumbents seemed to have too much left in the tank; noble final chapters still to be penned.

I was looking forward to ...

The beautiful symmetry of Phil Jackson possibly ending a storied career with a fourth three-peat.

The debates that would be sparked if Kobe pulled even with MJ in the rings department. (In my book, MJ owns greatest-ever status, always will, and that's that, but the arguments would be fun, right?)

The Celtics potentially grabbing one more title before they officially had to begin a rebuilding process around Rondo and possibly sans Doc.

The Duncan-era Spurs' improbable best-in-the-West record seemingly declaring them, if not ready and able, at least viable to hang one more banner in the rafters before they faded out.

It all seemed too compelling to simply evaporate. Given all of the incredible moments and fantastic games we've been gifted with in the 2011 playoffs, I don't want to sound like an ingrate, but this isn't what I wanted. I wanted grizzled veteran heroics and historic rivalries. I wanted to watch Kobe doin' work and Ray Allen adding new footnotes to his "clutch" resume. I wanted Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett to have one last day in the sun. I wanted Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers to work their usual coaching wizardry. I wanted Springsteen-style "last chance power drives" from these venerable franchises. I wanted Old School, damn it! The young 'uns could wait their turn for one more season ... right?

Apparently not.

San Antonio is already gone, victims of a Grizzlies team who showed not one iota of deference or fear towards the Spurs' 1-seed and championship pedigree. So much for them. That leaves Boston and Los Angeles. (And Dallas, I suppose, if we're drawing the lines purely based on age, but the Mavs are trying to shake their own myriad playoff ghosts. They don't enter into the veteran-squads-with-rings group I was so anxious to see ignite in hopes of furthering their legacies. With the Spurs at home, for me, at least, it's about the Celtics and Lakers and one more shot at a Finals showdown.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a mini-rant on the media's dramatic overreactions to the Bulls' and Lakers' game-one losses. At the time, it seemed absurd to be mashing the panic button so quickly, but a lot has changed since then. The Bulls acquitted themselves; the Lakers did not. L.A. didn't just look like the lesser team last night, they looked tired and beaten and uncommitted. The easiest fingers can be leveled at Pau Gasol, whose lack of any impact whatsoever in this postseason is arguably the most glaring issue for the Lakers. But those fingers are not lacking for other targets. Kobe Bryant's ankle is clearly bothering him, and even his formidable killer instincts aren't worth much when he's clanging ineffective shots and missing easy layups like he did last night. The other Lakers starters are playing sub-par basketball, and the bench isn't giving them any help at all. Last night, L.A. shot a poor 41 FG%, a dismal 55% from the charity stripe, and bricked 18 treys before finally knocking down a pair when the game had already been decided. Virtually every possession had a sloppy, blurred quality to it. I've seen amateur photographers toting cheap Polaroids who were better able to focus. And better able to execute, for that matter. At times, their shot selection and decision-making has looked every bit as atrocious as my beloved Atlanta Hawks do on their worst nights. That last sentence wasn't even a little bit hyperbolic.

And then, deserving of its own can of worms after game two, there's the question of the Lakers' defense.

Andrew Bynum freely admitted in his post-game interview that the team is suffering from "trust issues." As Bynum described it, they're not supporting each other, and they're clearly more concerned with individual frustrations than with playing team defense right now. How else do you explain last night? 6-foot tall Dallas reserve PG J.J. Barea repeatedly drove the lane with impunity against the league's most physically imposing front line and torched L.A. for 12 points and 4 dimes. Yeesh. And how about Tyson Chandler getting fed alley-oop jams with no resistance at all? When people like that are generating significant offense and making statement plays to kill L.A.'s momentum, it's not a good sign. We expected Dirk to be Dirk, and Jason Kidd and Jet Terry to shoulder the Mavs' offensive load in bursts, but nothing like this. Right now, Dallas owns the Lakers, and not just in that 2-0 win/loss column. Is this to be the ignoble end of the Kobe/Phil era? Have they crossed the same undefinable yet instantly recognizable meridian that the Spurs did in the last round?

Dallas is actually the older team if you tally the birth certificates, but the Lakers are the ones looking hangdog exhausted. It's probably the cumulative effect of too many playoff games they should have won but didn't over the past few years. Those unnecessary extra nights of work put an awful lot of miles on their odometer en route to three straight finals appearances, and it's finally catching up to them. But it's not just physical fatigue, it's a psychological disconnect. The Lakers looked less resolved and less coherent than we've ever seen them last night, and we didn't need Bynum's comments to confirm what could be plainly seen on the court: their hearts and heads aren't in this. Given their current demeanor, it seems unlikely that even the great Phil Jackson can right the Lakers' mental ship at this point. When asked how he planned to motivate his team as the series moves to Dallas, the Zen Master quipped that he planned to "have them flogged." The comment drew a hail of chuckles from the reporters, but Jackson wasn't smiling. After all, down 2-0, the way L.A. is playing is no laughing matter. We can't count them out just yet, but that three-peat is looking more and more like a diaphanous pipe dream with every disarrayed minute.

And then there's the enigma that is the Boston Celtics. Thus far, they've been battered by injuries, hampered by foolish emotional decisions, and flat out-played by the upstart Miami Heat. Something is seriously fractured within the emotional framework of this Celtics team. Those aren't just cracks in the veneer; they're much closer to outright abysses. We knew coming in that Boston didn't have the raw athleticism to keep up with LBJ and D-Wade, but the assumption was that they could counteract that deficiency by playing to their strengths. Rajon Rondo appeared to be back on his game after sweeping the Knicks. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett were supposed to provide offensive muscle. Most importantly, the C's vaunted hyperactive, hyper-intelligent team defense should have alleviated at least a little of the James/Wade/(sometimes) Bosh barrage. Through two games, they're just about oh-for-everything on that checklist. Here's the thing: the Celtics aren't that old. Not really. Rondo obviously is just hitting his prime. Paul Pierce is still a high-caliber player on both ends of the floor. Ray Allen will probably be curling off screens and knocking down jumpers for another 2-4 years. Kevin Garnett is still the defensive anchor and a weapon down low. They're a little long in the tooth, sure, but they're not mummified yet. So exactly what the heck is wrong in Beantown? Here's my semi-complete breakdown of Boston's complete breakdown:

Q: What's with the lack of ball movement?

A: Don't mistake this for a polite way of asking "what's wrong with Rondo?" Rondo is fine. I realize that his game one performance wasn't a exactly a gem, but he's tallied 28 points and 19 assists in total over the first two games, and he was really rolling in game two. The 8 turnovers and flagging assist numbers (as compared to his regular season numbers) can be largely be explained by Miami's tenacious D (no pun intended) and the Big Three's total lethargy. If you watched game two, you saw it. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen appeared rooted to the floor. They were making almost no effort to get to open spaces or adhere to sets. This complete departure from their usual game incited a disgust in the young PG that was clearly etched into his face and body language. I hate to drop a cliche bomb this insipid, but Boston just isn't playing Celtics Basketball right now.

Which leads us to ...

Q: Veteran savvy? Ubuntu? What? Wherefore?

A: It's a possibility that the Perkins trade had deeper and far more sinister reverberations than we could ever have imagined. The advanced metrics community has already proved that Perk's absence had a negligible on-court impact from a statistical perspective, but it may have triggered a mammoth collective pathos attack for the C's. Was it perceived as a betrayal by Danny Ainge? Did it cause, or contribute to, the regression and reversion we're witnessing now? I'm going to leave the ref's questionable decision-making out of it and say this: Paul Pierce knows better than to put himself in a position to get tossed as he was late in game one. I thought we were past this kind of ill-advised petulance with him. And speaking of things that were supposedly over and done with: down the stretch in game 2, the Big Three were huddled up by themselves, plotting and discussing whatever it is you plot and discuss when you're in danger of going down 0-2 ... and their floor general was nowhere to be seen. Haven't we read this script before? The one where the Big Three are icing Rondo out of the leadership mix? Did he become that much of a malcontent simply because he no longer had Perk to pal around with? Something is rotten in the state of Boston's locker room, and the decay is wreaking havoc on the C's title aspirations.

And finally ...

Q: Can Boston's D regain its commanding swagger and contain the Heat?

A: Not like this, they can't. James Jones likely won't shoot that lights-out again, but as for stopping 'Bron and Wade, they just don't have it in them. They're seemingly a step slow and a buck short on very rotation, and they can't seem to stop the bleeding. On paper, the margins of defeat don't look all that bad, but it's the look on their faces and the sag in their shoulders that tells the story. Can they hang with the Heat? Absolutely. But to beat them, you have to shut either James or Wade down at least quasi-comprehensively, and they haven't show any evidence of that capability. Even Chris Bosh is, to a degree, free to get his now. KG simply can't be everywhere at once. If he's helping on Wade or LBJ, he can't simultaneously contain Miami's third wheel. Boston has lost that spark. To paraphrase Apollo Creed (and Survivor), they no longer have the "Eye Of The Tiger."

In short, the luck (and heart, and composure, and execution) of the Irish is wearing rather thin. Like their rivals in Los Angeles, Boston appears to be in the middle or a precipitous decline, and they know all too well what a difficult task it will be to climb up again if they fall too far.

The nails aren't in their respective coffins just yet, but the rest of the league is grabbing hammers from their tool sheds.

Look, I'm not saying that I won't relish every moment of watching OKC ascend to elite status, or Memphis and Chicago becoming whatever they're destined to become, or an improbable Mavericks' redemption. (I won't relish the Heat if they achieve and sustain dominance, but I'll deeply enjoy the basketball part of it, at least.) I just wish those moments could have been put on hold until next year. I'm all for change and parity in the NBA, and it looks like we're poised to get a healthy dosage of both, provided we have a season in 2011-2012. Bring it on, and Godspeed, but this is shaping up to be an inglorious and melancholy death knell for the giants of the aughts, and I'd rather not be watching the last rites unfold in front of me in such a pathetic fashion.

Playoff basketball should be a joyous time, but it's hard to sing and dance when heroes are crumbling and their successors are already casket shopping. The bell tolls for thee, Old Guard.

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