Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Madding Crowd

I love the crazy pendulum that is sports media. It's hypnotic watching that thing swing back-and-forth in the grandfather clock of hyperbole. Hypnotic, and hilarious. Today the pundits are up in diatribe-y arms, proclaiming the Bulls and Lakers in trouble. Adjectives like disinterested and complacent are raining like so many Hawks and Mavs fourth-quarter jumpers last night. According to some folks, the favorites are already on the ropes.

Deep breath, people. Let's take a moment to consider what we're saying. One-game deficits are not exactly Everests of insurmountability. L.A. dropped game one at home to N'Awlins in the last round. Didn't seem to bother them too badly, did it? Granted, they're not up against the Mavs of years past. Something about Dallas' demeanor last night made me think that maybe, even if they'll never admit it, Dirk and company are a little too sick of all the "soft" rhetoric they've been saddled with over the years. They might have found the perfect combination of veteran composure and an out-sized chip to adorn their collective shoulder. But no one is focused on Dallas, or what the Mavs did right or wrong last night. The magnifying glass seems to be focused squarely on the Lakers.

"Look, Kobe can't close!"

"They made stupid decisions!"

"They didn't put up a fight late!"

"What the hell is wrong with Pau Gasol?!?!?"

It's not that those issues aren't pertinent. If the L.A. can't find any answers, they may indeed be in trouble. They did look despondent for long stretches last night, Pau truly hasn't been himself all playoffs, and that late-game foul on Dirk was inexcusably foolish. But here's the thing: they're still the Lakers; the two-time defending NBA champs. The savviest coach in the game is still in his elevated chair on their sideline. They still have the single most imposing defensive interior in the game. And, age and slightly-diminished capabilities aside, that's still Kobe Bean Bryant out there. Last night was more evidence of what has become something of a trademark for this team: they don't turn on the afterburners until it's absolutely necessary. Which might be seen as a dangerous and disturbing trend unless you remember that it hasn't yet steered them wrong. Until a postseason knockout proves otherwise, the Lakers have earned the right to reserve their extra gears for when they're truly needed. L.A. will be dusting those off for game 2.

And then there's the hoopla surrounding the Chicago Bulls. Concerns over last night's loss to Atlanta have rocketed to a fever pitch over the last fifteen hours. You know what happened last night? Chicago had a bad game, and the Hawks had a great one. The Bulls were sluggish out of the gate, and didn't show any signs of life until the third quarter when they took a brief lead. But to think that they choked the game away, or that doing so is endemic of larger problems, means you haven't watched a whole lot of basketball this season. You don't win 62 games by being lucky. You don't simultaneously have the COY and MVP by accident. And you don't steamroll your playoff opponent by 33 on their turf a scant month-and-a-half ago if you're incapable of dealing with them. Chicago didn't cough up that game last night; the Hawks overachieved to get a victory on a string of improbable fourth-quarter shots that just aren't going to fall like that again. Last night was maybe the fifth time all year that Atlanta has looked like an honest-to-God basketball team, and they've demonstrated repeatedly that coherence and consistency are their weakest suits. For the Bulls, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng finally showed signs of life last night, and Derrick Rose won't be that passive again, bum ankle or no. Not to mention the fact that Thibs won't let them come out that flat tomorrow night. Look for some heavy backlash on Wednesday before you try to strap a toe tag on Chicago.

While both favorites' games last night certainly didn't scream "TITLE CONTENDER!!!" from the rooftops, all of the people fretting and making jump-the-gun proclamations need to cool out. The Lakers are the defending champs, and the Bulls own the league's best record. To declare them in mortal peril after a game each in round 2? That's not just reactionary extremism, it's downright foolish. Entertaining as these debates and opinions may be, we need to stop swinging the pendulum, or at least slow it down a tad.

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