For most NBA teams, the regular season comes to an agonizingly late and expectedly uneventful conclusion tonight. Several squads will showcase their bench warriors in an attempt to either rest key starters for the upcoming playoffs, or peek into the future while sending their young pups out for one last yard-fight.
There are, however, a hand-full of teams which still have important statements to record before the two-day hiatus between seasons. The Los Angeles Lakers have an opportunity to erase their recent five-game skid with a closing night victory to clinch the second seed and home-court advantage in a second round series in the cut-throat Western Conference. If they falter, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in position to do the same. Late-season playoff jockeying resembles a preseason box-out drill. The ball’s in the air; who wants it more?
While the Eastern Conference is comparable to a set of Christmas gifts whose presence is expected, and whose absence may cause an unnecessary family squabble at the worst possible time, the battle out West still provides the type of suspense that only a good night’s sleep followed by a piece of toast and OJ and a good morning kiss can unravel, or unwrap.
It is, quite possibly, the most wonderful time of the year.
By this time tomorrow, NBA fans and followers will know what match-ups will be featured for at least the next four games—the 82-game half-marathon now only a prelude to the second, or real, season.
HUH? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THE REAL SEASON? ARE YOU CALLING ME FAKE?
We all know the rules. Sixteen teams, each needing sixteen more wins, start a bracket-style, best-of-seven series against one opponent—each series eliminating another contestant until there are eight, four, two, and then one team standing.
The ‘first-to-four-wins’ format is an accepted structure for determining which of two teams is best. How often have we been told, repeatedly and without recourse, “In a seven game series, the best team always wins”? Why is that, anyway? Is it because the length of time? If that’s the case, why not have a best of 9 or 11? Of all series that have gone the distance, in the history of humanity, what makes anyone think that the loser of game 7 couldn’t win game 8?
Sometimes we accept tradition as scientific fact.
In any case, the progression of elimination is innately exciting. We will witness the best players nature can buy competing against each other in front of the entire basketball universe. The current format guarantees at least four straight meetings between two teams that have played against a new opponent each night for the past five months. Familiarity will not be an issue. But, like many friends who end up burning bridges as bitter roommates, familiarity will breed contempt. Competing against one team, and one team only, for an extended period of time is the perfect conductor for producing electric friction. By game 3, every team will hate—a strong word, I know—absolutely hate their opponent and everything they stand for. This disdain makes for a show like no other in sports. The desire to ruin your opponent’s aspirations is surpassed only by the desire to fulfill your own.
OH, THE REAL SEASON. I UNDERTAND, I THINK.
There is something very real about the difference between regular season and playoff basketball. The court is the same size, the ball bounces the same way, and the general rules are the same, although some rules are interpreted differently. Discretionary power among NBA referees is matched only by that of our fine police officers around the country. This is no surprise, and it adds character to the landscape. Stars receive star treatment, as playoffs receive playoff treatment.
The hyperbole that is sports talk can sometimes diminish the real effort needed to win. It can be extremely irksome to endure commentary after commentary regarding a player or team’s inner battle to delve into the deepest depths of the psyche in an attempt to accumulate more points than the team standing in the way, almost as if the ability to persevere through this ultimate physical and mental obstacle course is on par with creating world peace or discovering the cure for the common cold. This comparison does more to discredit the will that is necessary to advance, as no one wants to hear about young, rich kid’s “problems”. No one wants to hear about how great this accomplishment is and how it automatically makes someone the equal to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa. We all wish we could have their career, this job of playing a game.
The problem is, in the world of sports, unlike most professions, judgment will arrive with the weight and momentum of two mating elephants falling from the sky. The perception of failure can be as everlasting as the adulation of success. This is why we know just as much as about those who have not won a ring as we do about those who beat them. John Stockton and Karl Malone? They were great, no doubt. As was Charles Barkley. They are three of the best players in the history of the game—to never win a title. Dan Marino and Bill Buckner can tell you why the postseason is so important, if for different reasons. Yes, a postseason career, or just a play, can define a player’s legacy. And as we have learned throughout the years: a legacy is a terrible thing to waste.
WHEN DOES THIS SPECTACLE GET UNDERWAY?
The opening weekend offers a preview of every team. The clean slate provides a forum for teams to strengthen their already defined identity, yet also allows for new traits to come to light. What underdog will upset in the first-round? Which contender will climb the highest to start, and therefore grab the Yellow Jacket as the ‘team to beat’? Which players will step up and, more importantly, which stars will cower? Which teams will carry the momentum from one series to the next? Which is the most intriguing Finals match-up?
These are a few of the several questions that need to be addressed. The answers will reveal themselves in due time, right before our eyes, without a doubt. Our intense attention will pulsate with enough force to pressure our hoops heroes into submission, or elevate them to the top where history awaits.
We should have a good idea what to expect, based on each team’s performance the last few months.
But that was last season.
For now, let’s get some milk and cookies. It’s almost time.