Thursday, May 12, 2011

2011 NBA Playoffs Notebook- Miami Heat

There is a slippery slope atop the sports world where something as simple as one shot can catapult a player or team from falling off the cliff with the rest of the competition to climbing the mountain-top reserved for all-time greats—or at least to the next round. LeBron James’ game-tying three-pointer over Paul Pierce in the final moments of Game 4 is one of those shots. Miss it, and you allow the one team that has the underrated psychological edge over you to ride the momentum to a probable series-tying victory. Make it, and you steal that momentum from that team in their own house while earning an all but insurmountable 3-1 series lead.

Miss it, and the ocean waters swallow your confidence in the same manner that a lion consumes a slab of meat—forcefully and with little doubt. Make it, and you break through the tidal wave of uncertainty like a great whale hunting for dinner—forcefully and with little doubt.

James’ 10-0 personal run over the Celtics last night in Game 5 to finish the series is a direct result of his big shot in Game 4. His confidence going into last night’s series-clincher was higher than it has been in probably two years. Any player can tell you how easy the game can be when the body and mind is loose, not worried about missing, knowing the ball with gravitate to the center of the rim. Confidence.

The same can be said about the Miami Heat as a team. Lose Game 4, and you return home not having proved anything to yourselves or opponent—the big, bad Celts liking their chances of stealing one in Miami. Win Game 4, and you return home like a hunter with his prize—everyone at the table ready to feast. Any team can tell you how easy it is to play when they know they’re going to win, no matter what the opponent does to stop them. Confidence.

Boston played as close to flawless last night as you can expect a team to play, until the end. Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and Delonte West knocking down big shots while Ray Allen completing four-point plays. Big Baby doing his best MJ impersonations. Kevin Garnett and Pierce keeping their team above water with big drives and three-pointers. Jermaine O’Neal, and 1.

But James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh kept pace. And James Jones provided a boost. The Heat did what needed to be done to keep it close, knowing in the end that they would find a way to come out victorious.

To quote former Florida State linebacker Kirk Carruthers, after his Seminoles lost to the Miami Hurricanes during one of the epic games in their rivalry, “We thought we were going to win, Miami knew they were going to win”, or something to that effect. Confidence.

Like a celebrity who believes that showing up to the party on time means arriving fashionably late, James and the Heat have finally climbed aboard the ship of ‘Ships. There are five other teams looking to toss them back into the sea along with the rest of the league. After this weekend there will be just three contenders who can claim their ticket to the VIP room, each riding similar waves of invincibility.

Dallas may be hanging out with the bouncers, but neither group can really be trusted. Chicago and Oklahoma City are pre-partying at home, but will soon enter the club looking to wreak havoc. As young as their leaders are, they may be too drunk when the conference finals come around.

The Heat, however, now know how good they are. The doubt that is a shadow of a gorilla-sized monkey has been dropped, and the rest of the NBA can feel it. Miami owns the club, in South Beach. The playoffs are their party.

Are the Heat the team to beat from here on out? Maybe.

At least they have a shot. No over-confidence.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

2011 NBA Playoffs Notebook- Los Angeles Lakers

It starts with the city they represent. Beautiful Hollywood is a community unlike any other in the U.S. It is common to see a famous celebrity at Starbucks or a street-side cafe, more than likely an actor or actress. Los Angeles is used to actors.

It continues with the Coach. Phil Jackson is to NBA basketball as Robert DeNiro or Jack Nicholson is to Hollywood. The Zen Master is known as much for his off-the-court persona as his on-court management. This aura of knowledge seemingly transcends the day-to-day coaching responsibilities required for a championship team to succeed.

But who are we to question this 11-time champ of a coach? He obviously knows his basketball, as evidenced by Michael Jordan’s six titles and an unstoppable Shaquille O’Neal’s three titles followed by a couple ‘ships earned during Boston’s injury-riddled playoff disappointments. Or does he know his basketball, like, say, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle? How well would a Carlisle-led squad fare with a Jordan or Shaq? Jackson may not be an actor, but he would make a great one.

It seeps its way onto the court in the form of Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba, for all his greatness, is not as advertised. There have been arguments and debates as to whether he is the best-ever, better than his idol Jordan. While he may be one of the most electric and high-scoring players of all-time, his game is not on par with his Airness. Can you imagine MJ from ’96 on this Lakers’ squad?

But this is no surprise. If we know anything about Hollywood, it is that the sequel is never as good as the original—no matter what Bryant’s scowl may suggest. Kobe may not be an actor, but he would make a great one.

And then it penetrates the entire team like a poorly-timed flu virus. Pau Gasol tries so hard to be “aggressive” that he commits a horrible foul on an inbounds play with twenty seconds left, allowing Dirk Nowitzki to head to the line to sink the go-ahead free-throws in Game 1. Ron Artest, the newly-christened changed-man, trying his darndest to live up to the label, clothes-lining sparkplug J.J. Barea in the face in the waning seconds of Game 2—practically begging to be suspended for the biggest game of the season on Friday. Lamar Odom, Mr. Lamar Odom, we’ll leave it at that.

Is it any wonder why Andrew Bynum doesn’t trust his teammates?

Yes, the Lakers are guilty of association—association with all of our fine actors and actresses. The Los Angeles Lakers have fallen victim to the biggest threat in any champions’ plans for a repeat, or three-peat: being fat and happy.

Of course, in Hollywood, that’s not hard to fake.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

2011 NBA Playoffs Notebook- Miami Heat, Boston Celtics

With the impressive act of two technical fouls in less than a minute, Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce put into sight what was already becoming an overwhelming thought: Miami is better than Boston, and probably better than the rest of the league at this point of the season.

The Heat beat Boston at its own game Sunday. The frustration associated with this realization led Pierce to react the same way anyone would react when told that his or her wife was having an affair. And not just a normal affair, but a rendezvous with none other than Larry O’Brien. He overreacted, then he overreacted again, and then he was tossed, like a garden salad from your favorite gas station, tossed. Told to leave because he could not handle this pressure like a reasonable adult. Told to leave because, sorry, there’s another sheriff in town. And so went Boston’s chances of winning this series.

The Heat beat the Celtics because Miami is Boston, give or take a few minor tweaks for the better. The Big 3 of just a year ago is like most products we possess today: already old and about to be replaced in a year. Unfortunately for Boston, it’s that time of year. The new Big 3 is younger and fresh. The new Big 3 has role players to complement them, not a role player among them.

Miami beat Boston despite the Celtics shooting 12-24 from beyond the arc, including 5-8 from three-point legend Ray Allen. Although these numbers alone would suggest a Celts’ victory a majority of the time, Miami’s James Jones bested Allen with a 5-7 mark while helping the Heat shoot 9-19 from downtown themselves.

Miami beat Boston by being “chippy”, as Boston coach Doc Rivers described in his post-game press conference. If there was ever a team that was chippy, in the history of chip and pee, it is this version of the Celtics.

Miami beat Boston because they’re more athletic and, incredibly, the deeper team. The bench that is more likely to sport the game-changer that can change a game, a la Jamal Crawford, is the Heat’s. The team that is more likely to execute the momentum-altering designed alley-hoop or freestyle touchdown pass that counts as two points only in the scorer’s book is Miami’s.

Miami beat Boston because, despite the Celtics’ recent postseason disappointments, the Heat are the hungrier team, eager to prove that everyone who doubted them was wrong. The only way to do that is win. Win, and the “Decision” goes down in history as the best one anyone ever made. Win, and the most-hyped team in league history, featuring the most-hyped player in league history, will go down as one of the best in league history—and just getting started.

Miami, however, has one last thing to overcome in its “process”, as Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has described the journey that is year one of the Big Treat. The confidence gained from defeating “big brother” in the postseason should not be understated. This confidence, of course, has always been there. The Heat always knew they could beat this team. But when it actually happens, that confidence grows like a shaved eye-brow: uncontrollably and with no regard for its surroundings.

In this time of posturing and grandstanding, as in Kobe’s scowl, there is an undeniable sixth sense that allows the best teams to separate themselves as such. Once it manifests, it can create something as simple as a dynasty, or, in today’s sporting world, mini-dynasties. The Lakers are the closest example, considering their two-straight titles. The Celtics could have been the Lakers, save a key injury or two. The Spurs were last true one—four years ago. The one thing that these championship teams never lacked, nor do they now, is that confidence that always reminds them that they are the best—the confidence that only comes from proving yourselves.

The Heat are almost there, if they can just be more like Boston. Of course, it’s a chippy process.