It might just be me trying to ease the pain of the Raptors failing so badly, but for something like the third season running, the last two for certain, the playoffs are a stunning bore. Are 30+ and 40+ point differentials the new 20 point winning margins? Is losing by 18 or 20 a good sign that your team is at least hanging around with a chance to come back up until the last half of the fourth quarter?
No. I don’t buy it. I actually see Toronto not being that far off from what we’ve seen in terms of quality play in the playoffs. If the bar is set at being able to provide the odd competitive matchup, then I think the Raptors can clear it. That doesn’t reflect on my homerism as much as it reflects on the sad state of the NBA. I’ll admit I can be prone to foolish homerism. And I won’t apologize for it. Right now I have to be foolishly hopeful just to keep from making it a daily practice to set up my Raptor mascot wind-up toy on the railing of my balcony, and shoot it down with a stream of urine. But it’s not about that. I do love basketball as I remember it being showcased in the post-season, with or without O Canada being sung by Robin Thicke or some such deadbeat celeb with loose ties to the great white wonder that is us. So where is the showcase?
Or should I ask how competitive playoff games went the way of the original raptors? There are the injuries, clearly. Having an NBA team that is healthy in the playoffs is like having an NHL team with a hot goalie in the playoffs. The regular season kills off way too many of the games stars. The league is going to have to address that somehow. The NFL needed to do so, and they did. And as much as it sucks to see one of those fat dudes get killed on roughing penalties for breathing on the quarterback, the fat dudes just don’t count in comparison (go ahead and argue that they aren’t playing football anymore, but they weren’t really playing much of anything in the XFL and that was all about the fat dudes).
But it’s way more than the injuries. It’s the way teams are put together. A solid team should be able to continue to compete through injuries to big name players. Sort of like the Milwaukee Bucks, but to the point of being able to beat an embarrassing collection of players like the Atlanta Hawks for an entire series. Show me some teams, like the Bucks, that make heart matter, and throw in some verifiably great talent on top of that, and I think the NBA suddenly has something it can showcase. Instead it has individual stars, often alone among surrounding role players, sometimes paired up with some other serious talent, but all too often without the kind of foresight and vision that would make it work. So many teams added big names to their rosters with so little success. Remember when every team in the league fired their coach every seven months or so until they all figured out that the constant change was having more of a negative effect than a positive impact? Now it would seem that the shuffling is going on with the player personnel. So much of it comes from the same place as with the coaching crisis. Theres the hope for some sort of magic to occur. But what happens? S.O’Neal looks far too much like J.Oneal did in a Raptors jersey. You can’t question their heart or desire and they proved to be surprisingly effective at times. But they don’t fill the large role that is in their own heads nor a lesser role that is in mind when it comes to getting more out of the other four guys on the court. And it just doesn’t add up to a showcase.
Then there is the way that the league has become guard dominant due to rule changes. That gets us all through the regular season reasonably entertained. It makes a team like the Atlanta Hawks look impressive in spite of the fact that they are a collective embarrassment of heartless, dumb-ass athletes. But get into the playoffs and suffer the kinds of constant defensive breakdowns we know all to well here in Toronto, due to the opposing guards just playing downhill every possession, and the game itself gets ugly. Even Milwaukee’s limited success had as much to do with their point guards penetrating easily and guys on the perimeter knocking down threes, as it did with their heart. It’s becoming a heartless game. If Dwight Howard hoists the championship trophy upon one massive shoulder, and the Finals MVP trophy on the other massive shoulder, then we will have officially entered the heartless era of the NBA. Of course it won’t quite happen that way, because rule changes have allowed a guy like Jameer Nelson to become Finals MVP material, so if the Magic win it all that is how it will likely go down. Jameer has a ton of heart so maybe I’ll be able to console myself to that fact, but still, his MVP win will not be about his heart as much as it will be about smartly exploiting the path of least resistance. Teams cannot defend the perimeter and the paint. It wasn’t just a Raptor enigma - they were just a particularly bad example. The result is that there is a great deal of freedom at the point of attack where anyone can pretend to be like Mike without needing to assert their will to anything of the same extent to get some of the same results. And that does not tend to equate to competitive battles. With that in mind, it could be VC as Finals MVP. Lord knows, he can take the path of least resistance like no one else. What kind of a beat down for the league would that be?