Posted: Wednesday May 24, 2006 2:58PM; Updated: Wednesday May 24, 2006 5:46PM
LeBron James' duels with Gilbert Arenas and with Detroit played a major part in helping boost cable TV ratings for the NBA playoffs.
But check out the teams that are still playing. The Suns are sleek and fast, with five players on the court at all times who are a threat to score. They rely on ball movement and player movement, point guard Steve Nash orchestrates it all with remarkable vision and quickness, and their offense is a free-flowing thing of beauty. The Mavs are almost as fun to watch, with an abundance of scorers, which means the Western finals should be a fan's delight. The Eastern finals may not be quite as high-scoring, but the Pistons, with their equal-opportunity offense, and the Heat, with Dwayne Wade taking over from Shaquille O'Neal as the main focus of the offense, should provide great theater.
Consider what we've seen so far. The Mavericks dethroned the defending-champion Spurs on San Antonio's home court. LeBron James won his first playoff series with a couple of game-winning shots and some memorable scoring duels with the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas, then nearly pulled off an upset of the Pistons. The Clippers came to life and played a seven-game track meet of a series against the Suns. They lost, but they put on a great show in the process. We've had overtime thrillers, high-scoring shootouts and just enough animosity (Raja Bell's takedown of Kobe Bryant, Jason Terry's body shot to Michael Finley) to give things a bit of an edge.
There is still room for improvement, of course. The regular season is interminable, so long that there is no way players can sustain the kind of intensity they bring to the playoffs. The officiating is still a problem, with referees too often calling the game according to the situation instead of simply calling what they see. But for the most part, this is a league that's finally on the upswing after the dark post-Jordan years.
Forget all the marketing strategies and dress-code restrictions and the search for the next Michael Jordan. The league doesn't need to rely on any of that to reconnect with its fans, not as long as it provides the kind of entertainment we've seen in this postseason. It might still be fashionable to say the NBA is on the decline, but it's no longer true.