One fine mess
Playoffs wide open -- finally! -- after Warriors' upset
Posted: Friday May 4, 2007 11:55AM; Updated: Friday May 4, 2007 2:11PM
This is one of the best things ever to happen in the NBA.
Before the Warriors destroyed Dallas, the NBA was the most hopeless league in pro sports. The numbers said so. Ever since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird revolutionized pro basketball in 1979-80, a cabal of eight stars -- Magic, Bird, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan -- have claimed 26 of the 27 championships. If you weren't on their team (or a member of the anomalous 2003-04 Detroit Pistons), then you had no hope of winning the title.
Now, suddenly, the NBA is like every other pro league. Suddenly there is hope.
Who knows, maybe Duncan keeps the cabal's winning record intact next month in the Finals. But right now -- as trumpeted by the Warriors -- we're entering a late phase of the playoffs that the NBA hasn't experienced in decades. There is no telling who is going to win the championship.
One month ago, I figured the only teams capable of winning were Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix and Detroit, based on the last quarter-century's trend that the results of the NBA playoffs have reflected the strengths of the regular season. Historically, you don't enter the playoffs with hope of winning the title unless you've earned a Nos. 1 or 2 seed (as has been the case over the previous 11 years) and you've had previous postseason success (a fact for 29 years).
Throughout the last week it seemed na´ve to me to think that the bottom-seeded Warriors, losers of 40 regular-season games, could survive a seven-game series against the Mavericks, winners of 67 games. How many superior seeds (Detroit, Minnesota, Phoenix) had we seen recover from 3-1 deficits over the recent years? I supposed that the inevitability of the extended seven-game format, combined with the dominance of the superstar cabal as it applied to Dirk Nowitzki, would enable the Mavericks to leverage a comeback on their way to the next round. Because that's how it always, always has worked in the NBA.
Thank Nellie those days of presumptive results are over.
Thank Baron Davis too. Injuries and circumstances have diminished his production over the years, but there is no longer any doubting his talent -- he'll be remembered long into retirement for what he accomplished on one leg in the clincher.
Now you look around at the final 10 teams (New Jersey can eliminate Toronto in Game 6 on Friday while Utah and Houston will play their first-round Game 7 on Saturday) and see more contenders than frauds. Because of what Davis has done, hope is everywhere. In the East: Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and even .500 New Jersey could reach the Finals, and -- unlike previous years -- you can't simply dismiss their championship ambitions because there's no longer any certainty of whom they will meet in the Finals.
San Antonio looks like the team to beat, but don't you think the kindred Suns were inspired by Golden State's overwhelming success against the more traditional Mavericks? Who's to say the Warriors can't keep winning so long as Baron's hamstring holds up? If Utah survives Game 7 in Houston, then the Jazz look like they might have the diversity of scorers and, in Andrei Kirilenko, the scrambling defender capable of disrupting any opponent, no matter how superior that contender may have appeared one regular-season month ago.
For all of this uncertainty and optimism we must give thanks to Don Nelson, who, it turns out, knew what he was talking about after all. Small-ball and up-tempo three-point shooting are, like global warming, fringe science no longer.
In Dallas, Nelson essentially invented Nowitzki, turning a tall three-point shooter into a mismatch monster and building a contender around him. Nellie had never done more to enhance one player than he had for Nowitzki. Now, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein, he applied his intuitive understanding to destroy his creation. Nowitzki's ultimate 2-for-13 collapse in Game 6 was, I am certain, a painful, albeit necessary and inevitable, phase in Nellie's revolutionary plot to overthrow his former team.
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