Top Of The Key: Can the Spurs Postpone the Heat Dynasty? An NBA Playoff Primer by Dave Hartley

tim-duncan-spurs-nba-lockout

So, you haven’t been paying attention to pro hoops this season? Fear not, I have. Here’s what you need to know:

Lebron James is really good at basketball. If you stopped caring after Michael Jordan retired, here is your reentry point.

Lebron is currently enjoying a level of sustained dominance we’ve only seen from Michael Jordan (if you don’t believe me, check out the advanced metrics), but in a totally different way. His preposterous speed, power and finishing ability gets lots of deserved ink and SportsCenter real estate, but it’s the little things he does that set him apart from his contemporaries like Durant and Carmelo. Check out this pass:

It’s not flashy, but it is deadly. Incredible velocity, impossible to defend. There are maybe a handful of players in the league who can make a pass like that, and none of them have anything close to Lebron’s athleticism and skill set. It’s unfair.

Here’s another one:

And another:

And another:

Other things that make The Heat fascinating:

- Ray Allen: He ditched the Celtics because of a feud with Rajon Rondo, took less money to join the Heatles, is 59 years old and now the all-time leading three point shooter in both regular season and playoff history.

- Chris “Birdman” Anderson: Dennis Rodman-lite, Anderson has the craziest tattoos of any pro athlete and seems to change the vibe of the game the moment he checks in.

- Chris “VelociRaptor” Bosh: One of the homeliest players since Sam Cassell, Bosh is on the short list of legit power forwards who can change a game from beyond the arc along with Durant, Kevin Love and Dirk, and is a perfect superstar-as-role-player.

- Juwan Howard: 63 years old, somehow still getting paid to play basketball, impossibly well groomed.

- Mike Miller: He played with a destroyed lower back in last year’s finals, he’s capable of spurts of incredible play, super gutty. Check this shit out

- “Positionless Basketball” – The Heat are pioneering what they call “positionless basketball”: surrounding Lebron and/or Dwayne with a squad deadly long distance shooters. It spreads the defense wide open and creates a nightmare of mismatches. it’s a Moneyball-esque paradigm shift.

- Shane Battier: He’s hilarious and erudite off the court, as clutch as it gets on the court; the second coming of Robert Horry.

None of this means Miami is going to sleepwalk their way to a second consecutive title. They have vulnerabilities and, like every other team, are an injury or two away from elimination on their best day. But if you love greatness, or love to root against it, here is your muse.

The New York Knicks are relevant for the first time since Patrick Ewing was in short pants.

It’s been a long drought in the basketball capital of the world, but the combination of superstar scoring (Carmelo is sort of the Dominique to Lebron’s MJ), an improved defense (Tyson Chandler is one of the few elite post defenders in the league), veteran savvy (Jason Kidd is 67 years old and still a valuable asset), prolific outside shooting (the Knicks broke records this year in that regard) and a great bench (sixth man of the year J.R. Smith has perhaps the hottest heat check in the league–think John Starks with more tattoos). They are a real long shot for the title, but things are interesting for the ‘Bockers for the first time in a while.

Kevin Durant is 14 years old.

If you’ve watched Sportscenter at all this year, you know Durant’s age, height (6’11″) and skill set have got to give the rest of the league indigestion, Miami included. This year Durant shot 51% from the field, 42% from beyond the arc and 91% percent from the stripe, good enough to place him in the rarified 40-50-90 club. This is a big deal. He joins Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, Mark Price and Dirk Nowitzki as the only players to ever accomplish the feat, and none of them ever won a scoring title. Durant already has three. In other words: dude is shooting a lot and it’s going in a lot. He’s crazy young, crazy good and playing beautiful basketball.

Everybody is injured.

Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, David Lee, Kobe Bryant, Danilo Gallinari, Danny Granger, Lou Williams and, now, Russell Westbrook (**side note** — I had been prepping a separate blog post about how, in light of this injury epidemic, Westbrook’s ability to never miss a game due to injury all the way through high school, college and the pros is one of the most amazing feats in sports — I’m very sorry for jinxing you, Russ) are all out with major injuries–key players on playoff teams. In addition, Dwayne Wade, Steph Curry, Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bogut, Manu Ginobli, Kenneth Faried, Chauncey Billups, Jeremy Lin and many more are dealing with physical issues. Every Laker, seemingly, has dealt with something. Amare Stoudemire recently had his second knee surgery of the season. Dwight Howard still hasn’t full recovered from back surgery and has a torn shoulder ligament. Rasheed Wallace came out of retirement and then went right back in because his feet didn’t work. Joakim Noah’s feet hurt like hell. One of my favorite players, Kevin Love, broke his hand twice this year and then topped it off by having knee surgery. Don’t even get me started on Andrew Bynum.

Why are there so many injuries? Basketball is a tough, physical game and it’s a long, arduous season, but this is getting hyperbolic. Are players paying the price for last year’s labor-dispute-compacted-schedule (which required every team to play at least one set of back-to-back-to-back games, 11 teams endured two such sets) and rigorous off-season summer schedules?

Injuries have always been a part of basketball, changing the course of games, deciding playoff series and ending careers prematurely. If anything, it creates another layer of drama and intrigue. But I just hate seeing a guy go to the floor holding his knee–I tore my ACL in a college intramural game and it haunts me to this day. The pop, the pain, the swelling, the long aftermath.

Sub-question: has there ever been a study of when injuries occur in games? Do more injuries happen, statistically, at the beginning of games when players are tight, or at the end of games when players are fatigued? This seems significant.

Kobe Bryant has completed the improbable transition from “unlikeable snot” to “villainous Jordan-wannabee” to “steely veteran closer” to “old school warrior” to “tragic hero”.

I never thought I’d come to respect Kobe after rooting against him for so long, but the man deserves our collective nod. He has been really good for a really long time, and watching him enter the “screw it, I’ll say whatever I want, I’m Kobe Bryant” phase of his career has been refreshing. I love the idea of him dressing down Dwight Howard after a game for lacking intensity and I love the idea of Dwight Howard having to swallow it because it’s Kobe Bryant. I’ll take old school, vindictive boastfulness over this new fangled smile-n-hug basketball any day. Get off my lawn, hoopsters, and hate each other more! Take a note from Larry and the Dr. and choke somebody in a preseason game! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4oF34p3-rQ)

At 34 Kobe had one of his best statistical seasons but it ended tragically with an achilles tear–a devastating injury for someone his age. The playoffs without him seem patently wrong and I sincerely hope he can come back and compete at a high level. I Can’t believe I just wrote that. On that note…

The Lakers just completed one of the most disastrous seasons in NBA history.

Some pundits predicted the Lakers, sporting a basketball fan’s wet dream of a starting line-up, would go 73-9. They finished 45-37 and barely squeaked into the playoffs before being utterly abused by their once-rivals San Antonio. Again, injuries were the storyline here.

Dwight Howard, the most dominant power player in the NBA for the past five seasons or so, never looked like himself after undergoing back surgery last season. He also tore a ligament in his shoulder and said a whole lot of dumb, dumb stuff.

Steve Nash, 81 years old, broke his leg early in the year and then suffered a laundry list of minor injuries that made him look like a YMCA scrub, not a first ballot hall-of-famer (I won’t even get into his “I just moved to LA” haircut).

Metta World Peace, at times the healthiest Laker, had arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of the season but somehow miraculously was playing again 12 days later–how did no one cry “steroids” when this happened? Also, can we just zoom out and reflect that there is a player who once beat the living shit out of a fan and then changed his name to Metta World Peace–stranger than the strangest fiction.

Pau Gasol tore his plantar fascia in the home stretch of the season and also dealt with a variety of other ailments, as well as the usual trade rumors. His brother is officially a better basketball player.

There were also emotional injuries: these guys didn’t even seem to like one another, let alone have that elusive championship chemistry. Google “kobe bryant dwight howard feud” and watch the millions of results pour in.

The Spurs are still really good.

They’ve made the playoffs 16 straight seasons, and counting. That’s half my life. With the West wide open, look for the Spurs to make a run. This is a good thing, they deserve to be the protagonists. A franchise built on loyalty, innovation, perseverance and humbleness insulates themselves from the corrupt world of professional sports and are the gold standard franchise in professional sports.

Gregg Popovich isn’t just the best coach in the NBA, he is the only coach in the NBA–meaning, he has absolute authority and essentially can’t be fired. He can bench whoever he wants, play whoever he wants and employ whatever scheme he wants. Do you really think Erik Spoelstra has absolute authority? His job is tied to the contentedness of Lebron and Dwayne and his leash is relatively short. Pat Riley looms large behind his back. He’s one losing streak away from a coaching change rumor. Pop, on the other hand, is the ultimate iconoclast: he runs his team the way he wants to, scorns publicity (check out him stonewalling court-jester Craig Sager: here) and absolutely does not suffer fools.

Tim Duncan is already a nearly unanimously considered the best power forward of all time, and improbably just had one of his best statistical seasons (apparently he changed his diet and leaned up). Tony Parker is still young, lightning fast and runs the team with efficiency (he’s not married to anyone famous anymore, so we can just talk about how he’s good at sports). Manu Ginobli, when healthy, has one of the most interesting profiles in NBA history–perhaps the best sixth man of the modern era. Oh yeah, there’s also the Red Rocket, the Sandwich Hunter, the Red Mamba, the runner up in this year’s three point shoot-out, Matt Bonner.

I think I’ll root for the Spurs.