Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Playoffs That Broke My Spirit

I haven't been writing a lot in this space, and while I could claim that it's because I was too busy, that would be a lie. The truth is that my heart has been taking a beating and that watching the playoffs has became a cruel endurance test. How often can I sit and watch as the biggest bullies in the league slay the dreams of their more likable competitors? Apparently, about once a night.

The Celtics and the Lakers aren't terrible teams to watch; they are truly great teams and deserve to play each other in the NBA Finals. Kobe has done more for his reputation in the past few weeks than he did in his championship run last year, and that is truly saying something. He's hitting shot after ridiculous shot and the Lake front-court looks completely peerless. And as for the Celtics, they are up to their old tricks: incredible defense, fuck-you attitude, and a balanced scoring attack. We have seen it all before. With the exception of the emergence of Rondo (who I should note, has maybe been the best player in the league for the past month), it's the same-old, same-old. The cliches are true: Defense, toughness, and clutch scoring (we should really just call it "Kobeness") are what get you to the Finals. And that's sad to me. I enjoy watching the NBA right now because I like the crumbling of the old order, I want to see new modes and new players. To see the affirmation of the old cliches, the victory of "traditional" basketball values; well it does nothing for me. It leaves me cold and disheartened.

It started with the fall of the Bobcats, strangely enough. While the Bobcats are traditionalists in their own sense, their brand of arch-basketball conservatism was such a freak show that it delighted me. It was stifling defense combined with a singular, bizarre offensive theory and strategy: get to the rim or nothing. It was singularly bizarre. The involvement of the Bobcats in the playoffs was so odd. It was like if feudalists showed up to the Republican National Convention and spent all their time trying to make the case for the re-implentation of serfdom. Probably the Bobcats were never going to be more than a side-show in the playoffs, but at least it had the advantage of being supremely freaky.

More upsetting was the death of dynamism, athleticism, and raw people-pleasing spectacle. My beloved Nuggets fell, and then the young and brilliant Thunder, and then the Hawks, who I thought had blossomed, but apparently were fatally flawed all along. I loved all of these teams because they were exciting, fresh, and new. But they fell, and so high-flying dunks and flashy highlights sailed into the undying lands in the West, and I wept.

You have likely noticed by now that I am burying the lede. You know it because I know you feel it in your heart too, and I know that it has weighed heavily on all of us. You probably dealt fine with the losses of the four teams I just mentioned. And really, so did I: Did anyone think any of those four were going to do much in the playoffs but provide a pleasant distraction? When they lost, it felt inevitable. Sad, but expected. The moment that really crushed my spirit was when the Cavaliers lost. The exit of LeBron from the playoffs was traumatic.

For almost everyone I talked to, it felt like a broken promise. Destiny deferred. The one true narrative of the NBA gone off the tracks ("LeBron is the Chosen One. Will he surpass Jordan?"). It was confusing and profoundly sad. Collectively, we sighed.

We love LeBron. He is the most exciting player in the NBA. He just is. He's got the insane talent, freak athleticism, and uncanny charisma that no one else can match. The charisma is in his game too. Watching LeBron play, you can't help but be charmed. Kobe doesn't charm. He shocks. He awes. He doesn't charm. LeBron can't help it. The powerful-yet-playful drives to the basket followed by earth-shattering dunks and the light-hearted smiles of encouragement to his teammates after far-too-deft passes are so easy to love. Even if you don't love LeBron, he hypnotizes, and at this particular instant, there's no reason to try to distinguish between hypnosis and love: the point remains the second LeBron left the play-offs, it felt like the lights dimmed.

Of course, LeBron is a singular and particular basketball enjoyment, and I know that and you know that. There is joy in basketball beyond LeBron. and there was opportunity for hope in the Conference Finals. All season, the offense of the Magic had sparkled around the defensive anchor of Dwight Howard, and in the West, Steve Nash led the reincarnated Suns on one of their greatest runs ever. It didn't matter. The forces of basketball conservatism won. The wacky Pythagorean geometry of the Magic attack broke against the steadfast rock of tough Boston defense. The sheer warmth, joy and play of the Sun's schoolyard assault froze over with each icy Kobe jumper. The prospect of basketball revolution diminished to nothing. The Magic would not prove themselves and their system. Seven seconds or less would not be redeemed on basketball's biggest stage. Instead, you get the basketball equivalent of the Oscar-bait costume drama about a troubled family: Lakers vs. Celtics, the most reliably popular formula the NBA has to offer.

It's not a bad formula. People like it for a reason. Rajon Rondo has been playing absolutely inspired basketball and Kobe reached down into himself and found a way to tap into his own essence, somehow distilling himself into an even more potent brand of merciless assassin. The Finals will be a cold-blooded duel with plenty of brilliance on both sides, but considering all the curious, joyful, and ecstatically weird alternatives (Would anything be more fun than Cavaliers vs. Suns?), the idea of Celtics vs. Lakers leaves me feeling sad and underwhelmed: Instead of playful, high flying theater, we're going to get sneering ruthlessness efficiency. It's possible that no one on either team might smile the entire series. Mark Jackson might say that last sentence with glowing approval, but it just makes me feel terrible. I get the appeal of this match-up, I really do, but every time I think of the potential of one of the other possible Finals match-ups, I can't help but feel sad about all the seemingly more promising possibilities that were so cruelly dismissed by the single minded competitiveness of the Celtics and Lakers. We don't get to have any fun. We get killjoy vs. killjoy.

It's the Celtics vs. the Lakers: The All Killjoy Finals. It better be good.

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