Wednesday, May 30, 2012

NBA Update

The Spurs won Game 2 of the Western Conference Final last night, beating Oklahoma City 120-111 for their 20th win in a row. It was a glorious display of team basketball -- beautiful passing and cutting on almost every possession -- the sort of game I don't remember seeing in the NBA since the days of Magic and Bird. The Spurs shot 55.1 percent (43-78) from the field, they were 42.3 percent (11-26) from three-point range, they had 27 assists and only 13 turnovers. Time after time, they found guys for easy layups. And on numerous occasions, the ball would shoot out to a three-point shooter who was literally 10 feet from any defender. To their credit, the San Antonio fans knew what they were seeing, and they went nuts on every behind-the-back pass and uncontested jump shot.

I just hope that the reporters covering the NBA appreciate this series. Ever since the rise of the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980's, the NBA playoffs have been tilted in favor of brutal, physical defense. The template set by Michael Jordan and the Knicks in the early 1990's -- can one majestic superstar overcome a defense focused on stopping him? -- has been the dominant prism for analyzing NBA games since around 1992. I've never liked this way of looking at basketball. In the first place, it encourages really ugly play. In the second place, it's not accurate -- even over the last two decades, the best NBA teams were the ones coached by Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, the two guys who emphasized fundamental team offense. MJ and Kobe were great players, but they were not one-man shows.

From my perspective, San Antonio and OKC are far and away the two most attractive teams in the NBA. Unfortunately, their games have been shunted over to TNT, while the slugfest between the LeBron's and the Celtics is on ESPN. If the Spurs continue to play at this level -- and if they dominate big stars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the process -- that might finally wake up the NBA media to the benefits of passing and moving without the ball. And that would be great news -- not only for NBA fans, but for anyone who likes good team basketball.

UPDATE (10:54 A.M.): This article by Matt Yglesias is exactly what I was afraid of. Instead of calling out the sports media for giving more publicity to Ron Artest than to Tim Duncan, Yglesias blames the fans -- no, he actually blames all Americans -- for being too venal and stupid to appreciate the Spurs. Here's how Yglesias ends his piece:

Americans don’t want excellence, and we certainly don’t want long-term sustained excellence. We want our dynasties to come with a side order of drama, controversy, and bad behavior. We want anti-heroes and the occasional impulsive retirement to pursue a baseball career. We want to watch a train wreck and then tut-tut in a smug self-satisfied way about the irresponsibility of the people who caused it. We want to maintain our high ideals, without needing to walk the walk. Nobody can hate the Spurs, so nobody wants to love them. It’s more comfortable for everyone if we can just pretend they don’t exist.

This is incredibly unfair. No one outside the media, for example, really wanted Michael Jordan to pursue a baseball career. And we don't know how Americans would react to a campaign to promote the Spurs, because the media has never undertaken such a campaign. They are the ones who decided to focus on nonsense about whether Dwight Howard was trying get his coach fired. They are the ones who spill barrels of ink every year on the constantly-overrated New York Knicks. The NBA was most popular in the 1980's and early 1990's, when teams like the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls played excellent team basketball. And if excellent team basketball makes a return, the NBA's popularity will rise -- no matter what Matt Yglesias thinks.

UPDATE (8:32 P.M.): Bill Simmons of gives the Spurs the love they deserve, even though he keeps referring to their style of basketball -- which is the same style I was taught to trust in my Jackson Purchase boyhood --as "European." I prefer the term "Kentucky basketball." Still, I think Simmons's views are much more representative of how we fans feel than Matt Yglesias realizes.


  1. The Twitter desk noted that all of the high-school basketball coaches were freaking out about the Spurs' performance last night, too.

  2. Good job, Twitter desk!