Thursday, March 10, 2011

NBA 2012 Finals: OKC v. Miami

[Note: this post was written and published on June 27, 2012. It has been backdated.]

I saw the best players of my generation destroyed, yelling fans hysterical, dragging themselves through the wooden streets at night looking for an angry fix...

This was supposed to be the year. You know, the year K.D. excised the demons of the Lakers, kissed his mother’s cheek, and stood tall as the NBA’s golden child holding the golden trophy. Instead, the Big Three--Shane “Charges and Treys” Battier, Mario “Wannabe Thug” Chalmers, and the corpse of Mike Miller--took down K.D.’s dream. Making matters worse, Chalmers actually tried to incite K.D. into getting a technical, which wasn’t as bad as Bynum’s clothes-lining of Barea, but still stunningly audacious--and not in a good way.

I hate Miami. Not because they colluded. (Bill Simmons explained it best: “Isn't loyalty a two-way street? When a team does what's best for itself, we call it smart. When a player does the same, we call him selfish. We never think about what a double standard it is.”) Not because Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley seem to have a Bush/Cheney thing going on. Not because the words “Eddy Curry” and “champion” can now be put in the same sentence without immediate peals of laughter. No, I hate the Heat because they don’t play basketball.

Basketball used to be beautiful.  All the players constantly moved, each team seemed capable of running the fast break, players passed the ball, and all of them--down to the bench players--were expected to hit the open jumper.  I'm not yet 35 years old, but I remember when players made more jump shots and swung the ball around several times to give someone a clean look.  And like most fans, I remember first seeing Jeff Hornacek and thinking, "Is that an accountant?" only to eat my words after seeing him play.  Some basketball fans may even remember when centers were expected to be good shooters and decent passers. (Woe to the fan who doesn't know the name Sabonis or Smits.)

Yes, the NBA has become more athletic, placing a premium on innate physical gifts, but Shawn Kemp's dunks didn't mean the end of the jump shot or actual strategy.  Of course, some athleticism and sleight of hand are always present when seeing world-class competitors, but the Heat seem to rely on it completely. Whether it’s Dwyane Wade’s extra-second dribble (which, like Chris Paul’s dribble, should be called for a carry), LeBron’s usual, “I’m gonna put my head down, run into the paint, throw something up, and then scream if I don’t get a foul call,” or Bosh’s continuation of the ritual of kicking Toronto basketball fans in the groin, the Heat can’t do what every decent youth basketball coach tries to instill in his team: shoot free throws consistently (though to be fair, LeBron improved his FTA in the last few games); use the pick and roll when you want a jump shot; set screens while standing straight up; keep moving even though you don’t have the ball; pass the ball to your open teammates; and take the open shot. And yet, somehow, the Heat have managed to win while ignoring fundamental basketball rules.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to love seeing Rony Seikaly and Glen Rice play, and ‘Zo seemed like a cool guy, notwithstanding his feud with Larry Johnson. But that’s back when games were decided by the players and not the wide discretion of the referees. So when LeBron charges into the paint and extends his elbow into Ibaka’s body to push away Ibaka’s inconveniently located hand, apparently that’s no longer considered a foul. Except when it is. When Westbrook does his usual DC Comics Flash impersonation and goes one against four, getting hit in the body all over, if just one person blocks his shot, apparently that’s not a foul. Except when it is. In a world where jump and hook shots have seemingly disappeared, how does an NBA referee keep up when calling contact on a drive would result in 50+ FTA per game? Correctly called, NBA games would be gruelingly slow, and LeBron alone would probably get 15+ FTAs a game as well as another 15+ offensive fouls--you know, if refs actually allowed star players to foul out more. It’s different when Blake Griffin uses his body--he’s actually elevating above other players, often from a stand-still position, and using his position to create an open dunk. I have no problem with that, because Blake doesn’t usually use his non-shooting arm to clear a path to the basket, and an opponent can try to counter by boxing him out. (By the way, would it kill modern NBA centers to study up on Kareem and Olajuwon? Did anyone think that an NBA Finals with Perkins, Ibaka, Collison, Joel Anthony, Turiaf, and Haslem in the middle had the potential to make basketball fans worldwide completely jaded?)

The problem with the 2012 Finals was calling fouls inconsistently. I still remember Harden getting called for all kinds of cheap fouls when he was just trying to maintain position against the larger LeBron. And it went both ways, too. Who can forget the insane foul call against Wade when an OKC player dove for a loose ball and fell on top of Wade? Apparently, getting squished by another player while prostrate qualifies as a foul against the player lying face down on the floor (though you have to admit, Wade deserves all the bad karma he can get with the ticky-tack foul calls he’s received over the years, especially against Dallas.) And what about the charges that weren’t called against Westbrook when he barged into Battier for the umpteenth time? Listen, I get that it goes both ways, and home court advantage isn’t just a myth. But in this series, OKC had no real bench outside of Harden, and the refs’ inconsistent calls, especially the bogus foul calls against Durant, may have given the series to Miami. Call enough ticky-tack or just plain incorrect fouls against Durant and Westbrook, and the team’s ability to score (and therefore win) disappears. Don’t ask me why Scott Brooks decided to bench both Westbrook and Durant for a prolonged period in one game, but when you don’t know how the refs are going to call the game, as a coach, you have to try to protect your players for the 4th quarter. What that really means is that coaches have to decide whether to play a game of chicken with the refs--do they keep their star players in the game after they pick up their third foul, daring the refs to foul them out of the game (hello, Paul Westhead and Bo Kimble)? Or do they avoid a situation where a player soon picks up a fourth foul and “Help Wanted” signs begin flashing before the coaches’ eyes?

I know we can’t have a perfect or perfectly called game, but would it be too much to ask that an NBA series gets decided on the best basketball players--the ones comfortable taking and making open jumpers, the ones who set proper screens, the ones follow their shot for the rebound (c’mon, Durant), the ones who don’t start trouble or flop, (yes, I’m looking at you, Mario Chalmers), and the ones who don’t carry the ball?  Must we be subjected to seeing football players masquerade as basketball players?  OKC lost this year because they were less physical and because the refs seemed to let Miami get away with more aggression.  In short, the team that relied less on basketball fundamentals and more on brute force won.  Maybe I don't know as much as David Stern about running a professional NBA league, but I do know this: there's got to be a better way.

© Matthew Rafat

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