Friday, May 14, 2010

Conference Finals Preview

If this first day is any indication of this month to come in the LeBron Derby, I’m already tired of it: there will be a decision made and it’s useless to speculate about everything in between. Let’s talk about something real—really real—the conference finals.

The consequence of the three sweeps and the one upset is to set up four teams that have been playing at a very high level, and it’s hard to anoint one as the prohibitive favorite. Well, if you are, you’re probably a Lakers fan (and hence probably a little delusional—does the smog get to you, Lakers fans?), and well, we appreciate you but you’re wrong. Each of these series will be hard-fought, but ultimately I believe the Magic are the best of the four.

Let’s start, then, with Magic-Celtics. I don’t really have a sense of what the conventional wisdom is, but I believe the Magic won’t continue their Napoleon-versus-the-Austrians level of dominance: Perkins and Wallace match up well against Howard on defense (which is to say they have sufficient girth to deny Howard deep post position), a rejuvenated Garnett should be a tough cover for Rashard Lewis, and the Rondo-versus-Nelson matchup is highly intriguing, though probably titled towards Nelson. The Magic, however, should win: the Celtics’ bench isn’t much and the Magic’s is the best in the league; they have homecourt advantage; they have the best defense in the league; they have the better coach. These things are enough.

By the way: if the Magic struggle or lose, here’s what the narrative will be—FEED THE BALL TO DWIGHT HOWARD MORE! This will almost certainly be wrong, because Dwight Howard’s post game consists of hurling the basketball at the glass like a man hurling a bowling ball. For all the wonderful things that Dwight Howard does—he’s the second-best player in the league, after all—his offensive post game is not one of them. But the media has a narrative recipe it has to follow—as has been well demonstrated by this whole LeBron fiasco—and so if the Magic lose, it’s those three-pointers that will be to blame. That’s an interesting narrative in itself—why the hate for three-pointers? Well, it’s very simple: the three-pointer was only really invented in the eighties, and players never really got good at it until the late nineties. Since most commentators are from the generation in which the three-pointer was just being invented—and everyone sucked at it and shot too many—they forever associate the three-pointer with impetuosity and impatience rather than playing the game the right way blah blah blah and it’s a convenient way to marginalize the youth and the coaches who deploy it primarily. The Magic, therefore, are the league’s iconoclast team of the moment, poised to shatter all the dumb conventional wisdom, which is why you ought to root for them: no one represents boring cultural consensus more frequently and vociferously than old, brittle basketball commentators. I think it will happen: Magic in six.

Lakers-Suns, on the other hand, has been clearly delineated in the conventional imagination: Lakers, easy. And that might be the result, should the Lakers decide to play, say, four of five games at a high—though boring—level. Perhaps you think the listless play on the offensive end versus the Thunder, in which the smalls decided to prove what great midrange shooters they were, was a fluke. This is possible, but I don’t look at it as a fluke: instead, I see the Lakers’ behavior since the all-star break as the larger trend and the Utah series as the fluke: the Lakers have always and probably will always match up well with the Jazz—even in their nadir at the end of the regular season, they still handily beat the Jazz.

Basketball is a matchup game and the Suns-Lakers matchups have what Marx might call “internal contradictions.” On one hand, the Suns backcourt should match up very well with the Lakers: the Fisher-Nash matchup has the biggest edge of any matchup, in either series. If Derek Fisher can turn Russell Westbrook into a 55% shooter, what will he turn Steve Nash into? And note that the Laker trick of switching Bryant onto Nash won’t work: that just shifts Derek Fisher’s inevitable beating to the responsibility of Richardson or Grant Hill, either of whom are more than capable of exploiting Derek Fisher, Awful Defender. The big men matchup is interesting: there are reports that Robin Lopez will come back for the conference finals, which would be excellent news for the Suns—no matter how rusty or hobbled Robin Lopez is, guess what? he’s better than Jarron Collins—and the Amare Stoudemire-Pau Gasol matchup should result in plenty of points scored for each team. Don’t believe the hype: the Suns aren’t as good on defense as everyone is making them out to be. Look at the Defensive Efficiency numbers on ESPN. And, as Kenny Smith astutely pointed out on TNT, the Suns won’t be able to play their best lineup (Frye at the stretch four or Jared Dudley as the undersized four) very often because that implies either of them guarding Lamar Odom or Pau Gasol, which is, you know, very bad. The Suns do have a better bench than the Lakers, whose bench has been very inconsistent this postseason: when they’re better than the opposition, the Lakers almost always win; when they’re not, well, it’s more difficult. Ultimately, if the Lakers emphasize their superiority down low and on the boards, they should win in, say, 5 or 6. If they decide to play like they did against the Thunder and since the all-star break, it’ll either take 7 or they’ll lose.

Ultimately, the series will demonstrate the power of our perceptions to shade reality. Take Kobe, who’s enjoying a critical and popular renaissance as, you know, Ultimate Winner and all that. This, for a player who frequently seemed lost or disoriented in the Thunder series and often played like the punk he once was. (See: the Great Forgotten Suns-Lakers Game 7—no one seems to remember he quit even more egregiously than the Cavaliers yesterday: he didn’t shoot for the entire fourth quarter as that game slipped away.) And yet, with a favorable matchup, he ran wild and we remembered why he was so great. Everyone has degrees of greatness and degrees of ignobility within them; the great ones have greater greatness and less ignobility, but they still have that ignobility in them. It never goes away. So if you’re tempted to judge Kobe well after he plays well in this series, or if the Magic struggle against the Celtics, remember this: the greatness and the ignobility was always there, and they never disappeared.

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