May 22, 2001

The NBA today: Midgets, giants, and the hard luck of the Bulls

The NBA Playoffs have picked up steam over the last week or so, featuring a couple of sudden death games on Sunday and the first match up of the giants -- the Lakers and the Spurs. However, to a Bulls fan used to counting ping-pong balls more than wins (such as myself), the only thing that mattered during the weekend was the halftime of Sunday's second elimination game, when the annual draft lottery was held. The Bulls had a higher chance than any other team of getting the first pick in the draft because they were the lucky owners of 15 wins out of 82 games and 250 lottery balls out of 1000. Even though the chance of getting the top pick was still pretty low, the chance of the worst possible scenario (getting the fourth pick) was very low, as well. However, the Bulls managed to pull out even this one, and ended up behind Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards, the L.A. Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks in the picking order. From a Bulls fan's point of view, that was not very fair: the Wizards are getting Jordan and Barkley next season, the Clippers already have at least two future superstars on their roster, and the Hawks will be respectable enough next year to make the playoffs in the East, even without the third overall pick. Other than the Bulls, the Warriors got screwed over as well, by getting the fifth pick -- as low as they could possibly drop. There was word going around that they had a priest attend the lottery for better luck. The last time they'd tried that, in 1995, they had less than 10 percent of a chance of getting the top pick, and won it anyway. After all that, they forgot to invite the priest to the actual draft, and ended up picking Joe Smith -- and no, that's not just some random generic name that I formulated. His name was really Joe Smith, and he sucked, and still sucks. Aside from all this, however, there is a complicating factor in this year's draft: as many as four of the top six picks could be high schoolers, including number one. Needless to say, only half of them will be good or great NBA players, except no one knows which half yet. All of them are big men, meaning that most of them will be picked higher than they should, because professional basketball teams are always looking for seven-foot stiffs to plug into their lineups. The biggest one -- seven-foot, 300-pound DeSagana Diop -- is also the "biggest project," meaning most likely to suck ass when it comes to actually dealing with a basketball. Sure enough, most mock drafts that have come out so far have the Bulls taking precisely him, and not some guy who would help them -- how appropriate.

Oh yeah, the game that chronologically surrounded the NBA lottery had an ending result. The 76ers won. As I stopped beating my Jerry Krause doll to a bloody pulp for a second, I noticed that Vince Carter of the Raptors put up the final shot and barely missed as the buzzer sounded. The difference in the series turned out to be one point, as well as Iverson's two 50+-point games. In fact, he was the first player to have two such games in the same playoff series since (guess who?) Michael Jordan in the '80s. Iverson wasn't so lucky in the last one, making only eight out of 27 shots, but adding a career-high 16 assists as well to help his team into the Eastern Conference finals. At six feet, 165 pounds, he was so worn out from the extended series that he couldn't even practice on Monday. He probably won't be at full strength on Tuesday, either, when his team plays the Milwaukee Bucks, giving the visitors an excellent chance to steal one on the road. By now, you might have guessed that the Bucks also won their series. This is the same team that was on the brink of desperation several days ago, down 3-2 to the Charlotte Hornets and having lost all three games in a row. So, what did they do? They went into Charlotte and had point guard Sam Cassell take over the game. He had more than 30 points, although guarded by defensive star Baron Davis for much of the game. Davis himself proved to be a star in the playoffs, making all five of his 3-point attempts in Game five and scoring 29 points in the final game, and not even counting his floor leadership. This guy has only played his second year, and the rest of the NBA better beware of him next year.

Unlike Davis, his teammate Jamal Mashburn once again choked in the biggest game of the series. He had acquired a reputation of choking in big games in his years with Miami, but seemed to have put all that behind him by whipping Miami's butt in the first round and having some strong games against Milwaukee as well, at the beginning of the series. However, in the last game Mashburn shot only 7-for-25, with most of the scoring coming in the first quarter. Maybe he got too much praise too early from the media, who knows.

But enough of the midgets, let's talk about the giants. While the meddlesome East played meaningless Game sevens, the mighty West started the conference finals. This was, and probably still is, the most eagerly anticipated and supposedly even match up that the NBA has seen in a long time. The Lakers are the defending champions; the Spurs were champions two years ago and lost in the first round last year by a fluke -- no Tim Duncan. The Lakers have the best big man in the game in Shaq; the Spurs have a close second in Tim Duncan and a great defensive center, David Robinson. The Lakers have the best guard in the league in Kobe Bryant; the Spurs have... well, they have a good bench and some white guy named Danny Ferry. Having the closest thing in the league to Michael Jordan is where the Lakers definitely have an advantage, and it showed even more than expected in Game 1. Kobe Bryant dunked over the Twin Towers and rained fadeaway jumpers over everyone else in San Antonio on his way to 45 points -- the most ever scored against the Spurs in the playoffs. Duncan and Robinson combined had only 42. After the game, the Big Sewer (Aristotle), otherwise known as Shaq, surprisingly had this to say about the teammate who stole the spotlight from him: "I told Kobe that he was my idol. I'm serious. He's playing phenomenal. I think he's the best player in the league, by far." Well, there goes all of ESPN's hoopla about Shaq and Kobe disliking each other, in contrast with Duncan and Robinson. Their front page will now have to boast the headline "Shaq says he slept with Kobe on radio, then apologizes." As for Bryant being the best player in the league: it might be true, or it might not be. In any case, Kobe sure looked like Mike in Game one.