Monday, April 11, 2011

The Association Of Streak

So today in Miami, the Heat finally got a win over the Celtics, and it more or less clinched the #2 seed for the Southeast Division champions... and the loss means that Celtic Nation is even more convinced that His Team Is Doomed, Doomed, Doomed. (Never mind that 20-plus NBA markets would utterly love to change places with these fans, since there's any chance that the Celtics are just doing their usual end of the regular season possum routine.) But what it really tells you is that the Association is now, almost entirely, a league of streak teams.

Chicago is going to be the #1, and as they are 19-2 in their last 21 games, they have to be considered the prohibitive favorite in the East. And they started off 2-3, and lost 3 of 4 at the end of November, because that's just the way the league works; even the dominant teams just have off weeks. Miami is the #2 seed in all likelihood, and completely streak-ridden (two cases of 4 out of 5 losses and a third 5-game losing streak before this closing 13-3 burst). This Boston team ran off 14 in a row in November and December, and they are likely to close out the year as a .500 team after the Kendrick Perkins trade, especially if they decide they have a preference between the Knicks (suddenly hot themselves, speaking of streakers) and the Sixers (suddenly not, especially with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams down).

In the West, San Antonio dropped 6 in a row in March and looked like they were going to crap the bed from their #1 seed, before taking care of the last four games with their full complement of aging stars. The Lakers have lost five in a row, with the Thunder doing the job today in Staples. And before you dismiss this as the Lakers just not caring about seeds if they aren't the #1, know that they were also terrible before the All-Star break, with losses to the terrible Cavs and more. And I really haven't liked them in crunch time all year, really. Interesting. I'd go further into this with the Mavs, Nuggets and more being Jekyll/Hyde clubs, but I think you get the point by now.

So if you roll your eyes at the idea that the NBA regular season is too long, since it's not as if the season has gotten any longer in decades, and it seems just like modern athletes whining... well, it probably isn't. Back to back games, or watching a team that's playing their third in four nights or their fourth in five, are just sad. It's how these teams fall down for a week, and it just happens to everyone at this point.

And there's also this: every team now turns the switch on and off, and believing anything else is just silly. Give credit (or blame) to the Rasheed Wallace Celtics of last year, or any number of Laker teams under Phil Jackson that looked weak in March and April, only to come roaring on in May. Perhaps there are simply no players like Michael Jordan now, or maybe even too many that are; you just don't get teams that think too much about winning 65 to 70 games before the playoffs.

Just getting the seed you want, and coming in with the rotation you desire intact, is the goal now. Regular season dominance is just fool's gold, the work hard not smart reward for people who engage in the hoop version of rope a dope. Everyone's a professional and everyone is supremely confident in their abilities, so no one is looking at the high seed and gaudy regular season record and quaking in their boots. Everyone wants to play the Mavericks; no one wants to be them. And so on.

And the biggest problem, if indeed there can be said to be a problem, about this is that it cheapens what has been a legitimately fantastic regular season. All of these Top Teams Take A Holiday streaks have contributed to the rise of hope in any number of NBA markets; there is no inevitable hell of Lakers-Celtics right now that just looms over the average playoff year, where all of the fun series happen in the first two rounds and ugly ball closes it all out. We don't even have to pin our hopes on entertaining frauds like the Suns, Warriors, Rockets and Bucks now; even the low seeds with dreams (Sixers, Nuggets, Blazers, Grizzlies) do it with athletic defense and the occasional troublesome matchup player on offense, just like the real teams do it. Most teams that historically try to flip the switch fail, because most playoff teams fail; there really is a chance of multiple first round knockouts against higher seeds.

And yet. And yet. The NBA playoffs are a dramatically different animal than the regular season; rest is everywhere for the television needs of every market being able to see every game, so you can pretty much play your best six guys for 40 minutes and live. Home arenas start to matter like mad, as some players just plain wilt in the new experience of 18,000 people with real hate in their hearts. Defenses get better and better with repeated viewing and guys getting muscle memory of each other's post and transition go-to moves. The fouls get harder, the whistles generally get put away, and the best coaches work the refs in ways that many of them are barely aware of.

It all starts in just a few more days. And that's also when this blog tends to saddle up and grind it out, because there really isn't anything better, in our estimation, than this time. Best of seven series that are spread out over two weeks may not be the most interesting way to determine a champion... but it is the purest crucible, the hottest fire, that determines the truly best teams, players, coaches.

I rarely love the final answer. But I can also rarely question it, the way that you might wonder about the validity of, say, a Marlins or Giants championship, or a Colts crown, or whoever takes down the BCS and NCAA basketball finals. And in a modern era that clearly values unpredictable entertainment over the clear definition of excellence... well, shouldn't this be something that even Association haters applaud the league for?

At least, until the Lakers or Celtics win again...

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