Friday, April 27, 2007

Like the good episodes of the Simpsons and Family Guy, the Miami Heat's title defense might as well be ancient history. Like disco and Vaudeville, Miami is dead. I know this because it seems to be the principle under which Jay Mariotti is operating these days. The sad thing is, under the Even A Blind Squirrel Finds A Nut Now And Then Theorem, he's right. Miami can't beat Chicago. And there is a villain in all of this most people might not realize - Pat Riley.

It's hard to criticize a coach with seven NBA championships on his career resume, but I think Miami might have stood a better chance of defending their title with Ron Rothstein still running things. I don't know how many times Chicago has to exploit the fact that Miami is not quick enough (or perhaps motivated enough) to rotate to open perimeter players before Miami tries something different. Even if it didn't work, it would have been nice to see Miami try different looks.

Also, every minute that Eddie Jones and Udonis Haslem occupy space on the basketball court has become an affront against the sport. Udonis Haslem has been outplayed by PJ Brown, which baffles me since Udonis Haslem is supposed to be a guy who brings energy and hustle to the defensive end of the floor and the offensive glass. Isn't that what PJ Brown made a living doing in the NBA for the last quarter century (deliberate exaggeration)? So Udonis Haslem is being outplayed by an older version of himself, who doesn't really enjoy a reputation as a savvy, heady player. At least not to the extent that it would justify the humiliating fashion in which he has handled Haslem. As for Eddie Jones, he looks like he aged four years in the last two weeks.

Dwayne Wade is pressing, and he's committing way too many turnovers to only score 21 points a game. Shaq is playing well in the first half, when he manages to avoid foul trouble. Too bad that he can't avoid foul trouble. Part of this is his fault for not adjusting to the way the refs are calling the game, and part of it is the fault of the referees for calling touch fouls that cut one way. Based on what I have seen to this point, I feel Shaq would be morally justified if he grabbed Ben Wallace and hammered him into the floor with his fist as though he were Spike (the big bulldog from Tom and Jerry) and Wallace were Tom.

And this brings us to Ben Wallace. If you've been following this blog since its inception, you may have noticed that I don't think much of Ben Wallace. I once called him the evolutionary Bill Russell, which believe it or not is an insult to Wallace and the way the game is played now. Ben Wallace is very nearly able to influence a game on the defensive end of the court the way Russell could because offenses stagnate to wait for a superstar to score and because the refs are immoderately inconsistent with the way they call games.

Ben Wallace is like Bill Russell in the same way a savage kick in the groin is like a steak dinner. When Wallace wants to shift position to front Shaq whilst defending him in the post, Wallace grabs Shaq and uses his body as a lever to get himself into position quickly. That's some good thinking, fine, practical application of physics, but it's not basketball. Russell played Wilt physically but cleanly. He'd be rolling over in his grave watching Wallace defend Shaq if he were dead.

I just don't see how the Bulls were able to handle the Heat so easily in the first two games when I look at the two teams on paper. I realize that Chicago is a better, tougher team than they were a year ago. They're younger and more athletic than Miami. Miami has been decimated by injuries all year, and now that all the pieces are back and in place (even though Wade's shoulder is not healed) they're out of sync. Shaq and Wade missed so much time that the team isn't sure how to play with the two of them on the court at the same time.

Miami wants to look to Wade the same way they did last year, but with 1 and 1/2 shoulders, he just can't be the same guy. So the rest of the team is torn. They're used to looking to him. They want to look to him, but they also know he's hurt and it makes them tentative. This tentativity (it's a word now, baby) cripples them in every phase of the game. I think they have the mindset that D Wade will save them on offense, on defense and in a fire should one break out ingrained so deeply that they can't get beyond it. That's why they're slow in rotations and a bit stagnant on offense.

Antoine and the second unit turned this game around tonight in the second quarter. They forced turnovers, they shot well, they played with energy and they took the lead from Chicago. Meanwhile, while the game started to get away in the fourth, Antoine was on the bench as Haslem failed to track open shooters on the break, failed to catch two Dwayne Wade passes which resulted in turnovers and generally removed objects from the table. Finally with 3:10 to go, Riley put Antoine back on the floor.

I can see a certain logic in making sure that he was fresh for the most important minutes of the game, but with less than five minutes to go, there were stoppages for a called team timeout and a TV timeout where Toine could have been put back in the game. I understand that a coach has tough decisions to make. Toine was excellent in the second quarter, but not so good in the third. But the Heat were down 0-2 in the series, taking on water as the Bulls ran off a 15-2 run.

By the time Antoine came back into the game, it was just too hard to come back. Antoine was called for a charge and a flagrant with less than a minute to go, which hurt more than it helped. The charge was his fault. The flagrant wasn't. I though as I watched the game that it was just a foul, Antoine didn't hit him harder than the situation required and he tried to hold Deng up as he fell to the floor.

Even worse, with 30 seconds to go and counting and down by five the Heat were trying to foul while the ball was on the perimeter to extend the game. And of all times for the officials to swallow the whistle, that's when they did it. For all the touch fouls that they've called on Shaq through the first half of games 1-3, this time the Heat needed to drop Luol Deng to the floor to get a call.

The kick in the ass of a flagrant foul in that situation isn't the two shots, because it was in the act of shooting and the Heat were over the limit at the time. Any foul but a technical would have been two shots at the time. Possession reverted back to the Bulls so stopping the clock didn't help even a little bit. Down by 5, with 18.7 seconds to go, it would have been a miracle if Chicago had found a way to lose.

Interestingly enough, Dick Bavetta was calling this game. For those who don't know, his presence at games which the home team desperately needs to win has been a staple of almost every suggestion that the NBA attempts to assist high-profile franchises survive and advance in the postseason Bill Simmons has ever made. And it just so happened that the officials swallowed the whistle when the home team with huge star power desperately needing a win tried like hell to foul on the perimeter, right up until the time that Luol Deng hit the floor.

Regardless of how a person wants that game to turn out, a foul should be called when contact occurs on the perimeter in that situation. Even though the flagrant foul pretty much turned out the lights on Miami Heat, not only for Game 3 but for the series, Luol Deng hitting the floor didn't need to happen. I don't mean to insinuate that Antoine Walker deliberately knocked him to the ground. Even if I thought he meant to do it, I probably wouldn't admit it here, since I have gone out of my way to defend him dozens of times.

Luol Deng is a big piece of the Chicago Bulls. I think Mariotti rushed to pronounce him a closer after only two stellar playoff games. I think he was phenomenal in Game One; he beat Miami by himself really (not because he didn't have help, but without his tremendous game, Chicago couldn't have won). And he was excellent again in the second game. He didn't have quite as good a game tonight, but he certainly played very well. If he got hurt in that episode, it would have reflected poorly on Walker and it would have crippled the Bulls hopes to beat teams like Cleveland and Detroit.

I think Mariotti rushed to judgment on the closer status (the article is on Deng, the closer crack motivated by the person on Around the Horn, both likely motivated by something like the impulse to apologize for this drivel in a normal human). I have two reasons for thinking that. First, Mariotti is a total douche, a miserable person and a terrible writer. Obviously that would amount to more than one reason if they didn't point to the simple fact that it makes me want to vomit when I find myself agreeing with him even on simple facts like water is wet.

The main reason is that I think a guy has to take a team to a conference finals at the very least before he can become a closer. After all, the Bulls are now on the verge of winning their first playoff series since Michael Jordan walked the Earth. I think that Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Kirk Heinrich and Andreas Nocioni have not earned the right to be called closers, even if they were cut up and recombined into some sort of Frankentool. How can you be called a closer when you have not, to date, even closed out one team?

And before any one who reads this decides to get in my eye (I expect some negative feedback, because attacking Mariotti has attracted positive feedback in the past but I've never done it while being hostile to a Chicago team), I admit that every single one of the players I just combined into a Frankentool is very good. But let's not forget that I'm not a Chicago guy and not a Chicago fan (I'm not sure how to categorize the strange emotional attachment to the Bears that developed during my efforts to help build and maintain the Bears bandwagon last season).

By the way, I am aware of the Michael Jordan "comeback" with the Wizards, I choose not to acknowledge it any more than I absolutely have to. I was never really a Jordan fan, though I did root for his teams against the Utah Jazz and the Lakers during the three-peats and always against the Pistons. While I am not a Celtics fan now, I used to be right up until Ainge mounted his one man crusade against a team that had made a conference finals appearance and a trip to the second round before he arrived even though it had hired him.

I haven't done this much explaining in quite some time, probably since the inaugural post or one of my apology posts. But this is a weird post. I don't know that I've been as critical of a team that I don't hate as I had to be with Miami tonight. It's just not easy being one of the appallingly few Antoine Walker fans from Boston. I think all of them are included in my original seven readers.

I apologize for the coherence of this post. I'm not even drunk. But with the Heat playing, the Sox playing the Yanks and now the Mavs deflating in Game Three in Oak-town, I haven't found time to eat yet. The blood sugar is a tad low, so I have to wrap up and get my grub on. Before I sum up as best I can the many, many, many threads of this post, I want to add my voice to the number of people lamenting the fact that the NBA gives out its awards so soon after the regular season. How can Dirk be the MVP and Sam Mitchell Coach of the Year when their teams are on the ropes?

And that brings me back in a very long, meandering, roundabout way to my point (such as it is). There is no way Miami should have found itself in this position in the series with Chicago. Yeah, Chicago is younger and more athletic than Miami. But Miami is seasoned, with players who should know by now how to come up big in big moments. If you had asked me before the playoffs started which series could come close to being a desperately poor man's edition of the Celtics vs. Lakers series in 1987, it would have been the Heat vs. Bulls. Alas, thanks to Pat Riley and his determination to hide Antoine on his bench as though Employee Number Eight were the light under the basket in an inversion of the Biblical original.

I'm not as depressed by the demise of the Heat and the defeat of the Yanks as you might expect. Maybe it's because there was just an excellent episode of South Park (the Junior Detectives episode, I highly recommend it). Maybe it's the fact that Jackass the Movie is on right now. Or maybe it's the fact that I have the John Wayne opus The Horse Soldiers waiting in my saved programs on On Demand. Or maybe it's that Dallas is on the verge of dropping Game Three to Golden State like an overly ambitious Tae Kwan Do novice missing with a big crescent kick and dropping like a sack of potatoes. Who can say? But at any rate, good evening.

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