Not-so-easy Sunday drive

Playoffs have shown this generation able to produce its own greatness

NBA playoffs

May 08, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

This vignette from Verizon Center during Friday's Wizards-Cavaliers playoff game might be exactly what the NBA needs - a reminder to wayward fans that the game today is worthy of comparison to the memories those fans cling to so jealously.

In the media workroom, about a dozen reporters were packed around a monitor watching the final seconds of overtime. Gilbert Arenas had just missed the two free throws that eventually cost his team the game and the series, and during the ensuing timeout, a replay aired that prompted this multi-speaker exchange:

"Did LeBron James say something to Gilbert after the first free throw?"

"Whatever he said must have worked."

"It's a Scottie-Mailman thing!"

"That was Game 1, right?"

"Yeah. The Fist-Pump Game."

"The Original Fist-Pump."

That quickly, the link was made between two classic moments from the same legendary NBA postseason game and not just one, but two, classic moments in this year's playoffs.

(The translation: Game 1, 1997 NBA Finals, Scottie Pippen whispering to Karl Malone, "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays" just before Malone missed a pair of critical late-game free throws, then Michael Jordan draining the game-winning jumper and punctuating it with the fist pump - which, five days before the LeBron-Gilbert incident, Kobe Bryant had imitated after his game-winning shot against the Suns.)

An obsession with the past isn't necessarily healthy. But if this one helps stragglers realize that the game they had abandoned in recent years was rising to a breathtaking level and earned comparison to the greatest-generation era of the 1980s and '90s, then it's worth it.

It would be a shame, after all, if those who can't let go of the Michael-Magic-Larry era, who still blame the players for the flop at the 2004 Olympics, who are still spouting decade-old criticisms of the NBA, miss out on the evolution taking place in this year's playoffs.

Because for all the references to vintage moments of yore, there's a lot going on that has no real precedent. LeBron James, for instance, is carving out a legacy of his own, jump-started by the two last-second game-winning baskets in the Wizards series.

Same for Dwyane Wade, who did a fair Willis Reed impression when he came back from a painful hip injury in the middle of Game 5 against the Bulls, to drag the Heat and a then-sluggish-looking Shaquille O'Neal out of a dire circumstance.

Bryant, meanwhile, is creating something that defies easy description, that if nothing else will prevent us all from ever comparing him to Jordan again. (For one thing, has Jordan ever shot only three times and scored just one point in the second half of a Game 7? Not to nit-pick or anything.)

Then there's Steve Nash, now officially a back-to-back Most Valuable Player, who went from legit to highly questionable to justified in the span of a week, as his Suns became the eighth NBA team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit, and did it against a player, Bryant, in the midst of making a strong case against Nash's candidacy.

The Clippers (with Sam Cassell lending that critical Baltimore presence) are in the conference semifinals, have we mentioned that? The drawback is that the dream all-L.A. faceoff won't happen - and it's because the Lakers couldn't hold up their end of the deal.

There were no fewer than five instant classics in the first round - three from the Cavs-Wizards series, two from the Suns-Lakers and two from the Spurs-Kings - that can at least present an argument.

At the other end, there were five of the more bizarre suspension-inducing acts you'll ever see. It began with Udonis Haslem throwing his mouthpiece at an official, ended with Raja Bell clotheslining Bryant, and in between, Reggie Evans introduced himself to Chris Kaman way too intimately. In that sense, players might be paying too much homage to the past (Pat Riley, after all, is back on the sideline).

Much of this has spotlighted officiating so incompetent, you'd think they smuggled in the Super Bowl refs. Yet the resulting drama wasn't entirely unwelcome.

Odds are good that the second round can match, even top, the first. The Spurs-Mavericks faceoff is Finals-quality and, one game in, is living up to the hype. The talent level in the other series, young and less-young, is almost beyond reproach.

It's no longer a question of when the next generation will hold its own. The next generation is here now, and by every measuring stick - even the storied past - it's doing just fine.

With all of that, if you're still hating the NBA, you're trying too hard. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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