The NBA is the gift that, at least for the past 69 years, keeps on giving. Personal recollections of seasons past, as well as an eager anticipation of the forthcoming season have once again conspired to rekindle thoughts of some of the things I love about the NBA.
- At the top of the list are the incredible skills of the world’s greatest athletes. Only soccer players and marathon runners are in better condition. Only football players get hit harder. Only high-jumpers and volleyball players have equable hops. And, even though they aren’t shadowed by aggressive defenders, only gymnasts and acrobats have more moves.
- Close games no matter who’s playing, or where or when they happen to be playing. A game played in a half-empty arena in early April, say, when neither team has a chance to make the playoffs or to increase or decrease their odds of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft. An apparently meaningless game at the end of a long, grueling season that for them can’t be over quick enough. But the interest in this scenario is to see which players, who are all so used to losing, will step up and play with courage and ferocity, and which will just go through the motions. That’s why I’d rather watch the Timberwolves play the 76ers than any World Series game.
- The entirety of a seven-game playoff series. The special appeal here is to follow the human chess matches as each coaching staff digests every game, studies videos and gets deeper and deeper into their opponents’ game plan. A corollary interest is to observe how well, or how poorly, players can make the necessary adjustments from game to game.
- But I especially love overtime in playoff games, the deeper into the postseason the better. Of course, the best possible scenario would be OT in the seventh game of the championship series. This has only happened twice. In 1962, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in a single OT period. And back in 1957, when Boston initiated its dynasty with a triple-OT victory over St. Louis in what was easily the best game ever played in the history of the league. A game that, in fact, ushered in the modern era.
- Next to what transpires in the endgame, the opening minutes of the third quarter are usually fascinating and always significant. That’s when the adjustments made (or not made) by a team’s coaching staff during the halftime intermission dramatically manifest. This brief stretch of time provides an excellent glimpse into both the expertise of the coaches as well as the flexibility and discipline of the players.
- While I hate any player on any team suffering any kind of injury, there are intriguing possibilities that often result. What’s more fun than seeing how a season-long backup performs as a starter? Or how an otherwise bench-bound third-stringer plays in backup minutes?
- Certain particularly enthralling mano-a-mano matchups. Like Patrick Beverley versus Stephen Curry. LeBron versus Kevin Durant. Matt Barnes versus Derek Fisher … er, I mean Barnes versus any of the league’s high-powered wing scorers.
- The coordinated choreography of team defense as played by San Antonio.
- Indescribable individual moves to the hoop in hostile traffic by the likes of Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron or whomever. These examples of spontaneous brilliance also make me fully appreciate the new technology that makes immediate, instant replays available at home with a mere touch of a button.
- Being 6-8 and a one-time pivot man, it’s increasingly depressing to see more and more seven-footers shooting treys and playing more like guards than like centers. That’s why I particularly enjoy the footwork, power, speed and skills of post-up scorers like Tim Duncan, Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, the brothers Gasol and even the pivotal endeavors of non-centers like LeBron, Carmelo, Boris Diaw and any other “small” who will occasionally play with his back to the basket.
- Players who are fouled extra hard — and even bloodied — then, without complaining, simply pick themselves up off the floor and sink both free throws. Indeed, these guys are much tougher than the guys who knocked them down to begin with.
- Clutch plays after timeouts that work. These demonstrate both superior scouting and superior coaching on the one hand, and inferior scouting and coaching on the other. In defense of the failed defensive strategies, though, oftentimes players zig when they’re instructed to zag. But plays like this also prove that most games are won or lost in practice sessions — which is why players who are lazy and/or inattentive during practice are detrimental to their team’s fortunes no matter what astronomical numbers they may register when the lights are switched on for real.
- Solid timber-shivering, shoelace-untying, dental-filling-loosening screens. In other words, one example of the critical execution of fundamentals that never show up in a box score, are rarely appreciated by civilians, but that power championship-level offenses.
- Along the same lines, I absolutely adore the extra pass that enables a subsequent assist-pass. Plays like these reveal everything that’s righteous about the game.
- Tim Duncan taking a pay cut a few years ago, thereby enabling the Spurs to enhance their championship hopes by signing whichever free agents they had in their sights without surpassing their mandated salary cap. This was the exact opposite of the mindset of most superstars and superstar wannabes. Sacrificing an extra million (or two or three) for the ultimate good of the team is a concept foreign to virtually all of TD’s peers. And by this decision alone, Duncan proved that he’s a winner.
- I absolutely love it when the league office officially rescinds a technical foul. This is as close as the NBA ever gets to a public demonstration of their officiating staff’s fallibility.
- Watching “role players” play without the ball.
- The sharp edge of excitement, passion and anticipation in an important game when a win-or-lose shot leaves the shooter’s hand. Will the result be joy? Despair? A foul? A goaltend? Some other kind of unforeseen infraction? Or a put-back? A game-saving defensive rebound? All of life’s mysteries up for grabs.
And what I love most about the NBA is that life is a metaphor for basketball.