This time of year in professional basketball is usually fraught with talking heads, controversy and on-court drama, but the 2013 NBA Playoffs hasn’t always lived up to what we expect from the postseason. I wouldn’t bank on it staying that way.
Don’t get me wrong, the drama hasn’t been completely absent, what with overtime games and the occasional buzzer beater, but to this point there has only been one seven game series and as a result, limited controversial moments, almost none of which would have changed the outcome of a game, never mind a series.
It is widely believed that playoff basketball is very different from the regular season, but of course, this is just a notion played on by the league and pundits (myself included) to try to pump life into the drama of proceedings. Truth be told, the basketball isn’t all that different from the regular season. The teams are consistently better and therefore the games tend to be a little tighter, large deficits overcome easier and fast break points generally somewhat limited. But the notion that the environment around the players, the atmosphere of the stadium and the pressure of a specific moment are determining factors in a game, well that’s being somewhat dramatic.
With three games on tap for this weekend, you can expect plenty of playoff clichés to be hurled about. If not for the finer points of the game, what would we, particularly journalists, do with ourselves? It’s the playoffs, where every maneuver is more scrutinized and every foul call considered more crucial, all eyes watching a supposedly slowed down, half court, grimy version of what we saw in the regular season, our own expectations aggrandizing the figures on the court as well as their actions.
This, combined with the scouting and knowledge that comes to players when they face each other for consecutive contests unlike the regular season, leads to increased awareness for both player and fan. That then puts the league, referees and coaches under an extreme amount of pressure, building up the stage and leading, predictably, to playoff drama clichés that will undoubtedly be played out this weekend at some point. Here are five to keep an eye out for.
1. It’s the coach’s fault his team lost-If we’re talking about aggrandizing anyone in the playoffs, it ought to be the coaches. These guys do their work in an 82 game season in relative peace, most of the praise or blame for success or failure being heaped on his players rather than him. But come playoff time, his every substitution, rotation, personnel decision in a key moment is picked apart by network mouthpieces, most of which have never drawn a play on a clipboard and asked a group of people twenty or thirty years their junior to execute it (Mike Fratello and Jeff Van Gundy being the exception).
The truth about it is, it’s tough to be a coach. It’s hard to see how everything will play out and it’s tough to manage everyone’s ego. Why did Frank Vogel leave Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final play of his team’s game one loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals? Some say it was over coaching, others leave it to mere stupidity, but whatever the reason, I’m sure that a guy who has built a system to get a superstar-less team to the conference finals didn’t make that decision without a reason. The game plan called for different personnel and as it turned out, his plan was wrong. In any case, that one play is not the only reason Indiana trails and if his players that were on the floor didn’t give the league’s biggest star a whole the size of a bus to drive to the basket through, who knows how different the outcome of that game is?
2. A refereeing decision decides the game-In a sport where the expression “ball don’t lie” is often touted out, fans and analysts spend too much time worrying about the calls of officials. Don’t get me wrong, in general, NBA officials are terrible, but they don’t usually determine the outcome of games. The internet is fraught with people who believe the league and the officials are conspiring to win Miami a championship, but if you look at game one of the conference finals, the Pacers had as many calls go their way as Miami, including a bogus foul to hand Paul George three free throws and give Indiana the lead with 2.2 seconds left in overtime.
In the end, ball don’t lie came to life and LeBron James set the proceedings straight by winning the game for Miami and the call didn’t matter. In any sport, the officials mess up and affect the game. Even with replay and all the technology we use in sports now, refs still make huge blunders that affect the game. But the reason we play four quarters, nine innings, two halves or three periods is so that the game is larger than any one moment. All the drama leading up to a bad call at the wrong time can lead one to believe otherwise, but if Miami had defended their lead better or not let Indiana push them around in the first half, maybe that call isn’t so crucial. The game is bigger than the refs, the player’s actions much more meaningful, but come playoff time, a bad call is all anyone sees sometimes.
3. Experience plays a factor-I am certainly guilty of propagating this particular myth. There is the idea that the more times that a player or team makes their living in the playoffs, the more likely they are to succeed when the big moments come. The idea that an 82 game season isn’t enough to indicate what a team is made of is somewhat ridiculous and though the atmosphere of playoff games is a little crazy, players don’t get to this level by playing in front of 50 men and a dog.
Big crowds and wild atmosphere is a part of NBA life and at some point, every player has played in a big game with a lot on the line. By the time they get to this point, they are able to handle pressure and know the ins and outs of the game. Being able to make adjustments and play a team four to seven consecutive games and beat them enough to advance is no easy task, but it didn’t seem to trouble the Golden State Warriors this season as they whipped Denver, a far more experienced team, in the first round. No matter what, the best team wins.
4. Role players make the difference-There is always talk that it’s the role players that suddenly make the difference between a championship and a good team that falls short. As if to say that for 82 games, the Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James caliber players carry their teams single handedly and are solely responsible for every victory along the way, but come postseason play it somehow all boils down to a Mike Miller.
No player does anything on his own, it takes a team to win. That doesn’t change from the day the preseason starts through game seven of the finals, but it doesn’t make for nearly as interesting television unless Miller becomes the key cog in the wheel that pushes the Heat over the championship finish line at the final moment, so we’ll just have to deal with it.
5. It’s all about defense-It’s one thing to believe the old adage that offense wins games and defense wins championships, but this nonsense that postseason basketball is all about defending has little evidence behind it. The Memphis Grizzlies are the best defensive team in basketball, but they have only come as far as they have this postseason because they have increased their scoring night in and night out.
Indiana, the league’s second best defensive team, knocked off New York and Atlanta by attacking the basket better than their opponents and nearly upset the Heat in game one of the conference finals by knocking down threes and being aggressive on offense. Yes, defense is crucial to victory and you can’t win a championship without it, but a team that can balance their efforts on each end of the floor is usually the one that comes out on top.