Monday, June 30, 2008

Jefferson's Airplane

Sometimes it’s hard rooting for one team. Of course it’s more fun to jump on the bandwagon, because for instance the Celtics are winning right now, which is way more fun than going through a rebuilding process. Or who knows what the Bulls will do this season with a young Derrick Rose, or how exciting Miami will be with a healthy (let’s hope that’s true) Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and Michael Beasley. And what about the Lakers? Back to the Finals in ‘09? One team who will definitely not go the Finals just so happen to be my favorite team: the New Jersey Nets.

They got there in 2002, Jason Kidd’s first season with the Nets after being traded from Phoenix to New Jersey. It was Richard Jefferson’s rookie season, a young and athletic small forward, backing up The Pale Rider, aka Keith Van Horn. They got swept by the Lakers, one year later they would try their luck again, this time playing the Spurs. Jefferson was a full-time starter by now, with Van Horn being traded to Philly, and although he and his team lost to San Antonio 4-2, the future looked promising. A frontline with RJ along with Kenyon Martin and having the best point guard running the show throwing lobs and finding you wherever you are on the court is a great situation for any player to be in. A return to the Finals would be imminent. Well, that’s what I thought. Insert the new-look Detroit Pistons, who acquired Rasheed Wallace late in the season, and defeated the Nets in the second round of the playoffs in ’04 (4-3) and became champions for the first time since 1990.

And now it’s 2008, and I think Jefferson understands he won’t be back into the Finals anytime soon. In fact, within now and a few months he’s on a plane to join his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks. I’m not saying the Bucks are that bad, but it’s obvious they are in no way contenders for the title anytime soon. The same can be said about the Nets. Even if they kept Jefferson, it wouldn’t get much better. But call me na├»ve; I really would’ve liked to see a full season of RJ, Vince Carter and lighting bolt Devin Harris and the rest of the now very young crew. Instead, “we” now have Yi and Bobby Simmons. Sure, Yi can be a great player someday, or a total bust. Simmons hasn’t been healthy for a couple of seasons now, so you don’t know what you’re going to get from him. I don’t like this trade. I don’t like it at all. Maybe for sentimental reasons, but also from a basketball standpoint.

In the summer of ’04, when Kittles and Martin were traded for basically nothing in return, it frustrated the hell out of me. Kittles was something I could understand, because injuries really took a toll on his career. It’s a shame, but sometimes it happens. After he was traded to the Clippers he went down and it was all over. When Nets owner Bruce Ratner refused to lay down big bucks (no pun intended) to keep Kenyon Martin, it angered Kidd, the rest of the team and every Nets fan out there. Back then no one knew Martin would almost miss two seasons because of microfracture surgery to both knees. We got Vince Carter later that year, but every season the Nets have been stuck in mediocrity, unable to return to the elite of the NBA. President Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe decided enough was enough and decided something had to be done; hence trading Jefferson to the Bucks for Yi and Simmons.

I don’t understand the hate RJ is getting from basketball fans around the world. He speaks his mind, he’s brutally honest when giving his opinion, is that a problem? And although some might say he wanted to be “the man” too much, to me it didn’t seem damaging to an already weak Nets team. Jefferson was a top five scorer in the first couple of months of the season (and ended ninth), which took some toll on his otherwise above average defense. Then again, somebody had to put some points on the board for New Jersey, because Carter sometimes seems reluctant to be the main go-to guy, so why not RJ? I saw plenty of Nets games this season to notice that Jefferson became outstanding in creating his own shot. He improved his jumper, and because of his strong body he was able to slash to the basket at will, creating contact and going to the free throw line. He even shot 36% from threepoint range, so you could say he’s offensively well-rounded.

In the days since the trade I read several things, people writing that RJ shouldn’t be the top player in your team, but maybe the second or third guy, I read that Rod Thorn said that even if Jefferson wouldn’t be traded, the Nets weren’t going to any better next season. You make a trade to improve your team, but that’s not the case in this situation. We all know what the real reason behind the trade is: money. I understand it’s that way, it’s a business and I’m a sucker that I love my one team and the players on it. Especially the ones who were on that team for a long time, from being in the Finals to missing the playoffs. I understand it would be great to bring a huge star to the Nets in 2010 (he who shall not be named in this post), but as a fan I’m always in a win-now mode. With RJ we won’t win the Trophy in ’09, but we won’t win it with Yi either.

The perception of him by a lot of people these days is that he’s the most overrated player in the League today, with the “numbers” to prove it. Maybe I’m biased, maybe I’m blinded by my affection for the Nets, but I’ve seen plenty of games this past season to realize he was one of the few bright spots my team had. Now after the trade, we have two forwards who took turns sitting on the bench in Milwaukee, and the possibility to get a really good small forward in 2010, but you never know if that’s really going to happen. I always focus on the here and now, so with RJ leaving, it truly marks the end of an era. There’s no one left of those Finals teams of ’02 and ’03. I can only wish my favorite forward of the past seven years all the best, and hopefully he’ll return to the Big Dance someday.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

108 Games

Let’s start off with some Guru, Jazzmatazz vol. 3, Streetsoul, track 5: “Certified”.

This right here has been certified for years
He’s got soul up in his blueprint and he’s ready to vocalize….

And he did. Watching Kevin Garnett crying and howling in that post-game interview with Michelle Tafoya was a thing of beauty and to me represents everything that is good about the NBA. It was 6 in the morning when the game ended over here, and watching him yelling ‘Anything is possible!’ claiming he was now certified, hugging Bill Russell, man, I had tears in my eyes. I’m 28 and I might be soft, but that was amazing and heartfelt to see. I needed to get some extra hours of sleep after the game, but I just couldn’t go to bed. Like KG, I was too hyped. It took me almost two hours before I could finally get some shuteye.

Understand what I’m trying to say here. I’m a Nets fan, but even more so I’m a fan of the NBA. Watching every team, enjoying good basketball when I see it. That’s why I enjoyed Game 6 so much, especially the final moments of it. And anyone who didn’t like it must walk that yellow brick road and search for a heart. Doc Rivers probably still smells like Gatorade, and Paul Pierce might still wear his jersey. Life is good in Boston, where after 22 years they’ve finally won it again. It took them 108 games to do it, but every single game the purpose was the same as the last one: they had to win it all. Call it destiny, call it whatever you want, but it had to happen.

In L.A. they hoped to have their first championship since ’02, but watching the Lakers play on their home floor, it looked like both the players and the fans weren’t that desperate for it. Although the Celtics played great defense, the Lakers were really disappointing. Kobe had a lot of trouble in getting to the basket, so he definitely needed someone to step up, whether it was Odom, Gasol, whoever. Yet nobody embraced that role, but again: that wasn’t the biggest problem. They just didn’t want it badly enough and that’s what it’s all about. It’s weird; the Lakers played great throughout the playoffs, but had a lot of problems during the Finals. The Celtics however, struggled in the first two rounds, found some rhythm against the Pistons, and really played well against the Lakers. More importantly, Ray Allen overcame his shooting woes from previous rounds to show that he still is one of the finest shooters in the League. He emphasized that in Game 6 by hitting seven three-pointers out of only nine attempts.

So that was the 2007-2008 NBA season, the team won that had to win, KG delivered to world some footage that the NBA can use in every promo for the next ten years (or longer), and Paul Pierce became the Finals MVP, which should secure his legacy after his career is over. And Doc Rivers? I think he’s done with Gatorade for a while, and hopefully traded it for some champagne. The Celtics won, and rightfully so.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

To Live and Die in L.A.

Everybody got their own thang, currency chasin’,
Worldwide through the hard times, warrior faces

A man can dream can he? A man can have dreams about being a rockstar, getting a lapdance by Shakira or watching the NBA Finals with two of the best teams in the League battling it out in an epic 7-game series. Better yet, Lakers vs. Celtics. I made a mistake. Everytime I’m thinking, talking or in this case, writing about the Finals, it’s Lakers vs. Celtics. And that’s where I’m wrong. I should say: Celtics vs. Lakers, for the simple fact that the team with the better record gets mentioned first. I do that in every preview, so I must do it in this one too. Why do I usually say Lakers vs. Celtics? Because in the very, very early nineties I played a game on the PC called “Lakers vs. Celtics”. Hours and hours I played with either the Bulls or the Lakers, in this crappy, awful looking videogame. I even kept my own stats (well, only points) because that was a thing the game didn’t do. And if you guys are wondering: yes, I did have friends in those days. Imaginary ones, but still, friends they were. Anyway, the final preview of the season.

Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Point guard: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher. I think Rondo played more controlled against the Pistons than he did in the previous rounds. What’s not to like about this guy? He’s so quick and so active on both ends of the floor, that you always have to keep an eye on him. He’s not a reliable shooter, but with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce next to him, that doesn’t really matter. The young man creates, and that’s what a point guard is supposed to do. A not so young man but a proven veteran is Derek Fisher. He has been having outstanding playoffs so far, and let’s not forget that this guy already has won three championship rings with the Lakers. A great shooter and a more than capable defender will keep Rondo occupied throughout the series. Advantage: Lakers.

Shooting guard: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant. Finally, Ray Allen lives! He woke up in Detroit, and let’s hope he’s still awake on Thursday night, when the two teams square off in Boston for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. One of the best pure shooters in the last ten years, he has never endured such a slump like the one he had in the past couple of weeks. But now he’s hitting 3’s at last, scoring some points with that beautiful jumper of his, but he’s still not a good defender. And that, my friends, doesn’t help when your opponent is Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s second leading scorer, and the leading scorer in the playoffs. Kobe however, will probably contest every shot that Allen will attempt, and the Celtics definitely need Ray’s shooting to win it all. Advantage: Lakers.

Small forward: Paul Pierce vs. Vladimir Radmanovic. Hmm…. Who should I pick? Tough choice. No disrespect to Radmanovic, because the guy sure can score when he has one of this good days. But a role player is something different than a star player. A bad match-up. What more can I say? Advantage: Celtics.

Power forward / center: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol. We’re gonna mix it up a little, because I understand that KG and Pau start off against each other, and not Garnett against Odom. It makes sense. Both players are long and capable of doing a lot of damage when it comes to offense. It’s important for Gasol to stay aggressive, and not settle for “weenie shots”, as Phil Jackson called them. Gasol finally needs to understand that although he’s more of a finesse player, his game would greatly benefit from a bit more power. No cute little layups, he should dunk it when he’s able to. Both he and KG have a reliable jumper, which stretches the defense and making it easier for a guy like Kobe or Pierce to operate. Needless to say, but Garnett is a great defender, being the most intense player in the NBA finally being on the grand podium after all those frustrating and dreadful years in Minnesota. Now that he’s there and has to win the four most important games of his career, I hope he and his team understand this is not Atlanta, Cleveland or even Detroit that they’re playing. The best of the West is out there waiting for him, but he’ll have the upper hand playing against Gasol, that’s for sure. Advantage: Celtics.

Center / power forward: Kendrick Perkins vs. Lamar Odom. Yes, I know Perk had a monster game against the Pistons (18 points, 16 boards), but he’s nothing more than a role player on this Celtics team. It’s nice to have him around though, he can grab some boards, act like a tough guy, and maybe he frightens someone with that act (kids, puppies, goslings), but he doesn’t possess the skill set Odom has. Then again, hardly any NBA player does. Yes, I think that high of Odom. As I’ve said many times before, it’s important to get Odom involved early, get him some buckets. Like Gasol he must stay aggressive, create by going to the basket for either himself, or for his teammates. Advantage: Lakers.

Coaching: Doc Rivers vs. Phil Jackson: We know these guys, we know their stories. It was good to see Pierce hugging Doc after they beat Detroit in Game 6. Those two lost so many games before this season, dating back to 2004 when Rivers became the coach of the Celtics, and now they’re in the Finals together. Gotta give credit to Rivers for keeping his played focused from game 1 to 82. The playoffs were something different, they just had so much trouble in beating the Hawks and the Cavs, and I still wonder what (almost) went wrong. It’s Doc’s first Finals as a coach, and Jackson’s eleventh. Yes, really. He won nine, lost one in ’04, and now he’s back to accomplish something no coach has ever done: win ten championships. Advantage: Lakers.

Bench: This is actually the toughest one. The Celtics have two proven veterans in P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, and the former impressed me a lot, but the latter has let me down a bit. I like Sam, who doesn’t? But he should know better than complaining about playing time right now. He should be happy where he is at this stage of his career. Unless he performs, or whether Eddie House is more of a thread in a game than him, good ol’ Sam should just do like the Beatles, and Let It Be, because it’s all about the team right now. Leon Powe didn’t get too much playing time against the Pistons, and that has surprised me a bit. He’s a high energy guy but I didn’t see him as much as I’ve liked to. Glen Davis doesn’t impress me much, but that also has to do with his nickname “Big Baby”. Whoever gave him that name should be shot in the face. The most important guy off the bench is James Posey. With his stiffling defense he will see a lot of minutes against Kobe (good luck with that), and he is also able to hit the 3. The aforementioned Eddie House is always fun to watch, especially if he starts gunning and actually hitting some shots. Another gunner is the Lakers’ Sasha Vujacic, but I think he could play better than he has showed so far. Ronny Turiaf can give you some valuable minutes on the court, but also on the bench he’s a joy to watch. That man is hyped up from his toes to his dreads. Jordan Farmer did pretty well against the Spurs, at least better than against the Jazz, that’s for sure. And Luke Walton might see a bit more time substituting for Radmanovic early in the game. I believe Walton is better suited to defend Pierce. Trevor Ariza however is also still there, and somewhat healthy, so he might get a turn on defending Pierce too. This leaves us with DJ Mbenga. A strong big dude who also can defend a little, so which bench would you pick? Advantage: none.

What I’d Say: It’s tough, because I can live with either of them winning it all. It’s simple: may the best team win. I hope it goes to seven games, and with the Celtics having home court, that last game will be amazing. But to make an actual statement and referring to the title of this particular blog: Lakers in six.