Thursday, March 27, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Heading into April can only mean one thing: the end of the regular season is coming closer and closer. Sure, some people say it’s springtime, the sun will be shining and our lives will be filled with joy and beautiful girls in nice, short skirts and tanktops. I like women, I truly do, but in the month of April my mind is only thinking about one thing: the NBA playoffs.

And I’m not sure if I think this every year, but damn these last couple of weeks have been exciting, and the good thing is: it can only get better. In the east you are wondering who will get the final spots; the Nets and Hawks are battling to have fun against the Celtics in the first round, but they also have to deal with a pesky Pacers posse (got beat in New Jersey on Wednesday, may try again when the Nets visit on Friday) who still have dreams to make it. In the West you can’t even predict who will end up first to eighth place. Imagine being the Denver Nuggets, smelling blood especially now that Dirk Nowitzki is out for at least a couple of weeks for Dallas (they just beat the Mavs a couple of minutes ago, as I'm writing this). And will Golden State grab this opportunity to move up in the standings?

The 76’ers have been on a tear lately, climbing up in the standings, so even in the East it’s tough to predict what will happen. In the West the Hornets are playing so well, that if they do end up in first place, I’m pretty damn sure that every so-called analyst didn’t have that back in his prediction last fall. This team deserves a lot of credit, and while a lot of people are talking about Chris Paul as MVP, coach Byron Scott is a frontrunner for Coach of the Year. If the Hornets don’t take that first spot, the Lakers might, unless Kobe gets more T’s and start to miss games because of that. They don’t have Gasol (might return next week), they don’t have Bynum (who might return….?), so no Kobe at this time in the season would be disastrous. I can’t predict what will happen, except that I will check the standings daily, watching who will move up, or who will turn up on “Inside the NBA”, in the “Gone Fishin’” segment.

It’s changing on a daily basis, different teams finding themselves in different places, players with sweat on their faces, asking themselves: who is the greatest?

(forgive the lameness-factor of those last lines, but my guess is that if Kanye West would put that down as his lyrics, he would get away with it. Me? Not so much)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shaq to the Future

“Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk.”
If someone doesn’t recognize these lines I can understand that. You either forgot about it, or might not be following the NBA since the early nineties. No problem, but go to Youtube, and check the Shaquille O’Neal Reebok commercial which always will be one of my favorites. Now that’s what I call an introduction for a new player, having your own sneaker commercial where Bill Walton, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar show up. Yeah, I remember that Larry Johnson one with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but let’s be honest here: that was a bit corny, and LJ, with his crappy back, wasn’t exactly what you would call one of the most dominating players of our time. But Shaq? Now he’s a guy who made you believe the hype, not Public Enemy.

I feel connected with Shaquille O’Neal. Now how can a 5-foot-11 inch fellow with arms white and thin like spaghetti, feel connected with someone who calls himself the Diesel? I know, it’s weird, but I do. It’s because we “started” at the same time. I saw my first NBA minutes on television during a Bulls-Blazers Finals game back in ’92. During that summer, I watched some of the Dream Team which immediately learned me about the greats of the game, and in that same summer the Orlando Magic drafted the next great when they got O’Neal out of LSU. So basically, when started his career I started to follow the League. And so the story continues.
In 1999 I finally had access to watch live NBA games on television, which meant I saw my first Finals games (well, first live Finals games) in June 2000. And that meant I saw Shaq win his first title, absolutely dominating throughout the whole season. He had his best statistical season and with all the talk going on since 1998 who was going to be “the next Jordan?”, the question should’ve been: “who’s the next most dominating player?”, because the answer was simple. The man was unstoppable, so it hurts me to see what’s been happening in recent years.

Look, Shaq is in his sixteenth season. He has won four titles, seen it all, dealt with everything that has been happening while being hacked by lesser opponents, acknowledging that the only way to stop him was to foul him. Hard. As a team it was important to have a couple of stiffs on the bench who could go in and make 6 fouls on him and get back to the bench for the rest of the night. But the last couple of seasons Shaq is always hampered by foul trouble. You can’t tell me that a player of his calibre, with his experience, doesn’t know how to stay in the game. It’s a game of guards and small forwards; the rules have changed, and therefore the League is screwing every big man who actually can call himself a center (not those Al Harrington types who are forced to play center). Defense isn’t a priority anymore in the NBA, and the centers who try to alter some guards shot, easily gets a foul called against him. I don’t think Pat Riley used him well either, putting him often in the wrong position on defense, asking him to step in every time when someone attacks the basket, which nowadays is almost immediately a foul for the defensive player.

Now that he’s playing for the Suns, I was hoping times would get better for Shaq. And after seeing him playing against the Spurs last Sunday, I believe he’s feeling better. Active on both ends of the floor, still being able to run, and of course one of the highlights of the season: the dive. But the Suns aren’t winning enough (however, they did win three in a row as of this writing), so the media once again is scrutinizing O’Neal, saying it’s his fault while it’s easy to understand that it probably will take ‘til the end of the regular season for everyone to adjust. Give him time to let him show you some of his old self, because all he wants to is getting another ring in the very near future. That would make it his fifth, a handful. Which makes sense in a way, because he is still a handful too.