May 11, 2009

Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs! Playoffs?

This year's NBA playoffs have taught us a number of things:

1) This is NOT your father's NBA.

In fact, this ain't even your sister's WNBA.

It's a shame these refs weren't around for the early stages of Enron, because their whistle-blowing would have saved public investors millions. A tongue flap gets a T, a hip check gets a flagrant-1, and an "Artest" on the back of a jersey gets a flagrant-2. The extraneous whistles and penalties have been so rampant this postseason that even Rajon Rondo has been painted as a thug.

I have yet to watch a game without at least one technical foul and one flagrant foul. In fact, most games have had ejections and been surrounded by league investigations. In years past, playoff refereeing has been heavily scrutinized; but mainly by losing fans who are attempting to blame their teams' shortcomings on inconsistent whistles or home cooking. This type of bellyaching has taken a backseat in 2009 as inconsistency has not been the problem. 2009 playoff referees have been consistently temperamental and borderline paranoid. It's as if the hangover from "the brawl" in the Palace has hit stage 4. "Playoff fouls" are a distant memory, and uncontested layups are the new black. Kevin McHale just rolled over in his lottery grave.

2) Rajon Rondo is good.

Just 11 months ago, the Celtics were said to have won an NBA Championship in spite of Rondo. Fisher was a roaming double-team while Rondo was left free to operate. While he made the Lakers pay on occasion, Rajon mostly looked like a deer in the headlights, like a teenage boy afraid to swoop for the goodnight kiss with Dad in the window.

Now we've got this terror, this unbridled mess of chaos and beauty. His foot quickness is in an elite class with the Parkers & Harris', and his hand quickness is rivaled only by CP3. Only Ason Kidd is a better rebounder from the point guard spot. His athleticism is criminally underrated (see this), and he has to be the lankiest 6-footer to ever suit up in Celtics green. His decision-making is remarkable considering the speed with which he plays the game; his assist-to-turnover ratio is a filthy 4:1 in the playoffs.

To truly understand his coming-of-age, one need only look at his playoff averages thus far: 18 ppg, 10.5 apg, 9.5 rpg, and 2.5 spg. On a team with three future hall-of-famers (albeit only 2 are playing), Rondo has been the most valuable player. He has been the glue holding together this fragile team that is clawing and scratching to stay alive. Not bad for a 23-year-old.

3) Ron Artest is even crazier than we had imagined.

Any man willing to throw punches at tipsy fans (in the stands, nonetheless) probably has a chemical imbalance. Ron once flirted with premature retirement to pursue a rap career. He has faced charges of domestic abuse and his jekyll & hyde personality creates priceless soundbites with every interview. Before the 2009 playoffs, however, we haven't gotten this level of coverage, this level of observation.

Artest started off this playoffs manning budding star Brandon Roy and called him "the best player I've played against"... outside of some guy named "Mike" from Queensbridge that went to jail at the age of 15, naturally. When asked by Craig Sager, Artest didn't back down from his asessment when asked if Roy was better than Lebron or Kobe (and you wonder why Kobe has taken this series' battle so seriously?). Artest capped the interview by calling Charles Barkley "a bit overrated."

In the second round, Artest got thrown out of consecutive games (although the second toss-out was a complete joke). His interview after game two was another seesaw battle between sanity and insanity. Ron nonchalantly made the transition from his team's clean play to the kid who was stabbed to death by a leg of the scorers table. Just when you thought things couldn't get any more random...

In my opinion, Ron's lunacy is what makes him so lovable. With the micro-policing of playoff referees, he adds spice and keeps fans on the edge of their seats. I used to think he was a hard-nosed player with bull-like strength (years with the Bulls). Then I thought he was merely a harmless self-promoter who idolized Dennis Rodman (note his promotional shoe campaign in the '04 All-Star Game). Finally, I thought he was in the midst of an identity crisis (failed pursuit of a rap career). Now, I think he's a combination of all of the above. Above all, he's entertaining and gives his team a better chance to win.

4) The NBA, where repetitive ad campaigns happen.

I've always thought of the NBA as the most innovative & progressive league in professional sports. From international expansion, to the NBA Cares campaign, to the "Green" campaign, the NBA has been a step ahead of its counterparts with regards to pop culture and globalization. While that opinion hasn't changed, I've been turned off by the "Where Amazing Happens" campaign. Last year it was new and interesting; this year, it's exhaustive and annoying.

My wife makes nightly alternative plans to avoid sitting through NBA playoff games with me. She has been quite successful in her elusiveness, but failed to plan appropriately the other night. In the waning moments of Game 3 between the Mavs & Nuggets, I caught her humming along to the piano bit in a "Where Amazing Happens" commercial. If the NBA is trying to create brand recognition, I suppose it's working. "The NBA: Where Dried Up Advertising Budgets Happens." How amazing is a slow motion layup by Jason Kidd?

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