Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Friday NBA Playoff Kibitz

Each Friday throughout the playoff season, GQ's guest blogger Bethlehem Shoals and fellow hoop-head David Roth, a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal and The Awl, team up for a wide-ranging, savant-level dialogue about the week's action and the games ahead. Click here for Volume 1.

David Roth: RIP Orlando Magic. I'm not feeling especially cheated at the prospect of not getting another round of Dwight Howard. I'm aware that he is, at the very least, a more effective rebounder and dunker than I am, at least at this stage in my career. But he's also a cocky beefcake-milquetoast who does nothing at all to make his teammates better or add aesthetic value to a game. Also, for reasons I can't totally explain, I take it personally that Howard is so bad at shooting free throws. And I hate him laughing at his crummy Stan Van Gundy imitation.

Bethlehem Shoals: I can't believe you're saying all this about the only man besides Michael Jordan to win both the Defensive Player of the Year award and the slam dunk contest.

Roth: And I can't believe that Nate Robinson never won Defensive Player of the Year.

Shoals: What makes Howard so frustrating is that, really, a player that athletic should provoke some strong response in us. Stromile Swift and Sean Williams could make us pop up out of our seats. With Howard, as with Derrick Rose a lot of the time, the level of athleticism is both cloying and mundane. It's good to see them building out more of a game from there, but at times it feels like the human race being conquered by space monsters. You're not really going to be marveling at their technological innovations while they're burning down Manhattan, and as it burns, you're not going to spend the whole time crying or running. There's going to be a lot of sitting around, trying to eat and sleep, and wishing the aliens would go pick on Paraguay.

Roth: So, the Grizzlies. They have been covered in this space, but I find them fascinating and harrowing to watch, if not exactly much fun. Although I do find it amusing that I barely knew some of Memphis's guys were in the NBA, and I kind of follow this stuff pretty hard. I remember Sam Young from Pitt, but 1) had totally forgotten about him and 2) still think his name has some NBA Videogame With Copyright Issues vibes on it. He might as well be named Player 31. The rest of the Grizz are similarly mysterious to me. Such as Darrell Arthur, for whom I wrote about 200 rookie cards when I was working at Topps, and then promptly forgot about. And I like Hamed Haddadi fine, but he looks like someone/everyone you'd see at a Dead Meadow show. All beardy and kind of checked-out and distractable.

Shoals: Anyone on the Grizzlies could be a folk hero, and I mean that in the most earthy, unimaginative way possible. I don't feel bad about that generalization, because they're just that: A blanket statement, but one that somehow doesn't involve picture-perfect teamwork or even much in the way of men-crafting-lodges chemistry. Also, I can't decide if it helps folk heroes to be flawed, or just kind of crappy, both of which would work in the Grizz's advantage. They turn over-compensation into a badge of honor, and as good as they've been without Rudy Gay, they'll be better, and far less grotesque, with his shooting and slashing. The question is, what will be lost? The Grizzlies have made it seem like anything is possible in this first round; maybe it's only for the viewers, but even the doomed teams can grab onto a scrap of that and use it to their advantage. The Grizzlies have ennobled the Sixers, whose avoidance of a sweep may have been the feel-good hit of the playoffs, and the Nuggets, who remembered that if they burned down the arena with both teams inside, then only the survivors got to win. Out of respect for Chris Paul, I won't put the Hornets in that category. I'm not sure how the Pacers fit into this, either.

Roth: Yeah, I'm still a little too sad about the end of the Chris Paul: Special Victims Unit (featuring Aaron Gray as Det. Werewolf and Carl Landry as The Chief) to go into that right now. And the Pacers were a Sixers, not a Grizz/Hornets crypto-success story, I think. Although the Pacers are maybe more like the Nuggets—lots of good players, surprising and admirably offbeat style, but not quite good enough to beat a really good team. (Also, a commendable attachment to type: Denver likes people with tattoos on their throats, Indiana likes clean-shaven white guys who breathe exclusively through their mouths)

Shoals: Maybe I'm partial to Philly, and I may be blatantly contradicting something I wrote earlier about Indy and the value of exposure, but I think the Sixers—especially Jrue Holiday—won a lot of people over. Maybe that's it. For the Pacers, it was an important commodity. We know who they are now. The Sixers had players that most casual fans were dimly aware of, but this wasn't just a chance to see them (being forced to, even). It was a solid argument for why we SHOULD be watching Philly for a long, long time. In Indy's case, it was good for the brand; with Philly, it was good for us.

Roth: As someone who lived for the Nets' one playoff win per season when I was a kid, I know how good it is, and how much it means. That one win is worth so much to fans, and can be worth just as much to the team's image. And Indy and Philly needed that currency so badly. It means that much more when, suddenly, you are no longer Team Despair. Not that Philadelphia fans will or could ever be happy, or would know what to do if they were.

Shoals: Jrue Holiday helps a lot. From a structural standpoint, having that kind of point guard makes zany wings like Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala a lot more palatable. All of sudden, they fall into line; they make sense. It's like in the olden days, when teams would build around centers, except from the outside-in, and with implications for other players that don't just involve a lot of passive gawking. Holiday also taps right into the part of the brain designed to geek out over point guards—he's got that level of control that allows him to take what otherwise might count as risks. That's one thing in a scorer, but when a player does that with the entire team at his disposal, it's one of those rare times when responsibility is bad-assed. I also wonder if the Sixers, and Holiday in particular, didn't benefit immensely from being matched up against Miami. Aside from all the obvious drawbacks that come with watching the Heat these days, the Sixers are also more likable because they do have a point guard. There's a sense of purposes that proceeds from there, one that couldn't be further from Miami's half-court offense.

Roth: Yeah, that's what it keeps coming back to for me with the Heat. I don't like the moody-black-and-white-Nike-commercial brand, I don't like the cornball grievance-farming or the studio-gangsta woofery on the court or a lot of the rest of it. But mostly I just hate their style of basketball. All these grunty isolations are not a good look, and they're no fucking fun. Not to get into rosterbations when there's still a lot of basketball yet to be played, but I wonder if they couldn't flip Bosh for a real PG this offseason. But I also wonder whether that'd make a difference. All those ball-stoppers are probably going to lead to a lot of stopped balls ("pause"—Kenny Smith) no matter what.

Shoals: We need to stop complaining about the Heat so much. Or at least start complaining about our need to complain. Because that is certainly their fault, too. Meta-suck.

Roth: Aesthetic AND ontological-theoretical bumout.

Shoals: I keep trying to figure out whether the lack of interest in the Heat, after all is said and done, has allowed for this season to be so awesome (more room for other story lines) or makes the awesome season all the more surprising (since we've had major stars, media time, and televised games wasted).

Roth: If it kept the freaking Magic off the air a few times, I'll take it. I don't need to see Fred Durst, Rep. Allen West and Donald Duck in the front row high-fiving every time Dwight Howard accidentally makes a free throw. That's what nightmares are for.

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