The most shocking television moment of May sweeps didn’t involve Terry failing to make the final two on “Survivor,” the gang finally escaping on “Prison Break,” a model opening a suitcase without mugging for the cameras on “Deal or No Deal,” or even Jack Bauer never realizing that he could just play the Logan/Henderson tape on somebody’s voicemail at CTU.
Nope, the shocker happened in Game 4 of a spectacular Mavs-Spurs series. With 3:30 remaining in overtime, Tony Parker missed a little bunny to tie the game. DeSagana Diop snagged the rebound and swung it to Devin Harris, who shifted into fifth gear like somebody activated a jet pack on his back. Even though four Spurs had a head start on him, Harris roared past them like a Kentucky Derby horse. Wooooooooooooosh. Not even TNT could keep up with him; Harris went coast-to-coast so abruptly its midcourt camera couldn’t move right to left fast enough.
And maybe TNT missed Harris’ layup, but no true basketball fan missed its significance: After 13 up-and-down years, the NBA finally found its way again. Teams are scoring. Teams are running. Teams are attacking. The product works. It’s as simple as that. Not even the cameras can keep up.
Just three years ago, I wrote a column declaring that we would never again witness anything like Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, an epic battle that featured two transcendent rivalries (Bird-Magic, Celtics-Lakers), nine future Hall of Famers, two deep benches, dozens of fast-break baskets, three separate altercations (including McHale’s famous clothesline) and four of the uniquely great offensive players in NBA history (Kareem, McHale, Bird and Magic). Both teams attacked whenever they could and took quality shots on nearly every halfcourt possession. Throw in a storybook ending in overtime (Bird nailing a turnaround over Magic for the clinching hoop) and you couldn’t ask for a more hard-fought and entertaining basketball game.
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As I argued in the column, the league peaked as a product that day. Over the next two decades, overexpansion (which eliminated roster depth) and skyrocketing salaries for younger players (which eliminated their incentive to keep improving) inadvertently diluted the quality of play. Michael Jordan’s meteoric rise spawned a generation of copycat superstars who valued one-on-one basketball over team play (with none of them possessing his all-around game). The success of the Bad Boy Pistons and Riley’s Knicks inadvertently spawned a wave of defensive teams, which slowed games down, limited possessions and pulled the clutch-and-shove routine with elite offensive players. And worst of all, fast breaks went the way of tight shorts, Converse high-tops and wispy mustaches — teams weren’t running enough, and when they did run, their open-floor instincts were so rusty they ended up looking like a bunch of middle-aged guys floundering in a Tuesday night pickup game.
The whole mind-set needed to change. For me, the low point happened after Game 3 of the Detroit-Boston conference semifinals in 2002: I still remember leaving the Fleet Center after a hideous 66-64 Celtics win, slinking from the building with everyone else, feeling mortified that the sport had been bastardized to that degree. We were supposed to celebrate … that? Really? When the Americans crapped the bed in Athens two summers later, embarrassed by less talented countries who understood the value of the slash-and-kick game and moving without the ball, that was another seminal moment. We were headed in the wrong direction. That much was clear.
Two years later? Devin Harris shows up four Spurs and a TNT cameraman. And it wasn’t the play itself as much as the symbolism involved: Harris never hesitated, not for a second. He attacked. Maybe the cameras couldn’t keep up, but eventually, they will.
So how did we get here? It would be easy just to credit the influx of talent over the past decade or so. The league hasn’t been this loaded since 1991, paced by an eclectic, compelling group of marquee players (LeBron, Wade, Duncan, Nowitzki, Kobe, Nash and Shaq, six of whom remain alive in the playoffs), with a wave of All-Star caliber players (Brand, Yao, Parker, Billups, Hamilton, Arenas, Carter, Marion, Ginobili, McGrady, Pierce, Garnett, Artest and others) and rising young stars (Hinrich, Howard, Paul, Anthony, Bosh, Stoudemire and others) to complement them.
But that’s not that answer. After two depressing playoff seasons (2003 and 2004) sent casual fans scurrying away, the league made a conscious decision to change the overall mentality of the game itself. And this wasn’t like Lorne Michaels running an occasional “SNL Digital Short” to make it seem like “Saturday Night Live” was still hip; this was an honest effort by the NBA to change the dynamic of games and make them more appealing to watch. Here’s how they did it:
1. They sped up the game by giving teams only eight seconds to get the ball over midcourt and resetting the shot clock to 14 seconds in certain situations (after a foul, a kicked ball, an illegal defense, and so on).
2. They started whistling players for the shoving/grabbing/clutching/mugging crap that had been plaguing the league since the Riley/Daly days (I still think Riley should serve some prison time though).
3. They cracked down on flagrant fouls — almost too much, actually — allowing players to attack the rim without worrying about being splattered against the basket support.
4. They relaxed the illegal defense rules, allowing smaller teams to use soft zones and to double-team scoring threats more easily (also allowing teams to play more scorers at the same time, since they couldn’t be as much of a liability defensively).
5. Referees were ordered to allow moving picks as long as the player setting the pick didn’t stick a knee out to trip the defender.
The last one was an unannounced, under-the-table rule change that Team Stern will deny in public to the death, much like Marcellus and Butch always will deny what happened in Maynard’s basement with Zed and the Gimp. But it happened. I have more than 200 games on DVD, including just about every relevant game from 1984 to 2004, and players were never allowed to set moving picks before last season. They had to approach the dribbler, come to a full stop, and remain still as the dribbler made his move. Watch an old Jazz game some time — remember how Stockton and Malone were considered the masters of the pick-and-roll? Well, the Mailman held those picks every time. He never moved. If he did, they whistled him.
Now? You don’t have to stop — you can run over, pretend you’re setting a high screen and basically careen into the defender. You can pretend to stop and continue moving your feet to sideswipe the defender as he’s stepping around you (a Tyson Chandler specialty). You can even set a screen, make a 180-degree turn, chase the defender, then clip him with a moving pick a second time (a Yao Ming classic). All of these moves are legal in a wink-wink way. Boris Diaw raised it to another level — instead of setting the screen on Nash’s defender, sometimes he runs next to Nash, then quickly cuts toward the basket and “accidentally” picks off Nash’s defender at full speed, almost like a wide receiver cutting across the field and picking off someone else’s cornerback.
I know this all sounds mildly confusing, but the high screen has become the single most important play in basketball. Four teams execute it correctly (by bending the fake rules that aren’t actually in place): Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit. Gee, what do those four teams have in common? And while we’re here, if you ever wondered how Steve Nash played for eight years and never even made second-team All-NBA, then became a two-time MVP in the blink of an eye, it wasn’t just because of his hair and his skin color, or because he found a coach who understood how to build a team around him. Nash took advantage of the aforementioned rules that made penetrating guards just as valuable as reliable low-post scorers (as we’re seeing in this year’s playoffs with Nash, Wade, Harris & Terry, Parker, Hinrich, Billups, even an old-timer like Sam Cassell).
Thanks to those rules, SmallBall has taken over the Western Conference playoffs this spring. Avery Johnson realized after one game that Dallas could beat the Spurs only by playing two point guards (Harris and Jason Terry) and exploiting San Antonio’s shoddy perimeter defense; eventually, Gregg Popovich had no choice but to go small himself (even Big Shot Brob is riding the pine). The Suns-Clips series turned into a splendid SmallBall contest in Games 4 and 5, with the notable exception of the Chris Kaman parts (it’s simply the wrong series for him, something Mike Dunleavy will probably realize around Game 12). Coincidentally — or maybe, not coincidentally — these have been two of the most entertaining and electric playoff series of the decade.
Which raises the million-dollar questions …
Is this where we’re headed? Are teams better off building for SmallBall over a conventional style? If you can play only five players, and you don’t have an above-average center on your roster — which most teams lack, by the way — why not just play your best five guys regardless of position?
For instance, last summer’s most important signing turned out to be Raja Bell, a much ridiculed move at the time. Remember? Twenty-five million for Raja Bell? What was Phoenix thinking? Actually, they were thinking that he’s a great defender who makes 40 percent of his 3s. Perfect for them. So they started pursuing him on midnight, July 1, then overpaid to make sure they got him. Ten months later, he looked like an absolute bargain even before he saved their season Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Zydrunas Ilgauskas contract (four years, $55 million) would have been fine in 1998, but it’s a roster killer in 2006. Much like in real life, you can’t survive with slow big guys anymore.
Just look at this year’s draft. As recently as three years ago, LaMarcus Aldridge would have been the first pick, because, after all, you always take a good big man first, right? Not this year. LSU’s Ty Thomas (a Marion-like forward) will be the first pick, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Aldridge and Adam Morrison (another player who would have been more effective five years ago) will drop out of the top three, whereas Brandon Roy (Washington’s outstanding shooting guard) and UConn’s Marcus Williams (yes, the Laptop Guy, as well as the only elite point guard in the draft) will end up going higher than people think (and doing better than people think). In the old days, you needed a franchise player to realistically contend for a title. Now? You need two penetrators (including an alpha dog), three or four shooters and two guys who can rebound and protect the rim. That’s it. Just ask Phoenix.
It’s a different world. Suddenly, Chris Paul and Devin Harris have more value than Chris Bosh and Andrew Bogut. Suddenly, a max contract for Ben Wallace doesn’t make quite as much sense. Suddenly, Kirk Hinrich’s ceiling has been raised from “multiple All-Star” to “potential three-time MVP.” Suddenly, expensive, shoot-first point guards like Baron Davis and Stephon Marbury are untradeable unless you want someone else’s junk back. Suddenly, you would be committed to an institution if you drafted Rafael Araujo over Andre Iguodala, and you would throw a three-day long party if Jameer Nelson fell to you at No. 20. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem smart to trade Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler and two lottery picks to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett with about 98,000 miles on his odometer. Suddenly, a team like the 2006 Dallas Mavericks can win an NBA title.
Back in April, I predicted the Mavs would lose to Detroit in the Finals. Now? I’m reconsidering. Can the Pistons really match baskets with the Mavs? How does Ben Wallace have an impact guarding Nowitzki 20 feet from the basket? Who does Rip Hamilton guard? Can the Pistons keep pulling that whole “fat cat” routine — they assert their dominance one night, then relax the next, and they’ve been doing it since late January — against a team as explosive as Dallas? And could the Mavs really end up becoming the first team to win a title solely with outside shooting since the ’73 Knicks?
I think they can pull it off. In the meantime, let’s kick back and savor a new era of professional hoops. Tuesday night, the Clips rallied from 19 points down in Phoenix by playing SmallBall and out-Phoenixing Phoenix (which should have happened from the opening tip, of course), eventually blowing a three-point lead with a foul to give and 3.6 seconds remaining in overtime, then losing a borderline Stomach Punch Game in double-OT. (Have I mentioned that Mike Dunleavy is coaching this series with both hands wrapped around his neck? I mentioned that, right?) But it was a phenomenally exciting game, and sometime during the night, I realized that this was the eighth or ninth ESPN classic-caliber playoff game of the spring. This can’t be an accident.
So maybe it’s time to recant my “There will never be another game like Game 4 of the 1984 Finals” proclamation from three years ago. Maybe there won’t be another game with that kind of star power. Maybe Kareem and McHale would have sprung for 60 a night against these gimmicky small lineups. Heck, maybe McHale would have been imprisoned for what happened to Rambis nowadays. But Game 5 of the Clips-Suns series was nearly as dramatic, Game 4 of the Mavs-Spurs series was almost as well-played, and with the way these playoffs are going — you have to go back to 1993 to find a spring with this many high-caliber games, and we’re not even in Round 3 yet — there’s an outside chance that one of these games could rival the famous Game 4 in every category but “Hall of Famers on the floor.”
One thing is for sure: I’ll be watching. As Devin Harris proved on Monday night, with the New-And-Improved NBA, you never know what you might miss.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.