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The Playoff Eclipse Chronicles

The Sports Guy lived to tell the tale of six playoff games in 75 hours, with a street-closing bike race thrown in for good measure

You’re gonna write about this, right?”

Someone asked me that during halftime of Sunday night’s Clippers-Spurs game. We were in the home stretch at that point: In the previous 74 hours, the same spot in downtown Los Angeles had somehow hosted six playoff games, two elimination games, two doubleheaders and an allegedly important cycling race. If that wasn’t enough, we also witnessed a solar eclipse and Antonio Cromartie’s controversial halftime orgy with the Clippers dance squad. I only made one of those things up.

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m definitely writing about this.”

“What’s your angle gonna be? Just about going to all the games?”

“I only went to five of the six, but yeah.”

“You should just lie and say you went to all six. That would be a good column.”

“I can’t lie, people saw me on Saturday night. I wasn’t here.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

The person thought about it for a second. And then …

“I don’t know anyone who went to all six. But in a couple of years, I bet a lot of people will say they did.”

It’s a great point. People love fibbing about fan-related stuff. Eight years after the Roberts Steal changed Boston sports history, 83 percent of the swollen Red Sox fan base claim they were in Fenway when it happened, and even better, that they never left to beat the traffic (even though so many others did). Every city has a handful of “I was there!” sports moments like that. You hear someone claiming to be there, you want to believe them … but you don’t totally believe them. Hitting L.A. Live for six playoff games over the course of four nights? Harder than it sounds. You need connections. You need money. You need to be single.

Or, you need to be me. From this point forward, I’m just going to start claiming that I attended all six games. (And what an incredible weekend it was! I can’t believe I went to all six games!) Nobody was happier about last weekend than AEG, the company that owns Staples Center and its surrounding real estate. A few years ago, that once-downtrodden area was improbably transformed from a collection of hideous above-ground parking lots to the perpetually happy “L.A. Live,” a multi-block complex featuring dozens of offices (including Grantland’s headquarters), restaurants, bars, the Nokia Theatre, a mammoth JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton, an obnoxiously big movie theater, bowling (that’s right, bowling!), and enough parking to handle upwards of 35,000 people at the same time. You couldn’t ask for a better host for consecutive doubleheaders, simply because it’s such an underrated place to waste time.

My favorite L.A. Live story before last weekend: A few months ago, a Kings home game at Staples Center started at the exact same time as a Wiz Khalifa concert at the Nokia Theatre, inadvertently creating the single funniest swarm of congestion that’s ever happened. Let’s just say there wasn’t a ton of overlap between the two fan bases. That story got supplanted by my new favorite story about L.A. Live, which happened Saturday during the first of two doubleheaders: Two of my friends caught the Clippers-Spurs game, then found themselves with three hours to kill before the Lakers-OKC game. Hmmmmm … three hours … MOVIE!

They checked out movie theater times and found a perfect window to see The Dictator. So they walk over to the Regal Cinemas, buy tickets, sit down … and who do they see in another row killing time like them? That’s right, Jimmy Goldstein, the stylish millionaire who sits courtside for seemingly every NBA playoff game, wears colorful leather jackets, sits next to long-legged blondes and always looks like he just smoked the biggest bowl on the planet. You know, this guy. Did Jimmy bring one of those long-legged blondes to The Dictator? Of course he did! I’m anointing this L.A. Live’s greatest moment ever, narrowly edging former Grantland editor Lane Brown ordering a cobb salad from The Farm of Beverly Hills for 38 days in a row last summer.

Actually, the entirety of last weekend was probably L.A. Live’s greatest moment: At various points on Sunday, they had a bike race, a playoff hockey game, a playoff basketball game and a crew of people setting up for Tuesday’s American Idol finale. Tell me when that’s ever happening again. Their biggest mistake was not branding the weekend properly. When L.A.’s 405 freeway was shut down last July for two days of repairs, you might remember that weekend being panic-nicknamed “Carmaggedon.” The locals worried that the ensuing highway traffic apocalypse would turn Los Angeles into The Walking Dead or something.

You know what actually happened? That moniker alone scared people off the roads, inadvertently creating the best summer driving weekend of the decade. In all my time living here, that remains the only time I ever topped 100 miles an hour on the 10. I loved Carmaggedon and wish we could run it back right now. More important … great name! And that’s what last weekend was missing. Ten years from now, it’s harder to remember something clunky like “That time they had six playoff games in four days” over something corny but memorable like “L.A. Alive” or “The Playoff Eclipse.” I’m partial to “The Playoff Eclipse” because, again, I’m almost positive we won’t see another American city host six playoff games in 75 hours during the same weekend as a solar eclipse. If you can beat it, feel free.

Looking back, one weekend story line stood out over the others, but that shouldn’t stop us from ripping through all of them for posterity’s sake. On Thursday night (Day 1), the Kings throttled the Coyotes and moved within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals. My daughter was happy because her favorite player, Anze Kopitar, scored a breakaway goal, dominated the game and did a bunch of Kopi things.1 In general, she loves attending playoff games because “the fans are louder” and “everyone tries harder.” (Look out, Shaq, I think someone is gunning for your “Master of the Obvious” title.) She really loved the last two minutes, when Phoenix couldn’t pull its goalie because the Kings were pressuring them so relentlessly. As it happened, the long-suffering Kings fans were standing, hollering, waving white towels and practically shattering the glass with their approval. It was all kinds of awesome. Every time I get worried about burning out on sports after four solid decades of giving a crap about total strangers, I find myself caught up in a moment like the last two minutes of that Kings game — when you’re embedded in the heart of 20,000 people basically losing their shit — and you think to yourself, Oh, yeah, that’s why I do this for a living. What a game.

The drama kept coming on Friday night, when the Lakers rallied in a must-win Game 3 to squeeze past a clearly superior Oklahoma City team. Any conspiracy theorist could have predicted the chain of events down the stretch: Kobe did a few Kobe things; the officials shifted into “we need this series to last longer than four games” mode; the Lakers sank an incredible number of free throws (41 of 42 in all, although it felt like 141 of 142 as it was happening); and the young Zombie Sonics squandered the pivotal possession of the game (and learned a valuable lesson for the next night). Actually, this deserves its own paragraph.

Trailing by one with under 20 seconds left, Durant drew a double on his drive and dished to a wide-open Serge Ibaka (bad move), realized his mistake and crashed the boards as Ibaka was mid-brick, retrieved the rebound, went right back up with a second shot and got belted to the ground. No call, game (effectively) over. Durant spent the next few seconds crumpled on the ground in disbelief, his freakishly long arms wrapped around his freakishly long legs, as Kendrick Perkins berated the offending official with one of those “How could you not call that? I know you saw it! You were right there!” sneers on his face. That’s my enduring memory of that game. Sometimes in the NBA, it’s just not gonna be your night. Let’s leave it at that.

I had brought my buddy Geoff (visiting from Sonoma) to this game, which doubled as his first Lakers game ever. Other than being totally fascinated by Ron Artest — not just his ongoing insanity from play to play, but the fact that Laker fans screamed “Noooooooo!” at least three different times when it seemed like Artest might take a shot at the wrong time — Geoff was begrudgingly impressed by the passion of Lakers fans, saying simply, “I didn’t think they’d be this loud” and admiring their collective confidence in Kobe.

And that’s a crucial point: Even if Kobe’s overrated crunch-time efficiency can be picked apart in about three seconds, when you’re sitting there in Staples, you always feel like he’s going to come through. He carries himself like that will happen, and really, so do Laker fans. I can’t handle what happened in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals for a variety of reasons — most notably, the fact that the Celtics blew the title — but letting Kobe off the hook was my second-biggest regret. After Kobe single-handedly shot the Lakers out of that game, the Celtics only needed to score a couple of times in the third quarter to steal a title that, again, Kobe was gift-wrapping for them. Trust me, I was there. The fans were catatonic. You could practically hear them recalibrating Kobe’s legacy in their own heads. Then the Celtics started missing shots, the Lakers kept crashing the boards, the game swung their way, and Kobe did just enough in the final eight minutes to make everyone (sort of) forget the first 40. Their confidence in Kobe Bean Bryant never wavered again. It’s just one of the many reasons why I hate going to Laker games. If you were a Boston fan, would you want to willingly enter a world in which Kobe wears a superhero’s cap, everyone wears yellow and “I Love L.A.” blares after every victory? I didn’t think so.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t enjoy Game 3. Was it the second straight superb sporting event of the Playoff Eclipse? (Gritting my teeth.) Yes.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon just 14 hours later, another 20,000 fans piled into Staples to watch the Spurs erase a 24-point lead and beat the Clippers comfortably. Read that last sentence again. (Hold this thought; we’re coming back to the Spurs later.) The Staples staff hustled everyone out, turned the arena over, burned some sage to get rid of Donald Sterling’s aura, then reopened the doors for Game 4 of the Lakers-OKC series. I skipped this one because of an event for my son’s preschool, because I couldn’t stomach being around Laker fans for a second straight night, and because I couldn’t afford to get divorced. And not in that order.

Just my luck: I missed the night when the increasingly confident Laker fans — who had watched their team steal enough close games that they couldn’t help but start thinking, Maybe there’s something going on here — got snookered by a double-digit lead, then unexpectedly stomach-punched by their sudden collapse. They’ll deny this now, and they’ll say stuff like, “I hate watching this team” and “The moment we got screwed out of Chris Paul, I knew this wasn’t our year.” Don’t believe them. If the Lakers were beating Oklahoma City, they needed help along the lines of a “in 24 hours, we can tie the series at 2-2 before they even know what hit them” level. And they knew it.

Of those six Staples games, this one had the biggest big-picture ramifications: not just Kobe stubbornly shooting the Lakers’ lead away, but Durant and Westbrook continuing to drift away from their once-dangerous Stringer/Avon dynamic. As we creep toward the Finals, you start looking for contenders with defined identities, which is what makes Oklahoma City so interesting. We know what the Zombies are at this point: They’re going to thrive because of chemistry, athleticism, interior defense and shot making — in that order — but without Westbrook accepting those occasional “I was the best player tonight and the biggest reason we won, but Kevin made the game-winning shot and got all the attention” nights, the whole thing could collapse.

That’s why Saturday was encouraging. Westbrook played an absolutely breathtaking game, but when the time came for Oklahoma City to plunge that final dagger into the Lakers’ season (and, quite possibly, the entire Kobe era), Durant grabbed the honors with a soul-crushing 3 that almost seemed preordained. Move over, Kobe, there’s a new sheriff in town. It was a moment that had been brewing for years, no different than MJ’s Bulls finally toppling Magic’s Lakers or Isiah’s Pistons finally toppling Bird’s Celtics back in the day. Sometimes, the laws of NBA history demand that these things play out in a specific way — and on Saturday night, Durant needed to make his 3 right before Kobe missed his. That’s just the way this shit works. Just know that it couldn’t have happened without Westbrook.

Somehow this wasn’t the coolest moment of the weekend. Could we keep the momentum going on Sunday? The morning started off with an off-putting vibe because of the aformentioned bike race, which spawned a Carmageddon-like panic because it shut down so many of the morning’s traffic routes. Kings fans were urged to show up three hours early and to even — gulp — take the subway to be safe. Personally, I would rather drive my car through the bike race and pancake some of the cyclists than take the L.A. subway. Fortunately, my special L.A. Live parking pass enabled my daughter and me to circumvent the traffic, park, grab brunch AND watch the first wave of cyclists fly by toward the finish line.

This ended up being one of my favorite father-daughter moments in a while. We stood in front of The Farm for 10 solid minutes waiting for the leaders as my daughter — becoming more and more excited by the second — fired questions at me like a district attorney. How many riders? How fast do they go? Do you think they’ll have an accident? We heard the sound of police car sirens in the distance, as well as a helicopter hovering over us, then those same police cars started ripping by us, then people were cheering, and really, I think my daughter was expecting something totally awesome to happen … and just like that, a bunch of skinny guys pedaled by us. It was over in five seconds.

“That’s it?” she asked.

“That’s it.”

There was a pause.

“That sucked.”

“I tried to tell you!”

“Why would they close the streets for that?”

“It’s a great question.”

Another pause.

“Dad, that REALLY sucked.”

In retrospect, this wasn’t the greatest omen for the Kings game. My daughter jumped on their bandwagon this season after we bought Kings season tickets, quickly embracing them and the NHL in general. (This is a whole other column.) If you remember, my beloved Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years just a few weeks after she was conceived, so I wasn’t even a little surprised when she turned around the unlucky Kings and made them a contender. (Note to Cleveland and Buffalo: We’re accepting bids on her baseball and football teams.) During their improbable-but-not-totally-improbable-because-it’s-hockey playoff run these past few weeks, she was probably the Kings’ most confident fan, if only because she didn’t know any better — she only knew the recent numbers (the Kings won 10 of their first 11 playoff games) instead of the historical ones (in 44 years, they only made the NHL finals once).

And on Sunday, she was taught the following sports lesson: Never assume anything. Everyone thought the Kings would roll over Phoenix like they did the previous three games, so when things started shifting the other way — a sketchy call against the Kings, a Coyotes power play goal, Smith out-playing Quick — the crowd panicked and eventually checked out altogether. You couldn’t blame them; they were bitterly disappointed. As the third period limped along with the Kings trailing by two, my daughter vainly tried to get a few “Let’s Go Kings” chants going, then turned around and yelled in frustration, “What’s the matter with everybody?” At that point, I knew we’d be driving home with her in tears and me repeatedly explaining to her that the Kings had three more chances to make the finals (which is exactly how it played out). Little kid sports fans are the best. They really are.

Four hours later, I returned to Staples one final time to watch the Clippers get swept by the Spurs. At this point, all the games felt like they were blending into each other — my head hurt, my back hurt, my voice was scratchy and my concentration was totally shot. Playoff games are simply too intense; they weren’t meant to be experienced as a series of events in rapid succession — you know, like Coachella or something — especially because we aren’t allowed to do drugs in the stands. And had it been any other basketball team but the Spurs for that sixth and final game, I would have zoned out and said fewer words than Ryan Gosling did in Drive.

But that’s the thing — if you love basketball and (more important) love watching basketball played correctly, the 2012 San Antonio Spurs have a way of grabbing your attention. They play beautifully together. They pull for each other. They make each other better. They score so easily, and in so many different ways, that you almost can’t even process all the different plays as a whole. On Saturday, they eviscerated the Clippers by scoring 24 straight points in the third quarter, bringing back memories of the ’86 Celtics dropping 25 straight against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The biggest difference: The Spurs did it on the road. The biggest similarity: Everything else.2

You don’t score 24 straight points because a couple of your guys caught fire. It happens because you’re toying with the other team. It happens because you’re getting so many good shots in a series that, occasionally, they end up clustering together and forming something special. It happens because you know you’re great, and because great teams have a way of smelling blood and finishing opponents off — but also, you’re doing it with a little extra flair because you’re competing against the ceiling of what you can achieve (not your opponents). The last NBA team that said to itself, “We’re playing for something beyond just a title here” was the 2001 Lakers — the best Shaq/Kobe team, as well as the last time those two guys were fully invested in each other’s success. It hasn’t happened since. It’s happening right now, it happened at Staples Center, and it’s going to keep happening through next month’s Finals (and yes, they’re going to win, barring an injury).

Beyond the creative brilliance of Parker and Ginobili, Popovich’s superior coaching and Duncan’s undeniable rejuvenation on both ends — just three months ago, he played the Clippers on one leg, passed up the chance to post up Caron Butler in big spots and made me mutter the words, “Man, I hate seeing Duncan like this,” then something shifted for him, and now, he’s playing his best basketball in five years — it’s the chemistry of the 2012 Spurs that leaves you breathless. I know, that’s a weird thing to write. How can chemistry leave you breathless? But in person, the little things stand out — you know, teammates feeding off each other, bench guys reacting to big plays, players always making the extra pass, guys constantly talking to each other, even simple moments like Duncan gleefully congratulating Danny Green after Green stopped Chris Paul at the end of Game 4. Duncan wasn’t happy that Green came through for the Spurs; he was happy for Green as a friend. Big difference.

And once you build a foundation that strong — when guys aren’t just teammates but friends, when nobody looks at their numbers, when everything revolves around the question, “What’s the best way to win today’s game?” — everything else is cake. On Saturday, the Clippers played their best possible basketball for the first 12 minutes, nailed the Spurs with every conceivable haymaker and had their fans standing and screaming. You couldn’t have scripted a better first quarter. The Spurs never flinched, chopping the lead to 15 and eliciting the first of many panicked Clippers timeouts. Watching the Spurs and their bench reacting to that moment (totally locked in, totally expecting the Clippers to cave), you could just tell where the game was going. I even tweeted about it. Great teams know they’re great. They trust the process. Scores don’t matter, crowds don’t matter, momentum doesn’t matter — eventually, the process will win out. And they know it.

The following night, they staved off another Clippers rally and took a three-point lead with 1:47 to play on Parker’s pretty floater, only the 790th easy shot San Antonio had gotten in those past two games. Lob City called a 20-second timeout and Layup City skipped over to its bench to celebrate what just happened. Duncan led the way, a small grin spread across his face, doling out dorky high-fives and generally enjoying himself. That grin said the following four things:

We are better than them. I couldn’t be less worried. This game shouldn’t have even been this close. Let’s go home.

A few minutes later, they did. And so did we. Over everything else that happened during the Playoff Eclipse, I will remember the San Antonio Spurs waltzing through town, laying the smack down and leaving with a smile.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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