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Thirty Questions, Part 2

With so much drama and so many subplots, we need some answers for the first round of the NBA playoffs

If you missed Part 1 of my Round 1 Burning Questions column, click here. Here’s Part 2 …

Q: Can we blame George Karl for the fact that every George Karl team falls apart in the playoffs?

Of course not. You can’t forgot that (a) the 2013 Nuggets overachieved, and (b) he was probably the biggest reason. And he’s been an inspiring human-interest story, to say the least. I don’t know anyone who isn’t rooting for George Karl.

With that said …

Karl’s teams have usually fallen apart in the playoffs, with three exceptions: the 2001 Bucks (screwed in the Eastern finals by comically one-sided officiating), 1996 SuperSonics (took MJ’s Bulls to six) and 1993 Sonics (lost in seven to Phoenix in the infamous 64-FT game). He’s lost in the first round 10 of the past 12 times. He’s one of two coaches who lost in Round 1 as a no. 1 seed (in ’94). He’s lost 34 of 53 playoff games in Denver. For his career, he has a .599 winning percentage in the regular season and a .424 winning percentage in the playoffs. He couldn’t make it work with three high-profile stars in their primes: Shawn Kemp, Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony (all of whom ended up leaving). He even presided over USA Basketball’s loathsome collapse at the 2002 World Championships.

And look, a lot of this stuff is circumstantial — you can’t hang it on Karl that he’s never coached a top-25 all-timer at any point of his career, that Shawn Kemp lost his marbles, that he’s had bad luck with officiating, even that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in 2002. Give him the 2000 Lakers or the 1992 Bulls and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have screwed things up. But there’s always been a myth that he’s one of THE best coaches, which just doesn’t hold water — a great example was what happened in 2009, when a quality Denver team was tied at two with a beatable Lakers team in the Western Finals, then inexplicably turtled in Game 5 and Game 6 (at home, no less). Historically, he’s on the same level as Rick Adelman, Don Nelson and other very good coaches who weren’t quite great. He never had his “Carlisle in 2011” or “Brown in 2004” moment. It just never happened. That has to mean something, right?

Q: What’s gonna happen with Dwight Howard and the Lakers?

In all caps with multiple question marks … WHO CARES????????? We’ll deal with the Dwightmare in another column.

Q: Whatever happened to David Stern cracking down on flopping?

I don’t know — I just know that Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher are the Torvill and Dean of flopping. Do they take weekly 10 a.m. flopping classes the same way my wife would take a spin class? How else can you explain this?

Q: When you’re a no. 1 seed and you’re doing Hack-A-Sik in Round 1, then sticking with it when it’s not working — to the abject chagrin of your players — what does that say about your title chances?

It says, “Everyone who believed Kevin Durant could potentially pull a 2007 LeBron and drag this team to the Finals by himself is sorely mistaken.” By the way, I was one of those people. I didn’t know if Durant could do it — I just knew I wasn’t ruling it out. Now? I’m ruling it out. Scott Brooks isn’t a good enough coach to improvise on the fly. That he keeps playing The Artist Formerly Known As Kendrick Perkins (they were minus-30 in just 25 minutes with Perkins in Games 4 and 5) was almost as bad as Hack-A-Sik.

And what the hell happened to Serge Ibaka? I had him earmarked for the top 18 in Part 3 of my Trade Value column (coming next week, I promise); now I’m trying to figure out a way to legally drop him backward 12 spots and take shots at him without violating the Geneva Convention. Hey, Serge, you can’t average 13 and eight with Westbrook and 13 and eight without him. You’re now the second-best player on your team. They traded James Harden and kept you. Remember James Harden? They guy who outscored Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb 31-3 in Game 5? That reminds me …

Q: If OKC could go back in time and take a mulligan on the Harden trade, would they do it?

Hold on, lemme think about this …

Give me one more second …

OF COURSE! OF COURSE! ARE YOU F-ING KIDDING ME????? You think this trade is anything other than Sam Presti’s biggest nightmare? For one thing, they overvalued what they got in return: Kevin Martin (one year of a good shooter and that’s about it, as well as someone with no big-game experience at all — as you’re seeing this round as he’s clanking 70 percent of his shots); Jeremy Lamb (the 12th pick in a nine-player draft); Toronto’s 2013 lottery pick (congratulations, you’re picking somewhere between 10th and 13th in the worst draft in 13 years); and Dallas’s future first-round pick (which better be first overall to make up for this debacle of a trade). They also overrated their inability to get a better deal in eight months — the confusing part for me was how much Oklahoma City loved what they got back — as well as Harden’s potential as a franchise player (you know how that turned out). They also gave away Western Conference pole position in 2013, violated the “never, ever, ever, ever, EVER trade a dollar for four quarters” rule (always a mistake), and left themselves unprotected for any injury to Westbrook or Durant (you know how that turned out, too).

But here’s the real killer: Even if you believe you had to trade Harden because you can’t pay him, you could have kept him through the 2012-13 season. He was making $5.8 million this year. There’s no better bargain than an All-Star on a rookie deal. And you’re trading that bargain a year early???? Huh???? When the trade happened, I wrote that the Thunder got too cute, out-thought themselves and squandered a potential dynasty in a prescient column headlined “The Harden Disaster” … a column that also featured the inadvertently hilarious subhead, “Not only did Oklahoma City destroy something beautiful, they just handed the Western Conference to the Lakers.” Whoops.

Just know that I hated that trade then, and I hate it even more now. This isn’t football. You can’t just keep playing the percentages like Bill Belichick does, and you can’t think in terms of “extending our window.” There might be 20 players worth a damn in the entire league. Oklahoma City had three of them. Now they’re down to one. The second is coming back next season; the third one is never coming back. I will never agree with what they did.

Q: If Vinny Del Negro and Scott Brooks played checkers for six straight hours, who would win?

I have Brooks as a -130 favorite. Not even Brooks would have played DeAndre Jordan and Ronny Turiaf at the same time in the second half of a must-win playoff game. Just don’t think Brooks is winning any prizes — you’ve seen with your own eyes how stagnant they are offensively, but they’re falling apart defensively, too (as Zach Lowe broke down on Grantland today). Can someone hold a table at Mickey Mantle’s in downtown OKC for Phil Jackson for the next three years, just to be safe?

Q: But seriously … what the heck happened to the Clippers???????

The micro problems: They don’t run plays in crunch time except for “Clear Out for Chris” or “Jack One Up, Jamal!” which is kind of a problem … they weren’t doing anything in the playoffs unless DeAndre Jordan became their crunch-time big guy, only Vinny never gave him those reps during the season … Chauncey Billups should have retired a year ago, only Vinny and Chauncey are the last two guys to realize it … Vinny relies on Jamal Crawford waaaaaaaaay too much, even though Jamal is the ultimate “if he doesn’t have it, get him out of there” guy … and they’re just not big enough, something that easily could have been addressed in February had they pulled off an ambitious mega-deal for KG and Pierce that was definitely on the table, only their organization has so many chefs in the kitchen that they couldn’t pull it off.

The macro problem: Even after they bring in another coach, they need to figure out how to mesh Lob City with the CP3 era. Because, right now, Blake Griffin and best friend DeAndre Jordan don’t love playing basketball with him — that was the worst-kept secret in basketball until T.J. Simers wrote about it last month. The young guys want to run. Chris wants to win. The young guys think Chris is condescending. Chris thinks they care too much about getting on YouTube. Blake feels like he gets frozen out of games late. Chris doesn’t want to pass to him because Blake can’t make free throws. Blake didn’t understand why Chris got input in last summer’s free-agent moves and he didn’t. Chris doesn’t think Blake works hard enough at defending high screens. Etc. etc. etc. They’ve uneasily coexisted these past two seasons, and these last few weeks it’s gotten rocky enough that they can barely hide it in their on-court interactions.

Could the right coach squash this crap in about two seconds? Of course. But that’s going to happen this summer … well after the Clippers blew their chance to make the Finals in a wide-open West because of that issue and about 10 other ones. What a shame. The 2012-13 Clippers season was like one of those big-budget movies with a phenomenal cast that just never quite got there. They were the Minority Report or Collateral of basketball teams. You’re damned right I just went double Cruise on you. Hey, speaking of my favorite actors …

Q: Why did Matthew Modine get mad at me this week?

Lemme set the scene for you. I’m watching Game 5 of the Knicks-Celtics series. They show the obligatory montage of celebs at the game: Woody Allen, Ben Stiller and Marcia Brady, John Leguizamo … and like always, I thought to myself, Come on, why can’t Matthew Modine get some dap! I’ve been a Modine guy for 30 years, ever since he made Private School (BETSY RUSSELL ALERT!) through Vision Quest (one of the most underrated sports movies ever), Full Metal Jacket (a pantheon Vietnam War movie), Pacific Heights (one of my favorite bad movies, and I mean that as a compliment), and the fantastic HBO movie And the Band Played On (which I loved so much that I once used its “What do we know? What do we think? What can we prove?” premise for an NFL column). And again, I LOVE Vision Quest. For this scene …

And this scene …

And especially this scene …

Anyway, I ended up tweeting this …

Two hours later, Modine fires back with this …

What the hell? I’m on your side, dumbass! I WAS COMPLIMENTING YOU! I’m on Team Modine! Now you’re going Lunatic Fringe on me? This is an outrage! Now I wish Chute had pinned you.

Q: What was Twitter’s best moment of Round 1?

Luol Deng’s Back off, haters, I missed Game 6 because of residual effects from my SPINAL TAP smackdown today. All we’re missing now is Chris Crocker filming a “Leave Lu Alone” video.

Q: What’s more surprising — Tim Duncan playing like this in Year 16, or Kevin Garnett playing like this in Year 18?

It’s a tie. And you can’t even put them on the I Need To See You Pee In A Cup Please All-Stars because both of them look exactly the same. Shit, Duncan lost 20 pounds last summer and looks like 1999 Timmy. Amazing. And by the way — KG’s 52-rebound binge in these last three playoff games, as well as his leaving-everything-on-the-floor performance in Game 5, was simply incredible and Classic Old-School KG. I loved it so much. Even if Kevin Garnett played only six years in Boston, there’s a 100 percent chance he’s getting his number retired there. He’s a true Celtic in every sense. So is Pierce.

Q: Can you hold it against Derrick Rose for not coming back?

Absolutely not. See, Gilbert Arenas affected the NBA in four ways …

1. He’s the first NBA star who tapped into the potential of connecting with fans on the Internet (with his groundbreaking Agent Zero blog). Then Twitter happened, and Facebook, and Instagram, and now we’re at a point where Kobe could run for president because he’s so good at social media. In fact, I think I’d vote for him in 2016. As long as he wasn’t running with Dwight Howard.

2. After he bolted Golden State for the Wizards, they named a rule after him — the Gilbert Arenas provision, which makes it easier for teams to sign their own restricted free agents who were second-round picks.

3. They also named three unwritten rules after him: “Don’t bet large sums of money with teammates during poker games on chartered flights,” “Don’t bring guns into the locker room for any reason,” and “Don’t give someone a massive nine-figure contract if you’re not positive he’s healthy.”

4. He’s the all-time “came back too soon” cautionary tale for anyone who suffered a major knee injury. Gilbert tore a meniscus near the tail end of the 2006-07 season, came back too soon, reinjured it in November, missed much of the season, came back too soon a second time, reinjured his knee in the playoffs, came back too soon the following fall, had a third surgery, and ended up playing 15 games total in two years. Make no mistake — he was NEVER the same.

Now? He’s a cautionary tale, the name that floats through the head of any player who wants to keep pushing himself to play, feels really good … but doesn’t totally trust his knee yet. Magic Johnson’s biggest professional regret is coming back too soon during the 1981 season. He knew his surgically repaired knee didn’t feel right, but as Magic tells it, you start feeling that pressure from every direction. Fans, teammates, coaches, the owner, you name it. And it’s not even intentional. Might even be something as simple as someone saying, “How’s the knee feeling?,” only they make eye contact for an extra second and you start thinking, Does he not believe me? You get in your own head. You feel guilty all the time. Your confidence is shaken. You can’t do the one thing that always came easiest to you. So you start pushing yourself to come back, tricking yourself, convincing yourself to feel a certain way. And that’s when you can get in trouble.

As Magic put it, When you’re ready, you know. If you’re wondering even a little? Then you don’t know. I think that’s where Derrick Rose is right now. He’s in his own head. He doesn’t totally trust his knee yet. His hammies still hurt. And yet … he feels horrible that he can’t help his team. So he’s vacillating, and fortunately, GILBERT ARENAS keeps flashing through his head in all caps. Over everything else, that’s Arenas’s real legacy. Nobody wants to be The Next Guy Who Came Back Too Soon.

Q: Does anyone out there still think the Celtics should trade Rondo and give the car keys to Avery Bradley?

That’s the craziest Round 1 subplot: As recently as two weeks ago, I believed Bradley, Tony Allen and LeBron were the league’s three best perimeter defenders. By Game 5 of the Knicks series, Raymond Felton had eviscerated Bradley to the degree that (a) Bradley’s offensive game fell apart, too; (b) Bradley lost the ability to dribble and cut; (c) Bradley kept letting Felton go right even though Felton goes right E — V — E — R — Y — S — I — N — G — L — E — T — I — M — E; and (d) Doc had to ride Terrence Williams down the stretch because Bradley was starting to look like the proverbial ninth-grader who had been promoted to varsity and completely fell apart in that first Friday-night game.

Celtics Fan Bill hopes Felton was just too wide and too strong for Bradley; that it’s just a lousy matchup for him, the same way Ali hated going against Ken Norton. Objective NBA Writer Bill wonders if Bradley was severely overrated, and whether his Round 1 meltdown might be a death blow for his NBA future. And Boxing Fan Bill can’t believe he just compared Avery Bradley and Ray Felton to Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton. Regardless, I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of Bradley for the rest of the series, unless Doc Rivers can rebuild him mentally before Game 6. That reminds me …

Q: Was Game 5 in New York the best game Doc Rivers ever coached?

Absolutely. One of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen. He used the first four games of this series to figure out who he could trust; by Game 5, he was down to KG, Pierce, Jeff Green, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Bradley … only he realized he’d lost Bradley midway through the third quarter, leading to the incredible Terrence Williams dice roll (which kind of worked!). He weathered the storm early (when the Knicks went up 11-0), stuck to the game plan (don’t let them get pull-up 3s, let them keep taking long 2s, push the pace when you can, don’t stop shooting 3s, careful of Felton’s lobs to Chandler/Martin), chopped his rotation and eked 83 minutes out of Pierce and Garnett. When Garnett was gassed midway through the fourth, he benched him for two crucial minutes, bought Boston just enough time, then got him back in there. And the players fed off his passion all game — you could see it. He’s a proud coach of a proud team that wasn’t ready to go home yet. I wasn’t always a Doc fan. This is an understatement. I don’t take back anything I wrote — not a single thing. But I also believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, and the fact is, Doc Rivers has coached nearly 1,200 NBA games at this point. He’s really, really good at coaching now. Any of my old issues with him (the big three: playing too many guys, not having a plan for defending high screens, not developing young players) were fixed years and years ago just by trial and error. The best four coaches in basketball are Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers in some order. He’s also an adopted Boston guy, someone who just gets it — gets the city, gets what the Celtics mean, gets everything. After the bombings last month, Rivers made the best points of anyone: that Boston wasn’t a city as much as a family, and that those bombers weren’t attacking the marathon as much as anyone who ever lived there. He was the right spokesman at the right time, someone who won more games for the Celtics than anyone other than Red. He earned the right to say something.

Quick tangent …

Like everyone else from Boston, I couldn’t get over the horror of last month’s bombing when it happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dead, and the injured, and the poor children who were unlucky enough to be involved. I couldn’t shake the fear that Marathon Monday had been ruined, that the race couldn’t function the same way, that Boston’s most sacred day had been forever altered. Deep down, I was thinking the same thing that every parent who ever watched the marathon from the finish line was thinking: That could have been me and my kid. You couldn’t help it.

But within a few hours, in the middle of all that grief and anguish and disbelief, something special started happening. Everything I love about Boston came bubbling to the surface. When the videos of the bombings started trickling out, you could see locals running toward the carnage instead of away from it. Stories of heroism started emerging, one after the other, more and more people who risked their lives to save others. A resilient attitude took hold: We’re having the marathon next year, and not only that, it’s gonna be the biggest one ever. To anyone who thinks they can mess with that … FUCK YOU. (Something David Ortiz tapped into perfectly with his delightful Fenway speech. This is our fuckin’ city.) This was Boston at its provincial best, the ultimate irrational confidence city, the people who kicked out the British once upon a time. When things turned surreal three days later — the shootouts, the lockdown, everything — the locals celebrated the end of the ordeal on Friday night, and then on Saturday at the Red Sox game. They drank and they cried and they cheered. The city was different, but stronger.

And if you knew anything about Boston, you knew sports would factor into the healing process. An emotional, crowd-fueled national anthem during that first Bruins home game helped, as did the “Hallelujah” tribute before that Saturday Red Sox game, and Daniel Nava’s game-winning home run, too. Like everyone else, I found myself hoping a depleted Celtics team would lift the city — because Pierce understood what that would mean, as did Doc, as did Garnett — but we learned quickly, and regretfully, that they were overmatched. Emotion can take you only so far. You need talent, too.

At some point during those first three games, our motives flipped. Just don’t let us get swept. That’s what everyone was thinking. Game 3 couldn’t have gone worse. The Celtics were creamed in front of an electric crowd that was caged for four quarters. Adding to the ignominy, Smith swung an elbow at Jason Terry’s face, decked him, got ejected and defiantly strutted off the Garden floor. He didn’t apologize. Even worse, none of the Celtics really jumped to Terry’s defense. They were being punked. Or so it seemed. And that’s how Can we pull it off? turned into Just don’t let us get swept.

Game 4 was magical. They didn’t get swept. They pulled it out in overtime, at home, with the two true Celtics leading the way. If that was their last home game, then great. Perfect way to go out. We won a title with those guys; we should have won two; we easily could have won three; we mattered for all six. No complaints. That overtime win was enough. We saved face. We were losing Game 5. Probably. There was no way … right?

(So why was I looking forward so much to Game 5?)

You know what happened next. They played 40 good minutes, then somehow held on for the last eight … which took about 10 hours. Every Boston fan fought off flashbacks of Game 7 in 2010, especially when the Knicks cut it to five. Then KG nailed a jumper and that was that. I usually feel dumb rooting for laundry. Not this time. No. 5 and no. 34 mean more than laundry and have for some time. We’re always going to remember those guys. They understand what it means to be a Celtic. They understand that Boston fans care about our teams a little too much, that it’s part of being from Boston, that it’s one of the few places in which the success or failure of the local teams actually affects the overall mood of the entire city. They understand that they aren’t playing in Boston as much as playing for Boston. Big difference.

The 2013 Celtics are trying to make history now, but really, they already did. They helped the healing process, helped people move on, helped people feel normal again. They’re Boston, strong. And tonight, 18,000 people will walk down that Causeway, hear those “Let’s Go Celtics!” chants on the way up the escalators, go bonkers during the inevitable Dave Roberts clip (you know it’s coming), and then they’ll cheer and clap until their hands are swollen and their voices go hoarse. Hundred of thousands will be watching on television in Massachusetts and the surrounding states, along with transplants spread across the country who’d give anything to be in that building.

I’m one of those people. I will be watching Game 6 from 3,000 miles away, living vicariously through a television set. Win or lose, this will be a great night. The Celtics are still alive.

Filed Under: Art, Events, General topics, NBA Playoffs, Sports

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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