I think this is the season when the NBA, against all odds, has pipped to baseball to become my new favorite sport. I just have so little interest in the product MLB is producing these days, with its pinball ballparks, steroid-hairshirt sportswriting, and lying, profiteering owners, agents, and players. It doesn't hurt that the local nine, for the first time since I moved to Colorado, have become irrelevant even before the Nuggets' season ended.
So I have been soaking up the basketball playoffs. I haven't been as bothered as many about the officiating. Since I haven't been that big a basketball fan for that long, I view the referees as I would umpires -- mostly doing their best at an impossible job, occasionally giving into the pressure of the moment or a flare of ego but on the whole way less than you or I would. The way basketball is called nowadays, the way the league wants it to be called, doing even a C-, 70% job as an NBA ref is an inhuman task. And, deep down, I'm old school. I like the implication: Don't like it? Shut up and practice your free throws.
I love when teams lose in the playoffs because their bigs (or any of their guys) can't make their free throws. I get to give my Rick Barry speech. The best story of this playoffs for me has been the emergence of Dwight Howard as an A-list superstar. How fun is he to watch? He smiles all the time! He's huge, he can throw it down from a standstill right under the basket, he gets 20 rebounds sometimes. And in the playoffs, he's been making his free throws, a wholly new phenomenon for the big man. If he starts missing in the finals, he's gotta call Rick.
The Eastern Conference finals were fun because it was like watching one ideology crush another: Stan Van Gundy's single-post offense vs. Mike Brown's no-switching, no-rotating, all-hustle defense. Brown stubbornly refused to stop playing a frontcourt rotation with at least two guys who could never in a million years cover Rashard Lewis -- for the entire series. It was like watching a little windup toy bash into the wall, over and over and over again. If Brown had gone small, put LeBron at the 4, actually let his point guards handle the ball a little, and let James abuse Lewis off post-ups (or just run past him, since The King apparently is too noble to approach the basket butt-first), the Magic never win the series. But nope, eventually that windup toy is going to break a hole right through that wall. Maybe when they go to the 11-game series.
The Nuggets put on a good show but ultimately gave in to the Lakers, who waited until the last minute to click as they often tend to do. After last season's playoffs it's odd that it was the Cavs, and not the Lakers, who seemed on a mission up until the conference finals. (Although observe what happened to Cleveland.) With the amount of scoring talent Los Angeles has, it can be frustrating to watch guys like Odom and Gasol play lackadaisically. At times it seems their guards -- Kobe is the least of the offenders -- ignore the bigs, but then again even when Derek Fisher plays crappy, he plays crappy hard. Gasol and Odom in particular drift through games at times, even in the conference finals. That seems unlike the behavior of a championship team.
And that is how the Finals will go -- the Lakers will certainly win if they get the maximum output from their talent. Orlando is a versatile team with a creative offense, but they're not as good as L.A. if Kobe, Gasol, and Odom romp on them for 70 points and 30 rebounds, as they are all fully capable of doing no matter what Orlando tries to do to defend them. The Magic don't have a second big capable of guarding Gasol when Phil Jackson goes big, unless Marcin (The Polish Hammer) Gortat mutated into O.G. Ben Wallace while no one was looking.
Of course, for Phil to put Gasol at the 4 Andrew Bynum has to be effective, not picking up quick, stupid fouls on D-12. That is not as easy as it looks -- Howard has his own atmosphere. There's a double-edged Kobe factor as well. He's clearly on a mission. That could mean that he averages 50 a game for the Finals and the Lakers sweep, but it also could mean that Shannon Brown could miss a couple of open jumpers and Kobe could snap him over his knee like he just struck out swinging on an 0-2 slider. He's been known to freeze out teammates in the playoffs or refuse to shoot or otherwise psychologically freak out before, and clearly the pressure's on him now more than ever before -- LeBron has surpassed him and will get teammates sooner or later and Carmelo and Howard and Wade are all post-Leap and hungry to eclipse him. If the Lakers drop Game 2 at home and then Odom has a classic Lamar Odom in the Fifth Dimension 1-8, 4 rebound game in an ugly loss in Orlando, we could see the first ever mid-Finals trade-him-or-me demand from the Mamba. You never know where the Mamba will strike next!
I don't know what I will watch after basketball is over. Maybe the Royals. We drove out to Kansas City for their opening series against the Yankees, not the first game but the second two of the three-game set. I'd never been to the stadium before they redesigned it this offseason, but it's a small gem. No bad seats, very good fans. There's not much they can do about the extremely unimpressive outfield panorama short of moving Kansas City physically in space like the island from "Lost."