I am suffering, for the second straight year, from playoffs-induced writer’s block. It seems to be something that grips a fairly large percentage of the Hardwood Paroxysm writers. It got to the point last season that Matt Moore upbraided us on the blog’s daily email thread, saying he couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed that we couldn’t find more to say about all the storylines going on or proud that we generally write about such weirdo backwaters of the NBA that we were flummoxed by the postseason and all the general media attention lavished on it.
I’d like to think it’s the latter. Much as it is for teams, the regular season is a nearly bottomless place for writers, where so many things happen that many fly by unnoticed. If one team has another team’s number on a given night, the tables could just as easily be reversed a month down the line. It’s how the Wolves can lose to the Spurs 104-94 in early February and then turn around and hang 107 on San Antonio while giving up 83 a month later.
But in the playoffs, the character of the games changes dramatically, and not just in intensity. Weird things happen in a seven-game series. Ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks about it. Their 67-15 season and #1 seed in the West ended with a 4-2 first round defeat at the hands of the 42-40 Warriors. Were they exposed, or just victims of chance?
Or ask a player like Jerome James. After averaging 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game for his whole career, he played 11 postseason games for the Sonics in 2005 where he averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Knicks promptly signed him to a 6 year, $30 million deal. In 2008 he played five minutes of basketball and made $5.8 million.
Or consider Nate Robinson in this year’s playoffs, where he went from sparkplug to starter. Last year he was on the Warriors. The year before that, he was an add-on in the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics to the Thunder to add size to the team. Chances are they weren’t after Nate. That was his second mid-season trade in a row, having been moved from the Knicks to the Celtics the year before.
But this postseason he averaged 16.3 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a PER of 15.8 for a Bulls team no one expected much out of without Derrick Rose. Having spent a good twenty minutes in a Chicago Bulls locker room while Nate held court and clowned, I know that in addition to knowing his team was depending on him, he knew his own personal price tag was going up with that tremendous display of grit and determination.
There’s a reason that some people only watch the playoffs. It’s some of the same reason that people say it’s only the last five minutes of a basketball game that matter. Storylines crystallize, outcomes hinge on a few crisp passes or one blown defensive assignment. It can feel for all the world like we’re seeing the real basketball at those moments, the best basketball.
But are we?
This year’s New York Knicks thrived in the regular season on a combination of relentless 3-point shooting (taking a league-leading 2,371 3-point shots and making them at a rate of 37.6%, good for fourth in the league) and small ball principles driven by Carmelo Anthony’s move to the power forward position. But in the playoffs, when the chips were down against the Pacers’ considerable length and defensive acumen, Mike Woodson went away from what had worked so well. He moved Anthony back to the small forward position and filled the paint with traditional bigs. This meant less driving room for J.R. Smith, who regressed to his worst shooting habits, and a sky-high usage rate of 37.7% for Anthony. They bowed out in the second round.
Were the Knicks we saw against the Pacers the true Knicks in some sense? They certainly weren’t the best Knicks, but then again, “true” and “best” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, much as we wish they would.
Of course, if you’ve been following the leading lights of the daily basketball writing world—people like Zach Lowe at Grantland, Dan Devine and Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie, Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver at Sports Illustrated, Zach Harper and our founding father Matt Moore at CBS’ Eye on Sports, or Henry Abbott and the other great minds at TrueHoop, just to name a few—you already know about the Knicks’ devolution. You already know about Scott Brooks’ failure to adapt or innovate in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. You already know how the Spurs frustrated and stymied Zach Randolph in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals. I mean, jeez: I just found out from Kelly Dwyer how the Memphis Grizzlies have a historically large number of left-handed players.
Trying to pull a good, overlooked angle out of the playoffs is a lot like being a good rebounder who’s 5’10” in a pickup game when a bunch of 6’4” guys show up to play. I know this because that’s exactly the guy I am. Rebounding goes from a matter of effort and determination to simply being physically impossible. As the number of teams gets cut in half, then in half again, then again, as the number of games on any given night goes from six to four to three to two to one, fewer and fewer things slip between the cracks of the hardwood.
But I love the cracks in the hardwood. Baseball diamonds don’t have cracks; football fields don’t have cracks. Whenever I watch those sports, I’m struck by how moments of play are always followed by moments of repose, by time to reset and prepare again. Basketball has those moments as well, but it also has a way of relentlessly piling things on top of each other, of collaging players and playsets and stats and patterns and then leaving it to all of us to pick apart and make sense of.
At least, it does in the regular season. As a fan, I love the playoffs. I love the wanton ridiculousness of them and the epic breakdowns and heroic comebacks and the way a series of games becomes a chess match of adjustments, an illustration of the way humans adapt and learn.
But as a writer, I might just love the regular season more, where the games stretch off into the distance. Where I can tell my wife the season is almost over—just 15 games left—and have her tell me, “That seems like a lot of games.” Where you can excavate meaning from meaninglessness, where some stats are valuable and other aren’t, where some storylines are short and others long. Where some things that seem very important for a few games can end up not being very important at all. Where the last week of the season for a lottery-bound team becomes an existential crisis. When it comes to the playoffs, I miss the inattentiveness, the corpulence, the slog, the torpor of the regular season.
The Conference Finals are upon us. The intensity is ramping up. It’s win or go home and that’s the reason everyone is watching this, the final five minutes of the NBA season. This is, after all, where amazing happens. I guess I just like when amazing plays hard-to-get.
Well, there’s always next year.