The 82 game regular season Marathon has been run. But unlike old Pheidippides who, in 490 BCE, collapsed and died after racing 26 miles with the glad tidings of who made the NBA playoffs (a little tidbit of history not widely disseminated by the Athenians), NBA players from 16 teams are girding their loins and slapping on their armor, preparing for the wars to come.
Wars, indeed. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, there is a hard slog ahead for the eventual survivor with victory the product of playing the game at an elevated level, ratcheting up the intensity so that each possession takes on an importance far beyond anything experienced during the regular season.
We have the Greeks to thank for all of this, of course. They may not have invented basketball, but they invented everything else that goes along with the NBA playoffs. Holding their Olympics once every four years meant that when they actually got to the time of the games, excitement was at a fever pitch. In short, if the Greeks didn’t invent the sports hype, who did? ESPN are pikers compared to to the Athenians in that regard.
The whole culture of sport and glorification of sports heroes can be traced to Hellenistic tradition and civilization. It sure wasn’t the backward Europeans who believed that Bocce ball was a sport and that life was hard enough without expending energy and calories in useless competition. Our European ancestors were much more interested in taking a promising athlete and making him into a knight, bred and trained to fight the petty little wars that dominated the continent for a 1,000 years prior to the Rennaisance. Even after that, the best they could do was give us tennis – an interesting game only if one of the Williams sisters is playing.
The Olympic tradition died in 393 CE when Theodosius I (it is rumored) lost a ton of money betting on some kid from Mykonos to take down a bull of a champion from Athens in the wrestling competition. Actually, the Byzantine emperor outlawed all pagan rituals and places of worship (including personally ordering the burning of one of the biggest libraries in the world in Alexandria that unfortunately was part of a pagan temple complex) thus ending 1200 years of continuous game playing and sports frenzy in the western world.
Having revived the hype of the games if not the spirit, America now boasts a society absolutely drunk with a love of sport. As a uniting expedient for American cities, pulling various factions and cliques in our communities together in order to root for the home team, they have proven to be wildly successful. As a metaphor for the best our society has to offer, not so much. Professional sports is a grubby business and the less than perfect athletes along with their insufferable sports agents (not to mention a scandal obsessed media) has taken much of the sheen off the beauty of human competition on display when the games are played.
Be that as it may, there are few more intrinsically exciting times in sport than the playoffs. And the most watched, most closely followed post season after the NFL are the superior athletes who play the NBA game.
Sixteen victories to glory. Sixteen wins will be necessary to win what, in recent years, has truly become a World Championship. Last October when the season began, 83 players from 37 countries joined their American teammates on NBA rosters, making the NBA a global phenomena. The reigning Most Valuable Player, Steve Nash, was born in South Africa and grew up in Canada. The worldwide television audience for the playoffs will surpass any professional sporting event save the World Cup soccer broadcasts.
As far as the competition, most observers give only 3 or 4 teams a realistic chance to win it all. The Dallas Mavericks had a wonderful season, going 67-15 and had several long winning streaks. But they were pressed all year by their Western Conference rival, the San Antonio Spurs who proved to be equally dominating at times during the season. Also in the mix for the Larry O’Brien trophy are the Phoenix Suns and perhaps the best team from the Eastern Conference, the Detriot Pistons.
For Dallas, it begins and ends with their hugely talented forward Dirk Nowitzki. The German born 7 footer scored nearly 25 points and hauled down 10 rebounds a game during the regular season and is capable of taking over and dominating a contest with his inside and outside shooting. Then there’s the dynamite guard Jason Terry and his dead-eye shooting touch. Averaging more than 18 points a game, Terry hits at a phenomenal 44% from the 3 point arc – a deadly weapon that the Mavs use to perfection if the opposing defenses start paying too much attention to Nowitzki. Filling out the roster of stars is forward Josh Howard who has developed into a an offensive force and a defensive stalwart on the boards.
Even though the Mavs made it to the NBA Finals last year, they have had a history of going down to defeat in the early rounds of the playoffs. Whether those days are behind them will largely depend on how well they play defense against the fast, aggressive teams in the West who will challenge them for the right to play for the championship.
And perhaps no team is faster, more aggressive, or more explosive than the Phoenix Suns. Featuring MVP Steve Nash and a host of offensive weapons, the Suns are capable of running any team off the floor and out of the arena¬†on any given night. Averaging 110 points per game during the regular season, once they get their dynamo of an offense in gear, they have proven almost impossible to stop.
But the playoffs is a time when defense can dominate. The officials tend to call the games a little closer and teams will more often place as much pressure as possible on the ball hoping to generate turnovers. And if it’s defense you want, look no further than the San Antonio Spurs. Giving up a stingy 90 points a game, the Spurs may be getting a little long in the tooth with several players over 30 (significant when one considers the grind that the playoffs can be) but they feature one of the game’s best players in Tim Duncan and a superior backline of Tony Parker and Michael Finley.
Can any team from the Eastern Conference compete with these juggernauts? The East has been beastly this year with the Detroit Pistons being the only squad that was able to stay with the titans from the Western Conference. But the loss of their all-NBA defensive player Ben Wallace to the Chicago Bulls via free agency seems to have made them into a quite ordinary crew and only the most optimistic of Pistons fans are picking them to win it all.
The team that survives this second season and who wins through to victory will have been tested beyond endurance. And like Pheidippides starting off on his immortal run, the road ahead for the eventual Champion is long and full of peaks and valleys. But the reward for this Herculean labor- a kind of immortality not vouchsafed ordinary people – is thought to be well worth the effort by these, the finest athletes in the world.
Rick Moran is “a 52 year old libertine from Algonquin, IL. and a “freelance writer with more than 15 years experience in grass roots political action.” He is also a man with a serious basketball habit and the chief warden and inmater of Right Wing Nut House.