Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Changing the guard

I just watched the Heat go up 2 games to none on the Celtics. LeBron absolutely razed the Celtics team to the ground with 35 punishing points, which was prefaced 2 days earlier by Dwyane Wade's 38 points, largely made on Boston's Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. On the other side of the East bracket, Derrick Rose was just awarded the MVP trophy - and at age 22, he's the youngest to ever win the prestigious award, whose ranks represent a brotherhood of superstars, legends and inevitably, Hall of Famers.

In the West bracket, stand the Oklahoma City Thunder and in only its third year of existence represent something of a stealthy dark horse candidate to win the title. The two leaders of the team, however, are anything but that; Russ Westbrook and Kevin Durant are their two young stars, who are the faces of their franchise and will, before long, be the faces of the league and ultimately, their generation.

I am writing this in front of the TV, as the Thunder play the Memphis Grizzlies; a young squad who just broke through the glass ceiling and took out Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs, along with their league-best record and 4 championships. Zach Randolph seems to be using the 2011 playoffs as a platform to show everyone that he belongs in the league's elite, rather in the dark basement where he has toiled after a run of youthful indiscretions in Portland, New York and Los Angeles.

And then there are the Lakers and Mavericks - while Dirk and Kobe will shoot it out for the next 6 or 7 games, everyone realizes that the key to the Lakers' victory is Andrew Bynum, a young 7-footer who's only roadblock on a career trajectory towards greatness has been his own body.

So as I think about the trends of this year's playoffs and what they represent, I find that over and over, my picks are wrong. I have picked the Celtics in 6 games over the Heat, despite no real evidence to support my guttural instincts. I never expected the Grizzlies to overthrow the 4-time champions. I surmised that the Mavericks would beat the Trailblazers, with their twenty-something stars in Wes Matthew, LaMarcus Aldrige and Brandon Roy. I have chosen the Lakers over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and while my predictions are obviously influenced by blind faith in something I have no chance of influencing, I can honestly say that regardless of my allegiances, I fully expect the Lakers to prevail.

I was born in 1984 and started watching basketball when I was 10. This was before the world wide interweb, and I knew the stars - Michael, Scottie, Hakeem, Patrick, Charles, Karl, Clyde - all guys that men my age could identify with only one name. But I became a fully-formed fan in the advent of the information age and of course, the players that were born with it - Kobe, AI, Shaquille, Ray, Garnett, Pierce, Nash, Duncan, Dirk, Tracy, Webber. These were - are - my guys. That is my NBA. They are the players that I knew when I learned what basketball was, how it sometimes is played and how it should be played. They didn't always display the right type of basketball values that my dad taught me, but overall, they personified the type of hustle, intensity and gamesmanship he told me a man should play with. They weren't always the most team oriented, nor did they say the right things or keep their personal feelings towards one another to themselves. But I can safely say that these guys were competitive. They only knew compromise for the sake of winning and would only do so if he felt it was on his terms. Victory was the only acceptable outcome - any of the guys I named would gladly shank someone for the chance to sniff a championship. And in some of their cases, they did just that. Metaphorically speaking. I think.

And that's why my picks skew the way that they do. Despite the age of Kobe, Garnett, Ray, Pierce and Duncan, I expect them to win. It doesn't matter that I can see drops in physical skills, whether it be the speed in their legs, the lift in their jump or the strength on the block. I can see that these young guys, some younger than me, are faster, stronger and just flat-out BETTER than Kobe, Garnett, Ray, Pierce and Duncan - and with the exception of Kobe, it's being proven as we speak. But I just believe that these guys - MY guys - are going to win because that's all I've ever seen them do. I can't help it. I have been inexorably attached to a group of men one generation removed from mine that I have no material connection to. Even as I write these words and look at these statistics, I still feel in my heart that the Celtics will pull themselves out a hole and win this series. Only 14 teams in NBA history have EVER done that. But I still truthfully believe it.

I was 6 years old in June, 1991. That's the year that Michael and Scottie and the Bulls beat Magic, Worthy and the rest of the Lakers for the championship. That was the championship season that changed the era - the very visible pivot that took the league in another direction. The NBA no longer belonged to Kareem, McHale, Parish, Isaiah, Dominique, Larry or Magic. It belonged to Michael, Scottie, Hakeem, Clyde, Ewing, Charles, Stockton, Malone and Robinson - and history shows that. Those men combined for 17 titles and 23 Finals appearances in the next decade. The guard changed. Someone new had come and whether the NBA, the fans or anyone else was ready for it, it happened in 1991 and the league never looked back.

Is that happening now? Is this the year that LeBron breaks through and wins the title? Could Kevin Durant go on to face the Lakers, Kobe and his 5 titles and raise his hand in victory, as Michael had done over Isaiah and the Pistons and Magic and the Lakers 10 years ago? LeBron and Wade, both of which have never known the feeling of champagne on their faces as the Celtics simultaneously put theirs into their hands, might finally understand that sensation.

If you look back on the last 30 years of the NBA, it seems to happen right around the decade marker. Magic's 1980 title signaled the beginning of his generation's reign, and the league's Golden Era. Until 1991, he was considered the greatest player ever to live. 7 years later, Jordan retired as the greatest ever to live and Scottie, Hakeem, Clyde, Ewing, Charles, Stockton, Malone and Robinson got old. Tim Duncan, today regarded as the greatest power forward to ever grace (never a more appropriate word) the court, won the title in 1999. Kobe, AI, Shaquille, Ray, Garnett, Pierce, Nash, Duncan, Dirk, Tracy and Webber took the baton and with 16 titles and 20 Finals appearances, it's their time until someone shows them that it is not.

Wade, LeBron, Rose, Durant, Westbrook, Randolph and Bosh are still in the playoffs. There could be 6 weeks left in the reign of my NBA. Or maybe Dirk, Kobe, Kevin, Ray and Paul will make it 58.

My guys are on borrowed time now. I know that. But I really hope my son is not asking me for my playoff picks from 2011 - just like I'm going to do tonight when I'll call my dad tonight and ask him what his playoff picks looked like 20 years ago.

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