May 09, 2010
It's probably safe to say that NBA followers, both the credentialed and uncredentialed kind, respect the San Antonio Spurs more than any other franchise.
And not an admiring sort of respect, though there is plenty there. No, it's the sort of respect that you have for a horror movie's main villain, when you see him laying in a pool of his own blood, right before noticing that the DVD player is telling you that you're only 49 minutes into this particular movie. Nobody's rooting against the Spurs, and few house any particular sort of enmity for the team as you would a movie villain, but most aren't ready to write off the team until the NBA itself tells them that they have to go home.
The Spurs are down 0-3 to the Phoenix Suns right now, and despite a first round exit last season, its status as the West's seventh seed this year, and not having won a title since 2007, this team is still feared. Poll your buddies, track the Twitter, ask around: I'm sure a healthy chunk believe that if any team was to fall behind 0-3 and roar back to take the series, it would be these Spurs.
That's not hyperbole, either, because your typical 64-win powerhouse wouldn't fall behind 0-3 in a series to start with; unless it is up against a 72-win powerhouse. And that's certainly not a slight against the Suns, who have played the best basketball in the West for months now.
It's just a sign of respect for San Antonio, the franchise that deserves it. The one that was probably one three-point play away from taking another ring in 2006, or a Derek Fisher(notes) jumper (though a dispirited San Antonio team had its chances in that series following Fisher's make) away from grabbing one in 2004. And I don't think we're over-respecting, there, not when the team was so highly regarded during those particular seasons.
You're supposed to take these things one game at a time, but somehow today's Game 4 doesn't feel as crucial, and that an impending Game 5 does feel like the truly important turn. Perhaps that's us respecting to a point that flies beyond logic again, but we also know what tricks the brain can play. And how you can't fight human nature.
Because the inevitable let down from Phoenix is San Antonio's biggest ally, at this point. It's hard to beat any NBA team four times in a row, and it's incredibly hard (in spite of what you might tell yourself, your teammates, or the press) to head into a fourth game up 3-0 with the same sense of urgency that sparked up in the previous games. Not even the 72-win powerhouse could do it. Against a team that cared, at least.
That's important. Those 1996 Bulls did sweep a playoff series, against the Orlando Magic, but that Magic team had more or less packed it in by Game 4 (while also dealing with myriad injuries). Against the more dogged Seattle SuperSonics, however, the Bulls fell short in Game 4 by 21 points.
Without being in the locker room, I still don't see it a stretch to assume that the Spurs haven't packed it in. And as much as I respect what Phoenix has done this year, I also remember the Spurs being up double-digits for a healthy portion of the first half on Friday night. I know that Goran Dragic(notes) will probably not go off for 23 points again in the fourth quarter (unless it's a blowout, actually. Could you imagine him pulling that off, again?), and that Jason Richardson(notes) (37 percent from long range on the career, 39 percent during the season, 58 percent in the series) has to fall back to earth at some point. That's the logical angle.
The angle that has nothing to support it, save for watching decades of playoff basketball? A cornered animal is a dangerous one, especially when up against a hunter that knows that it can still get its prey on Tuesday night, in a much easier setting.
Sunday's Game 4 is not a given, not with Phoenix's strengths and San Antonio's frailties likely to sustain. But it could be the first step in a pretty interesting comeback story.
The switch in levels of respect for the Boston Celtics - from a cable TV station telling us that Cleveland's season could be more or less kaput by 10:30 on Friday night, to just about everyone writing Boston off by the crack of dawn on Saturday morning -- was abrupt, and jarring, and it had very little to do with how the C's played in Game 3.
Cleveland won that game. A couple of times, probably; and while the Celtics showcased their holes, it was Cleveland's flip-switching that made the difference.
When Cleveland, and more specifically LeBron James(notes), cares? It dominates. And there's just not a lot Boston can do about it, save for hoping for a series of block/charge calls to go their way, or to try to get into the penalty early in a few quarters.
It's simple analysis, but I'm not dodging other points to tell you that Game 4 will be all about effort. If Cleveland comes in with that "we only came to get one, and we got it on Friday" attitude, then the C's could make this a best of three with two to play in Cleveland. Not the most ideal situation, but one that isn't too far removed from how things started in Ohio eight days ago.
And if the Celtics falter? If they make excuses, play the martyr, whine to the refs, and generally act as Rasheed Wallace's(notes) Pistons did from 2005 to 2008 in deciding games? They'll fail. And it will be embarrassing to everyone but them.
So pay attention. We've seen these scenarios before, but that hardly takes away from the intrigue.