MIAMI – Maybe it’s a tribute to the greatness of the NBA’s talent, the cult of personalities, that these playoffs could be celebrated for an epic opening without an epic moment from LeBron James(notes) and the Miami Heat. Wisely, the Heat have drained the drama out of the season except for the most important thing of all: the championship chase. LeBron and Dwyane Wade(notes) wouldn’t come to the podium with issues between them, only a Flat Stanley cutout to pose for a photo per the request of one of LeBron’s kids.
James still gets the business for his diva act, but that dissipates with the passing of time. Most of all, it no longer dictates the narrative of the sport. This is how James talked on Monday: He climbed into the air, reaching to the rafters to catch a pass and crashed down on these Philadelphia 76ers with a devastating dunk and a deliriously dominant performance. As the Boston Celtics promise to expend extraordinary energy to beat the New York Knicks, the Heat are methodically working on a sweep of the 76ers.
As the scout of one team with championship aspirations said of the Heat this week, “The way they’re playing now, it’s going to be really hard to get four games off them.”
From James to Derrick Rose(notes), Chris Paul(notes) to the surging Memphis Grizzlies, the opening days and hours of the long NBA playoff grind have been the perfect balance of brilliant individual performance and beautiful team basketball. This first act has been as good as basketball’s ever seen and no NCAA tournament could ever match the height of performance and improbability. For all the political issues in the commissioner’s office, give the NBA this: Talent is king, not the campus emperor coach. No one pretends they’re molding men or playing for the love of the alma mater. The hypocrisy gets shed when you walk into the NBA, left behind on campuses and in summer shoe camps. This truly is survival of the fittest, and the sport’s playoffs amplify like nothing else.
Nevertheless, there are genuine undercurrents running through the league in this postseason: labor and officiating. And, yes, each takes its root in the office of NBA commissioner David Stern.
Within hours of Monday night’s games, the NBA issued a statement of the stupid: Its referees had missed an egregious offensive interference call with about a minute left in Oklahoma City’s Game 1 victory over Denver. The NBA fined Portland coach Nate McMillan $35,000 because he did what coaches have been trained to believe is the proper response to one-sided officiating: Complain publicly, absorb the fine and expect the attention it brings to balance the calls next game.
These aren’t angry coaches responding with rage, but angry coaches responding with calculation. This is how business works in the NBA, how teams believe the league office reacts to public embarrassments. There’s always a belief that pressure from the commissioner’s office – spoken, unspoken, whatever – can tilt things back into your favor.
Open your email inbox on Monday and a high-level NBA team executive has sent you a link to a website called www.refcalls.com. The message is clear: Look how lousy our refs are. Look how much they miss. Again, the NBA turns on itself like no other sport. From owners to players, coaches to officials, everything is constructed to blame someone else for why you didn’t succeed. Everyone’s so suspicious of everyone else’s motives, so unwilling to pull together and sell the greatness of the game.
And watch these games within games in the playoffs. There’s an element of young stars in the NBA unhappy with union chief Billy Hunter for coming out so publicly against the owner’s collective bargaining proposal of rolling back current contracts – as well as future earnings with reductions that could bring salaries down 20 to 25 percent. The young stars nearing their turn to get their first max contracts – such as Rose and Russell Westbrook(notes) – have something in common with players like Dwight Howard(notes) and Paul nearing their second max deals: Why shouldn’t the stars under long-term deals take a hit too?
As one prominent agent said, “If the young guys have to take a haircut on future earnings of, say, 20 percent, why shouldn’t that be shared equally by LeBron and Kobe and those guys who already have their deals? Billy isn’t going to have the support of the younger guys if he doesn’t address this.”
Nevertheless, this is the fight the owners wanted, because they can’t get out of their own way. The lockout is looming on June 30 and there’s a good chance a full season of NBA basketball could be lost. Despite the incompetence of so many ownership groups and the management teams they install, business is booming because of the monumental talent on the floor. There goes LeBron James into the air, and Derrick Rose into a crowd and Kobe Bryant(notes) on a fade. For all the backstabbing and jockeying and pollutants, the one true thing seldom disappoints this time of year. The basketball. The performances are peerless and so are the politics of those forever trying to corrupt it.