AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – With each Detroit Pistons three-point bomb, each blocked Cleveland Cavaliers shot, the number of witnesses dwindled, televisions across America clicking off in favor of lawn mowing, light bulb changing or sock drawer sorting – heck, anything. It was exactly what ABC and the NBA deserved.
In a most predictable fashion, producing a most predictably lopsided result, the Pistons annihilated the LeBrons here Sunday afternoon 113-86. It wasn't as close as the score indicated.
This was a surprise to no one but the television execs whose genius idea it was to once again rig the NBA's schedule. Instead of giving fans the best teams and the best games in the best television slots, they grasped at individual star power, sizzle rather than steak.
Detroit and Cleveland tipped at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday and not because the Pistons put up the best record in the league this year – "it wasn't us," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. No, it was LeBron James and LeBron James only.
Meanwhile, San Antonio, merely the defending NBA champion trying for its third title in four seasons, got to play fellow 60-game winner Dallas in the early game, which tipped off at noon in Texas. A thriller to the finish in the Mavericks-Spurs game was as predictable as an easy Pistons victory, and that's what happened. Too bad anyone west of the Mississippi had to skip church to see it in its entirety.
This is what you call backward scheduling by the worst kind of television execs, ones that either don't know or don't trust the game they are broadcasting. This was scheduling based on Nike commercials and highlight tapes, not quality basketball designed to best serve the fans' best viewing interests.
The NBA, a league which has rejuvenated itself by rejecting just that thinking and emphasizing team play over individual performances, should have known better than to allow it.
This is exactly how the NBA got off track in the late 1990s, believing not in the inherent entertainment value of the game of basketball – merely the fastest growing sport in the world – but advertising slogans dreamed up by its New York office. The marketers believed they were smarter than the consumers and overloaded the game with flash and fashion, anything for the individual.
The result was a diminished level of play as games deteriorated into a slowed-down, overly physical, one-on-one bore that only Pat Riley could love. Oblivious, the NBA kept trying to hype up the "Next Michael Jordan," fooling no one with a steady string of weak imitators.
The NBA's rep, in some quarters, has never recovered.
To David Stern's credit, he shifted gears; in deeds, if not in words, acknowledging the league had lost its way and that no one wanted to watch 24 seconds of one supposed star backing down another supposed star, no matter how cute the nicknames.
Stern, ever a hoops fan at heart, realized that it is the game that matters. Defensive rules were rewritten to encourage moving without the ball. Referees were told to emphasize clutching and grabbing. Goon ball resulted in immediate suspensions and fines.
The result has been a renaissance for the league, more scoring, more excitement, better teams and quality of play, all on display during a first round that produced historic performances and generated a national buzz. The NBA gave up trying to tell us that this pretender or that was Jordan, and instead a dozen players took up part of the slack. The NBA hasn't been this good in at least a decade.
So why let it backslide? Why let ABC lie to basketball fans and claim watching one great player get crushed by a far, far superior team is a better matchup than watching two exceptional teams? Why let TV claim the individual is more important than the team?
Why let LeBron – as great, as gifted, as exciting as he is – change the way you do business? This is something the NFL would never do, understanding the game and the league are bigger than any one sensation. You don't grow your fan base taking the quick buck, the quick Nielsen rating. When you go all in on a single player, he can wind up with just 22 points, his team embarrassed by 27.
Scheduling was the complaint of Detroit, Dallas and San Antonio – the clear big three of the league – during the first round also. Games featuring those teams kept getting pushed to NBATV. The Pistons had a weekday 6 p.m. tipoff – "the JV game," Billups said – so LeBron could get prime time.
Round 1 is one thing because the best teams often have the most lopsided series. But this is different. The marquee matchup in round two is Dallas and San Antonio, two real championship contenders playing early, a backyard brawl with plenty of storylines.
Real fans want to watch that. Casual fans will get hooked by it. Cool shoe commercials are for the regular season.
LeBron is a treat, but at this point his team can't compete with Detroit. "We got our behinds kicked," said Cavs coach Mike Brown. And that isn't likely to change; this series is unlikely to go past five games. Cleveland actually played pretty well, but the Pistons are a team that plays offense and defense. Antawn Jamison wouldn't get off the bench here.
"If we do what we are supposed to do," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said, "we'll have success."
Everyone around the NBA knows that. Every fan outside of Ohio knows that. Too bad ABC doesn't.