Diminishing returns

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

CLEVELAND – Somewhere in the middle of a Stephen Jackson three-point bomb and a Jason Richardson circus slam and the din of thunder that pent up Golden State Warriors fans rained down as their team pounded the Dallas Mavericks, somewhere in the middle of all that excitement and chaos, these NBA playoffs peaked.

The problem is that was May 3.

The NBA postseason that came in like a lion should mercifully go out with a lamb's whimper here Thursday, when the San Antonio Spurs figure to finish off a sweep of the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers to wrap up a fourth NBA championship in nine years (and third in five).

What a disappointment the playoffs turned out to be with all of the mismatches, ugly play, false hope, controversies and just a few memorable moments. The NBA finals, in many ways, were the perfect ending to this thing, one great big LeBoring.

"It's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes," said Robert Horry, who's one win from title No. 7 and well aware that his Spurs aren't getting enough credit for their genius because, for a variety of reasons, this run to the ring looked so easy.

Now critics are calling for all kinds of shake-ups to the system: reseeding teams each round, eliminating Eastern and Western play. "Make the rim bigger" has even been suggested by former Pacers coach Rick Carlisle.

While there is no question these playoffs, and these finals in particular, have been rough on the eyes, there is no reason to just blow the damn thing up.

If anything, the NBA was due for some bad luck and worse timing. It coasted for so many years back in the 1980s and 90's with big market powerhouses and perfect soap opera storylines.

If anything, David Stern's constant tinkering with the league's competitive rules – in part to end all the conspiracy theories about big market favors (which, ironically, continue anyway) – has worked too well.

San Antonio, the 37th-largest media market in America, has the best franchise in the game. Cleveland (16th) has the most marketed young player. Miami (17th) won the title last year. Phoenix and Middle America spots Detroit, Dallas and Utah are all successful.

If some of those teams were located in the Northeast corridor or Los Angeles, this might even be hailed as the league's glory days again. But they aren't. Most of the biggest media markets have awful teams.

And these playoffs have broken bad at every turn. Golden State knocked Dallas out, the first eight seed to upset a one seed in a seven-game series. It was a great moment with the up-tempo Warriors playing before the most rollicking crowd in recent NBA history. It made the loss of a West final featuring the Mavs and the survivor of the Spurs-Suns acceptable.

But by Round 2, all the big money fans from San Francisco invaded the East Bay, buying out the old, rowdy diehards. Golden State's crowd suddenly stunk, and the team was little better in losing quickly to Utah.

Meanwhile, a much-anticipated San Antonio-Phoenix matchup effectively ended not with some brilliant play by Tim Duncan or Steve Nash but when Robert Horry knocked Nash down, Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw jumped off the bench and Stu Jackson dropped some unforgiving suspensions.

It was a less than satisfying conclusion to what should have been a classic. Then the Spurs rolled over Utah and now Cleveland. The indelible image of this championship run is that Horry body check of Nash.

That is, in part, because the Chicago Bulls blew the No. 2 seed in the East on the final day of the regular season. That allowed the Cavaliers to snap it up and cruise over two losing clubs to a conference final against Detroit. Then, just when there appeared to be a pulse – LeBron James taking over Game 5 with 25 consecutive points – it turned out to be a tease.

James, it turns out, wasn't ready to make the jump to superstardom. His play in the finals has been tepid – no confidence in his jump shot, too willing to defer in key moments. He looks 22.

Cleveland arrived too soon, in part because Flip Saunders' inexplicable decision to run the same defense on LeBron propelled the Cavs. Even when San Antonio tried to hand over Game 3 (a 5:38 stretch in the fourth without a basket?), Cleveland was incapable of doing anything to win.

This was a no contest from the start, a sullen ending for a playoffs with so little to remember.

But bold changes aren't needed. Not yet. Yes, the West is best and the arrival of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant in Portland and Seattle, respectively, won't help the imbalance. But the East had been the weaker league for a few years and it entered these playoffs winners of two of the last three titles.

And while Stern is constantly trying to appease the non-fan who claims they hate the "thugs" of the NBA, that's a waste of time. The Spurs and Cavaliers are about as clean-cut as you can get and the non-fan still isn't watching. No dress code is going to change the minds of people who cling to an old excuse that says more about them than the players.

No question, these playoffs have been a disappointment and these Finals have been a dud. But it is one year, one example, of a number of bad luck circumstances.

No one was complaining a year ago when the first round was hailed as the greatest ever, when San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix knocked each other around, when Dwyane Wade was lifting the Heat to a title. Or the year before when San Antonio and Detroit staged a seven-game duel. Or the year before when the Pistons shocked the Lakers.

This year? Terrible. But that's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

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