Friday, May 27, 2011

Four-and-gone Conclusions

Ouch. This one really hurt.

Just like the ’69, ’84, ’03 and ’08 Cubs. Or the ’71 Blackhawks. Or just about any Big Ten football team that has played in the Rose Bowl since 1970.

It hurt like the Ditka-era Bears teams perennially without the services of quarterback Jim McMahon come playoff time—except for the golden year of 1985.

The 2010/11 Chicago Bulls had the league’s best record. Home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They were mature and seasoned beyond their years; a team that intrinsically knew the value of playing defense and moving the ball around.

This was going to be fun.

Then there were the convincing, series-closing victories in games five and six over the Atlanta Hawks, and the twenty-one point win over the Miami Heat in game one. Yes, after a rocky stretch in the playoffs, the Bulls had rediscovered their groove. The Bulls were ready to roar.

But then the wheels came off. The Bulls went missing. They became the first basketball team in sixteen years to drop a playoff series after such a resounding, opening-game victory. Could they have picked a worse time for their first four-game losing streak?

The team that spent the season playing as one forgot everything it learned.

They forced shots. Made more turnovers than Sara Lee. Thought focus was the exclusive property of movie theaters, and that defense was something that happened only in a court room. They were unglued by NBA officiating.

Worst of all, they repeatedly relied on a single player down the stretch, which is probably why so many games resembled the economic collapse of ‘08, right down to the fourth-quarter cave-ins.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Bulls are young. Young-enough to learn from the hideous wreckage of this series and apply it before their bodies hit athletic middle age.

Same goes for rookie head coach Thibodeau, who seemed unable (or unwilling) to respond to his counterpart’s adjustments, or even to create some of his own. Or to play veteran Kurt Thomas, who might have been able to settle the distracted Bulls.

Or to vary his play calling enough to keep even the there-to-be-seen neophytes from knowing where the ball was headed in critical, late-game possessions.

Yes, Derrick Rose is wonderful. Great, even.

But there is no way he should be taking twenty-nine shots in an elimination game which takes place during a series in which he’s shooting like the bastard offspring of Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson, and being guarded (in the fourth quarter, anyway) by a man half-a-foot taller.

It’s called passing. Point guards all over the world do it. And when one is making just one-third of their shots, it would behoove one to try it.

You could say this is just a lot of day-after whining, made even more-obnoxious by the fact it’s through the rose-colored glasses of hindsight. But there are grains of truth here. Ones that need to be taken to heart before next season starts.

That and that alone will tell us if this is 1975 and Thibodeau is Dick Motta, or if this is 1990 and the reigning coach of the year is a nascent Phil Jackson.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lakers Get Swept! (and grabbing the Bulls by the horns)

Pleasures are both quick and fleeting. They should be enjoyed whenever they present themselves. So when the Los Angeles Lakers succumbed to perennial playoff underachievers the Dallas Mavericks yesterday, I rejoiced. I loved. I laughed.

A sweep? How sweet!

The fabled and privileged Lakers repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the four-game series; blowing leads, orchestrating fourth-quarter collapses and finally, not even bothering.

Like the Bad Boy-era Pistons (who showed their true colors by petulantly stalking off the court when it became apparent the Chicago Bulls would sweep them in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals), these Lakers revealed their true selves by administering late-game cheap shots to the Mavericks—a team that had been wholly respectful of the Laker legacy.

The game was also an ironic send-off for coach Phil Jackson, he of the eleven championships.

I’ll admit to feeling a bit betrayed when Jackson signed on with the Lakers, abandoning the dynasty he had helped build in Chicago for the glamour of L.A. It reminded me a bit of Nicolas Cage, who chose the big paychecks of rote action flicks over the quirky dramas that brought him fame in the first place.

Jackson’s career has yet to be viewed through the corrective lens of time. But for now, I feel he was never really challenged as a coach. Sure, he deftly managed delicate superstar egos, and had the good sense to incorporate Tex Winter’s triangle offense.

But he assumed control of the pre-fabricated Jordan-era Bulls just as they were ready to soar, and did likewise with the Lakers in L.A. I have to think that even a modestly-talented coach could have stumbled into the NBA Finals with either team.

Lastly, the suddenly championship-caliber 2010-11 Chicago Bulls have encountered substantial difficulty in the post-season. First was the surprisingly taut series with the 37-win Indiana Pacers. Now the 2-2 draw with the Atlanta Hawks.

Like so much else, winning must be learned. Defense, consistency and focus are the keys—especially in the post-season. The Bulls had all three in spades during the regular season, which is how they won 62 games. But suddenly, the Bulls don’t seem to possess any of them.

Defense has been employed selectively. They appear unable to focus. They seem tentative, playing not to lose. The young Bulls are also afflicted with Jordan-itis, a malady which makes them succumb to the temptation of “Let Michael Do It.”

Or in this case, Derrick.

Granted, Derrick Rose is a gifted player. But whether it is his decision or by design, Rose is taking too many shots and attempting to shoulder too much of the load.

Rose is surrounded by complementary players who also happen to be quite talented. Rose is made even more-lethal when those around him touch the ball. Let them participate. When they move the ball and keep defenses honest, the Bulls win. Convincingly.

When Rose insists (or is forced) to be Michael Jordan at his pre-championship-era worst, they don’t.

Basketball is a simple game: get the ball to the guy with the best shot. Then stop the other guys from doing it. Do that for forty-eight minutes and you’ll win more games than you lose.

Maybe even a championship.