x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

NBA play-offs: Wake up for the real season

Mercifully, the exhibition schedule is over. While usually more predictable than other sports' play-offs, this NBA post-season, like its predecessors, oozes drama.

Kevin Garnett may be 34, but he helped the Boston Celtics to another predictably satisfactory win ratio in the regular season.
Kevin Garnett may be 34, but he helped the Boston Celtics to another predictably satisfactory win ratio in the regular season.

The curtain closes today on the NBA regular season, 169 days after it opened. What we have discerned from 1,232 games as they relate to the play-offs can be summed up in one word, which also reflects the monetary value of a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey with LeBron James's name on it. Nothing.

Oh, we were mesmerised by the theatre framed by that curtain, from James's pre-game hand-powdering and Blake Griffin's power slams to Carmelo Anthony's high-rent relocation and Dwight Howard's high-tech fouls count.

We took guilty pleasure from watching the Heat in a hoops version of the old sitcom Three's Companyas James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh invested blood, sweat and (literally, according to their coach) tears to scratch out a decent record.

We relearned that boring can be beautiful, as robotic Tim Duncan and his cyborg San Antonio Spurs (not really, but that is their image) ruled the Western Conference.

We were reminded that a Rose is not always a Rose. With their point guard Derrick Rose, an MVP candidate, at the wheel, the Chicago Bulls lorded over the Eastern Conference. With former stand-out Jalen Rose at the wheel, a driving-under-the-influence arrest - and a failure to disclose it to ESPN - resulted in his suspension as NBA analyst.

We recognised that age is a state of mind, especially if the state is Massachusetts, where mid-30s guys Ray Allen (35), Kevin Garnett (34) and Paul Pierce (33) delivered 55 regular-season wins for the Boston Celtics.

We saw nightly highlight reels of flashy moves and trashy mouths, of jivin' and high-fivin', of gravity-defying dunks and great players in extended funks.

Now, with the post-season at our doorstep, we glance at the standings, surely to discover a party-crasher in - or an unforeseen absentee from - the post-season field of 16. Maybe a projected title threat from the pre-season that barely squeezed in. Or a team that exceeded modest expectations.

Well, there is ...

No? Then how about ...

Wait, you have the ...

Here is what you have: nearly a half-year of hoops that eliminated nobody of consequence, rewarded nobody that came out of the blue and reduced the suspense so much that the heavyweight teams were left with a single worry: what will we be seeded?

Yes, for months, the Orlando Magic endured sleepless nights fretting over whether they be 4 or 5 in the East. Only when the Atlanta Hawks started resembling the Minnesota Timberwolves could Orlando exhale, knowing they had home-court advantage in the first round.

Big whoop. The Magic slogged through 82 games, all to secure a home date in a Game 7 against Atlanta - not that many series go the distance anyway. "That is what they play the regular season for," some announcer, struggling to be serious, will intone.

The NFL, the NHL and MLB are blessedly different. Their regular seasons lack predictability, the play-offs sprinkled with surprises.

The NBA season is almost all for show. You tell me Kobe Bryant will not miss much time with injuries, and I'll tell you that the Los Angeles Lakers are as certain as Jack Nicholson seated front row for the play-offs to gain a top-three seed.

Way back in October, it all began with Chicago, Boston, Miami and Orlando comprising everyone's envisioned top four in the East.

Teams playing only for position in the draft lottery, it was assumed: the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and the LeBron-less Cavaliers.

Do not look for differences between these two pictures - the final standings and the forecasted standings. There is almost none.

In the West? Only the Memphis Grizzlies, the eighth seed, graduated from the rank-and-file. Of course, had Houston's Yao Ming not suffered his 27th career-threatening injury or Jerry Sloan, the Utah Jazz coach, not quit in his 58th season, Memphis would be singing the blues by now, the same as after any other season.

Mercifully, the exhibition schedule is over. While usually more predictable than other play-offs - superior seeds have won 76 per cent of all series since the league adopted a 16-team format - this post-season, like its predecessors, oozes drama.

Can James take a title to South Beach after infamously announcing that he was taking his talents there? Can Howard stop filling his stat line with technical fouls and focus on points, rebounds, blocks ... and a title? Can Anthony, the newest New Yorker, trigger a run by the Knicks?

Can Bryant send out his Zen Master coach, the retiring Phil Jackson, with one last ring to gaze at while he meditates all day?

These play-offs have everything but the Clippers' Griffin, whose time will come. The real season arrives this weekend. About time.