Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Basketball Gods

One of the first independent observations I made as a young basketball fan was that teams rarely experience significant playoff success without first experiencing playoff failure. When the Sonics beat the Bullets to win the title in 1979, it really struck me that these same Sonics had lost the title to these same Bullets the year before. And when I say 'these same Sonics' and 'these same Bullets', I mean it. Basically it was Gus and Dennis Johnson, Sikma, 'Downtown' Fred Brown and Wally Walker versus Hayes and Unseld, Dandridge, Grevey and Kupchak. I suppose it's obvious to the point of banality, but it never seems to be enough to have the talent to win in the playoffs - you have to know how to win in the playoffs, and the only way to learn is by losing.

The pattern has repeated itself many times since - the 'Bad Boy' Pistons of the 80's couldn't get past the Celtics for years before breaking through. People forget that Jordan's Bulls lost to the Pistons several times before breaking through. And sometimes it never happens, as for Dominque's Hawks and of course the Cavs in the 90's.

Today's NBA is certainly different than it was in 1979. The stability of the rosters for the Sonics and the Bullets wouldn't happen in 2006. Similarly, you can have some playoff experience even if the team hasn't been there (i.e. Sam Cassell). But invariably you still have to lose (usually a lot), before you can win. Call it a sacrifice to the basketball gods.

I firmly believe that the Clippers are a better team than the Suns. Don't get me wrong... I love the Suns, but they are over-achieving. The strengths of the Clippers (size, depth, versatility) are dependable. They should be there every game. On the other hand, if the Suns come out flat or don't shoot well, they are in big trouble.

But I picked the Suns to win this series in 7 despite the fact that I think the Clippers are better, and right now it looks like I'm going to be painfully, reluctantly, ruefully correct. In 5 games so far, the Clippers have had 4th quarter or OT leads in all 5. In other words, the Clippers lost late leads in all three of their losses. Conversely, in the two Clipper wins, the Suns never led after the first quarter. (True they came back to within 1 in game 4, but they never got over the hump, unlike the Clippers comebacks in games 3 and 5.)

Look at the similarities between games 3 and 5. Game 3, 3 point Suns lead, 3 point something on the clock, Clippers get a good look for the hottest shooter on the team, miss the tying 3 pointer. Game 5, 3 point Clippers lead, 3 point something on the clock, Suns get a good look for the hottest shooter on the team, make the tying 3 pointer. Sometimes the tying shot goes in... sometimes it doesn't.

Usually these sorts of things even out. As unlikely as the Lakers' game 4 win was against the Suns, the Suns game 6 win made up for it. Two OT games in LA, Suns win one, Lakers win one. That seems fair. But not so for the Clippers. Seems like they have to dominate to win.

Certainly one can look at that and conclude that the Clippers still have a great chance in this series. They've been in every game, and so it's seems reasonable to think that they'll at least be in games 6 and 7. Maybe they'll even get those close wins that make up for the close losses. But, sadly I fear that a sacrifice is required to the basketball gods. If so, let's hope that they will reward us in the future.

On that note, a heartbreaking 7 game series loss is probably the best thing that can happen to this franchise, short of a ring. Sterling seems to be enjoying the attention, and if all of the evidence points to the team being really close to breaking through, he's that much more likely to sign Cassell and Vlade.