Saturday, June 9, 2007

Turn on ESPN Classic

Tonight and tomorrow on ESPN Classic, they’re showing a marathon of classic games from NBA finals series of years past. Game five of Bulls/Lakers from 1991 just finished and got me thinking about how different the basketball landscape in the early 1990’s would have been had Magic not retired (or gotten sick). The Lakers, still rebuilding from the loss of Jabbar, were fortunate to have a young Elden Campbell (who exploded for 20+ in the game I just watched), the talented Vlade Divac, and Sam Perkens. Those were three quality centers. Combine that with A.C. Green and you have the making of a great front line. Magic, of course, was still in his prime, and you have to think the Lakers would have contended for years to come. Some other points about 1990’s basketball as I watch these games:

-People complain about bad calls these days, well I hate to break it to everyone but refs have been screwing up for years. One sequence in the fourth quarter of this game really blew my mind. Jordan and Campbell get tangled up fighting for a loose ball and a jump is called. Jordan gets up and starts screaming that he had called time out, and immediately, without even consulting the rest of the officiating team, the ref changes the call. If that had happened to Dwayne Wade in the finals last year there would have been riots on the streets of Dallas. EDIT: Lightning struck again in the fourth quarter of game six in 1992. Drexler fumbles the ball, Scottie Pippen looks at the refs and indicates a travel, and after a slight hesitation the call is made. Unbelievable.

-Scottie Pippen was a terrific rebounder. Watching him in these past two games (I’m now checking out the 1992 finals) brings Sean Marion to mind. He gets his rebounds less by taking his man out of position and more by using his length and athleticism creatively to snatch rebounds from opponents boxing him out. In the mid 90’s there was a camp of people who argued that Pippen was the second best player in the league behind Jordan. Back then I thought it was a crazy thought, but watching him today makes me not so sure, he was truly a complete player in every sense of the word. Was he better than Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Grant Hill, Olajuwon, or some of the decade’s other greats? I don’t think so, but you have to put him at least in the same category.

-Terry Porter really ran an exciting offence. This Portland team pushed the ball so effectively, and with Drexler’s athleticism, they were really a joy to watch. (Its funny to watch Drexler skying all over with youth-like athleticism, only to see him turn around and witness the huge bald spot. Its like watching a grandfather suddenly realize he can jump.) Not only did Portland run the floor effectively (99 possessions per game), they did it with the league’s second best defense (per 100 possession). Watching this team makes me more excited for my upcoming ‘best of the rest’ list because it’s a squad I never really appreciated. In the three seasons from 1990-1992, the Blazers lost in the Finals twice and in the Conference Finals once, one of the best squads in those early years of the Jordan era. Its amazing what wining a championship can do to a team’s legacy.

-Knicks/Rockets game seven is on now (2am). I skipped the second half of the '93 Game six in order to be fresh for this one. I haven't watched this game since I was eight years old when it was first played, and after watching the pre-game intros, I can tell you that the magic is still there. I felt a tug at my heart when my Knicks came out, and the moment Hakeem showed his face, I seethed with jealousy for just a moment.

-The game is over and, emotionally drained, I head for bed. But not before making this comparison. In 1994, Pat Riley had a player in John Starks who played through injury to help New York make the championship. Game 7 rolls around and Starks has one of the worst shooting performances of his career. As each 3-poiner grazes off the rim, New York fans world wide (including announcer Marv Albert) look down the Knicks bench to young Hubert Davis. Davis, a young man who has proven himself to be a great shooter, barely plays, sitting along side fellow guard Rolando Blackman. Riley hesitates to make the switch because of loyalty to his veteran, who deserves admiration for playing through injury. Starks ends up shooting 2/18, possibly costing the Knicks the championship. It is now 13 years later and a veteran point guard (Larry Hughes) on the overmatched Cavs team is starting and playing at the expense of exciting young Boobie. Loyal to his pg, Brown has said he will not make the lineup change because Hughes has battled through injuries so valiantly. Yet perhaps Brown should heed the words of Riley, who now calls playing Starks so much in games 6 and 7 the biggest mistake in his coaching career. Loyalty is a wonderful thing to see, but I bet if you asked Starks today, he would have rather won the championship on the bench than been faced with the disgrace of losing on the floor.

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