"Note to self: Never underestimate the defending champs."
I wrote that line after the Pistons fended off Miami in Game 7. Did I follow my own advice? Of course not! After Robert Horry's heroics in Game 5, I thought the 2005 NBA Finals were finished. Unfortunately, so did the Spurs. They planned their championship parade for Thursday, then played Game 6 like they were waiting for the Pistons to self-destruct and go home. Never happened. Now we're headed for the fourth Game 7 in 25 years which would be fantastic except like I said before, this has turned into one of those crummy Oscar seasons in which nobody made a movie good enough to win "Best Picture," only they have to hand out the award, anyway (much like Nash's winning the MVP).
Think about it. The Spurs just lost three of the past four games (completely inexcusable under any circumstances), were blown out four times this spring (once against Denver, once against Seattle, twice against Detroit) and failed to finish off a team just 48 hours removed from one of most crushing losses in the history of the league (and at home, no less). Would the '86 Celtics have lost Game 6 at home last night? What about the '92 Bulls? Or the '82 Lakers? Come on. Any team worth its salt takes care of business last night. If the Spurs prevail Thursday, they're still the flimsiest champ since the '94 Rockets. I take back every nice thing I ever said about them.
(Note: I would have gone with the '99 Spurs over the '94 Rockets if that '99 season ever happened. When NBA TV finally puts me in charge of its network, my first move will be to switch Rick Kamia to decaf. My second move will be to ban all WNBA scores and updates from the scrolling ticker. My third move will be to purchase "The White Shadow" rights and run "Shadow" doubleheaders on Tuesday nights. My fourth move will be "H-O-R-S-E Me Baby One More Time," where failed lottery picks play games of H-O-R-S-E for $25,000. And my fifth move would be to destroy all footage from the 1999 season. I'm revealing moves 6 through 500 when I get the job. Until then )
Meanwhile, the Pistons' resolve has been more than admirable especially Tuesday night, when they prevailed on the road even though they weren't getting any calls but they have lost a whopping nine playoff games this spring, which could tie the 1988 Lakers' record for "Most playoff games lost by a team that ended up winning a title" (and that '88 Lakers team was just as shaky). They're just one of those teams that can't seem to get it together unless they absolutely have to get it together. Again, a great team would have knocked them off already. But that's the thing about the Pistons in a league without a single great team, these guys are so mentally tough that you have to blow them out of the building to finish them off. In the words of Teddy KGB (thick Russian accent), they keep hannnnging around and hannnnnnging around. And nobody has the firepower to get rid of them.
The question remains: Is this entertaining? Much like the Rockets and Knicks in the hideous 1994 Finals, the Spurs and Pistons seem to bring out the worst in one another (only without OJ's Bronco Chase to lighten the mood). Some basketball purists love the defensive energy on both sides, how this is turning into a battle of wills, who wants it more, all that crap. And that would be fine if this was hockey or football. Unfortunately, it's basketball. In the NBA Finals, both teams are supposed to play more than seven guys, and it shouldn't be cause for celebration when someone makes two straight jumpers or plays above his head for an entire game. Only in Game 5 did both teams bring out the best in one another. It shouldn't be a bi-weekly occurrence.
Sure, the purists appreciate the defensive rotations, the way Detroit protects the rim, how Bowen fights through screens and everything else. But we're headed in a dangerous direction and have been for 3-4 years now at the highest level, the good defenses are too good, and smart teams (like the Pistons and Spurs) have figured out how to use bumping/bodying/clutching/grabbing to their advantage. So that puts the game in the hands of the referees, the vast majority of whom range from "mediocre" to "impossibly incompetent." Other than the Phoenix games, this entire playoffs has been one long continuous foul/non-foul followed by someone complaining about what was/wasn't called. What's fun about that?
Anyone who maintains this is "good basketball" comes off like a film school grad expounding the merits of a Todd Solondz movie yes, we see your point and respect it, but the bottom line is that major movie studios aren't paying the bills on Todd Solondz movies (and this is coming from a guy who loved "Happiness"). ABC's ratings have plummeted for these Finals, partly because of the lack of an absorbing superstar (sadly, the Sampras Corollary still applies to Duncan), partly because this style of play isn't enjoyable for casual fans or even semi-hard-core fans. There are eerie similarities to the 2005 NBA Finals and 1995 NHL finals right now (when the Devils unveiled that deathly zone trap). And I'm not saying that the Mavs-Suns series was the answer or anything; I'm just looking for something in between. Give me good defense, give me good offense, give me a few guys stepping up and rising to the occasion. That's all I'm asking. If it happened in Game 5, it can happen again in Game 7. I can dream.
Some lingering questions heading into Thursday night
• How could the Spurs be dumb enough to plan a parade before finishing off a team that A) was the defending champs, B) had already come through in a must-win on the road two weeks ago, and C) took enough pride in its crown that the players carry around fake championship belts? As soon as Al Michaels mentioned this parade before Game 6, everyone who wagered on the Spurs probably had a collective heart attack. Whaaaaaaaaat? They did whaaaaaaaaaat? Didn't they know what happened in the 1969 Finals, when the Lakers were dumb enough to make similar plans before knocking off Russell and the Celtics? Inexcusably dumb.
• Speaking of dumb, how could I be dumb enough to write two-thirds of today's column on Tuesday afternoon, gearing it around a question ("Where do the 2005 Spurs rank among the championship teams from the past 25 years?") that hadn't officially become a question yet? Just my luck the Spurs blow the game and I have to start a new column from scratch at 9 at night. Even had to put pants on for the requisite coffee run, just so I would have enough caffeine in my system to finish the column. And now I have this 1,700-word, two-thirds-of-a-column column that's completely irrelevant. The lesson, as always well, you know already.
• Isn't it fascinating that there's been an alleged "Foreign Player Explosion" over the last few years, but Ginobili was the only foreign player able to compete in this series without killing his own team? Look at the two benches: Carlos Arroyo, Darko Milicic, Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic, Carlos Delfino five of these guys sitting and watching. On the bright side, if we staged individual workouts between games, all of these guys would have looked fantastic. Maybe that should be the tiebreaker if Game 7 goes into OT.
(By the way, remember when I called Beno Udrih "the Slovenian Chris Corchiani" in my running diary of Game 3? Well, I'd like to apologize to Chris Corchiani.)
• Did we ever settle whether it's "Big Shot Rob" or "Big Shot Bob"? I always thought it was Big Shot Rob, but my editors kept changing it to Big Shot Bob. Then Horry himself demanded to be called Big Shot Rob, which made me want to call him Big Shot Bob because nobody should be able to decide their own nickname. So I'm offering a compromise from now on, we should refer to him only as "Big Shot Brob."
• Does anyone else get the feeling that Al Michaels shows up for these games, does his job, then drives home thinking, "Only five weeks to the Hall of Fame Game, I'm almost there!"
• I wrote this quote down verbatim in my notebook, only I can't remember who said it now it was either Michele Tafoya or Stu Scott. Anyway, was there a better sideline report than the one on Lindsey Hunter's sprained ankle before Game 6? It went like this
"When I asked Lindsey if he was gonna play tonight, he looked at me and he said, 'I ain't no punk.' I say, 'Yo, Lindsey, dawg, can I quote you on that?' He said, 'Yeah you can quote me, I ain't no punk, I played on sprained ankles before.'"
Again, can't remember if it was Tafoya or Scott. Sorry about that. That reminds me, did you ever wonder how the sideline reporters hear what's happening in the huddles? Do they stick their heads in there? Do they keep walking back and forth behind the bench and whistling like they're pretending not to listen? Does one of the fringe players just tell them what happened? Do they have lip readers telling them what's going on? Do they just make up stuff? And why couldn't we hire comedians for this job? Imagine Jeffrey Ross coming out of a timeout? Before I tell you what happened in Detroit's timeout, I just want to say what an honor it is to be this close to so many talented basketball players and Darko Milicic!)
• When Hamilton's Schnozarroo Mask broke with five minutes left, didn't you think that was an omen that the Pistons' luck had changed and they were about to collapse? Seeing his mask come off was like seeing Michael Myers' mask come off in "Halloween" right before Dr. Loomis shot him six times; I thought the Pistons were done. As always, I was wrong about them.
• Was there a better point made in the entire playoffs than Hubie Brown's admonishing Ben Wallace for overreacting to a foul call in the first quarter? As Hubie said, "The player must adjust to the referees in the first five minutes. How are they going to allow physical contact down on the box? How are they going to call it? Also, on the dribbler, will they allow you to bump and grind?"
And here's why I like that point so much: Every officiating crew calls the game differently, for better or worse but 99 percent of the players never seem to understand this. Especially everyone on the Pistons.
• I keep forgetting to mention this, but is there a more ridiculous moment in commercial history than the Dockers commercial where the guy in work clothes is dunking like a mid-90's version of Brent Barry? First of all, do you know anyone who would leave work, head down to the playground and start doing Slam Dunk Contest dunks in front of a bunch of strangers? Second, could you really jump that high in khakis and loafers? And third, did they really expect that they could keep running those ads without people saying, "Wait a second, that rim can't be higher than 8 feet!" Throw in one of my favorite bands, The The, unfathomably selling out with the song for the ad and I feel like Dockers is trying to torture me. Why didn't they just throw Arli$$ into the ad? Where were Calvin Schiraldi, Bucky Dent and Ulf Samuelsson?
• One more question on Big Shot Brob: After hearing the Horry lovefest on Monday and Tuesday (and seriously, thanks to all the radio and TV shows out there who regurgitated my Horry/Barkley/Malone argument without crediting my column I love how these shows think that none of their listeners/viewers might also read ESPN.com), did we ever settle the dilemma of "Great role player with an uncanny knack for stepping up in big spots" or "Underachieving talent who should be playing at this level more often?"
Well, I'm settling it for you. Since he was labeled "The Next Scottie Pippen" by so many writers in the mid-90's, expectations have always been a little unrealistic for Horry. Here's what he is a great role player with an uncanny knack for stepping up in big spots. In fact, you could change the word "uncanny" for "borderline supernatural" and it would probably work. And as Popovich pointed out this week, one of the reasons they signed him after a subpar 2003 season was because they thought the Lakers played him too many minutes and Horry just broke down; to that end, Popovich and his staff made a conscious effort to limit his minutes over the last two regular seasons. Clearly, he's better off playing 25 minutes a game and picking his spots (for whatever reason), which makes him no different than a great closer in baseball, a sack specialist in football, or whatever the equivalent was for the sport that used to be hockey. Not sure how that makes him an underachiever.
• Has any group of fans experienced more ups and downs over the past three weeks than Pistons fans? For instance, here's an e-mail I received after Game 5 from Michigan reader Bob Garcia:
"I'm lost. As a Pistons fan and a basketball guy I cannot figure out how to explain the sheer stupidity of leaving Robert Horry wide open at the end of overtime up by 2 points. This was a stomach punch game. But not just your normal stomach punch, it feels like a stomach punch from my mom for no apparent reason. Not only am I angry, but totally lost. It took me 33 hours just to write this. The best thing I can equate this to is the sports equivalent of being at the birth of your first child and immediately realizing that it's not your child when the baby is delivered."
Um it's safe to say that Bob needed a win last night.
• Was anyone else shocked that A) they avoided an NBA lockout, and B) all of the concessions made sense for both sides? Love the inflated salary cap that will absolutely result in the Dan Gadzurics of the world making $60 million this summer. Love the 19-year-old age limit, if only because it could lead to high schoolers' forging their own birth certificates (like the reverse of Latin American baseball players). Love the random drug testing, which should absolutely be simulcast on NBA TV whenever they do it. Best of all, I love the tweaking of the trade rules (going from "within 15 percent" to "within 25 percent"), which will make it much easier to make up fake trades. I couldn't be happier. Then again, I knew Billy Hunter would never let this go to a lockout, for two reasons:
1. It's not a good idea to mess with David Stern twice in the same lifetime.
2. Everyone forgets this now, but when they had the last lockout, the reason it ended was because too many players had leveraged themselves financially and were relying on their next paycheck to survive. I know, I know that sounds impossible in a league where just about everyone has an eight-figure contract. But without pointing any fingers, imagine you owned multiple houses and multiple cars, you sired multiple kids by multiple women, and you were supporting multiple family members and multiple friends from back home and suddenly you weren't getting a paycheck for six months? Would you be sweating it a little bit? Once the players started panicking, Stern smelled the blood in the water, stuck the shark fin on his back and started circling Hunter leading to the famous story (possibly apocryphal) of an enraged Charles Oakley slapping an A-list superstar player across the face during one meeting, followed by the abrupt end of the lockout and fans' paying $80-90 a ticket to see overweight stars playing themselves back into shape.
(The NBA it's FANNNNNNNNN-tastic! I love this game!)
Anyway, there was no way this was happening again. From the last lockout, Stern knew the players would cave once he started threatening a lockout and sitting quietly in his seat with a menacing look on his face every time ABC showed him during the Finals. Too many of the guys in the league were there in 1999. They weren't going down that road again. And Stern knew it. That's why he's the best. And that's why he should be our next president.
• Is anyone else torn on this Tim Duncan thing? Did any of the other top-20 players in NBA history ever display anything close to the Tim Duncan "I'm not even sure if this next free throw is hitting the rim" face? Remember, this isn't the first time he's looked shaky in a big playoff series. Two years ago, after he played a terrible Game 2 against the Nets, I wrote this sequence about him:
"Duncan might be the Most Valuable Player in the league, certainly the first guy you would build a franchise around but after watching him for six seasons, should we still worry about his crunch-time nerves like this? Will he ever peak the way Hakeem did in '94 and '95? Will he ever destroy the league for an entire spring, lay his stamp on everyone and everything, and head into the summer thinking to himself, 'You know what? There isn't a guy in the league who can stop me.' I'm just not getting that vibe from him. Duncan is great, but he's not that great. At least not yet."
Believe me, I'm not falling prey to the reactionary journalism that seems to be sweeping the nation right now, where you can make one point on one day and completely contradict yourself the next, with no repercussions. Whatever happens tomorrow night, it won't change the fact that Duncan is the best power forward of all time, as well as one of the top 20 players ever. But there are levels of greatness. For instance, you would have had to pretty much murder Bill Russell to win a Game 7 against him. Same with MJ and Bird. Other superstars were a little shakier at times like Magic, who played the 1984 Finals with both hands around his neck. But that experience made him stronger, and by 1987, he was a cold-blooded killer at the end of games.
And I guess what I'm trying to say is this: I don't see that same quality from Tim Duncan. Does he have it in him? Can he protect his house? In my book, that's the most compelling story of Game 7. Nothing else is close.
(As always, the poor Pistons get overlooked. Again. Sorry, guys.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.