Under the Drain, Looking Up

I really could care less what happens in about an hour and a half. These whole playoffs, I've been trying to figure out how to write about "aura" without sounding either New Age-y or Benajmin-obsessed. In some ways, it boils down to the more acceptable "star quality," which I think I've thrown about at times. But it's about more than that. It cuts deeper, and gets to the very quidital heart of why these games have the power to transfix us.

I've always felt that one of the reasons people hate Kobe so much is that not only has he ripped off Jordan, but he's also mastered MJ's absolute mastery of the moment. And at this point, saying it rings hollow reflects back on you, the viewer, and turns you into the bitter, callous, unfeeling cynical zombie. Like that elimination game against Utah: Absolutely pitch-fucking-perfect. The ebb and flow of aggression, the amped-up sideline leadership, the obvious delight in the rolling team game, and down the stretch, those two neck-slicers in the face of a crowd that, even if 19,900 of them aren't totally crass, still are college-ugly. That was a champion's game, executed with real feeling and unmistakable panache. In its way, it was even more perfect than last year's LeBron-ocaust. It certainly topped James's performance earlier on Friday.

This isn't the same old "wants badly to win, heart of a champion" axis. It's not just "taking the game on your back when it counts." With Kobe, or Chris Paul, or Deron Williams, there's a sense throughout that they're both desperate and dignified, smacking back the slightest specter of dread while operating a level perceptibly higher than everyone else. This is stardom not only in name, or in numbers, but in end-to-end presence. We expect nothing less than execution, since they carry themselves like it's going to happen from the jump.

And here's why Celtics/Cavs is dead to me. We've lost all faith. We're sitting around waiting for proof, for pay-off, but long ago forgot how to turn on a game and feel an implicit promise wash over us. Now, we are in the realm of cold facts, talking points, rationality, and all the other drab stuff that, ironically, has the ring more of justification or clawed-in legitimization. Searching for energerization. It's the same route mortals have to follow, or the life support scrum of those falling from power, like what you routinely hear about the Spurs or Pistons (those who need talk the most. . . ). And sorry, but if we've gotten there, both LeBron and the Celtics have blown their otherworldly m.o.

Could one game transform all that? Would it take 60 points from LeBron? 20 in the first? One OT, or two? Does Garnett need a triple-double, or will the Big Three only ride again when we also get Pierce chipping in 30 and a fourth quarter from hell? See, just the fact that we're there shows that the dream has died. As criteria rear their ugly head, there's been a fall from grace, back into the realm of mortality and quite ordinary, non-resonant bean-counting. Or you can just decide that the Celtics really are older than we thought.

Some McLaughlin Group thoughts: Gene Page is wearing a tie with 45 adapter all over it. These people are greatly underestimating American Jews' intelligence, and willingness to actually read past the headline? Or at very least, that those with Israel tunnel vision know that country's history, and know about shit like Egypt. It's an insult to my people, even the ones who are old and borderline Republican, when we're talked about as so easily duped.

ADDENDUM: Upon having facts to examine...

I'm still not backing off this supremely dour post I wrote just before tip-off.

That was two scorers trading baskets and making their best effort to guard each other, despite neither being a top defender. No Big Three on the rampage, just Pierce working on LeBron. Garnett was limp and Allen on the bench. No James against world, either. Seemed to me like, once LeBron got space or got past Pierce, today he had no more trouble scoring against Boston than any other team that haphazardly throws people at him. This was also the absolute worst the rest of the Cavs have played, except for Delonte, so it's not like he was catching them off guard.

Except for that breakaway dunk, I never got chills or thought "something impossible could go down."

The Celtics, they might as well have been the Cavs, if you look at the box score. Nice to see Pierce get his once again, because this is the kind of player he is. But he was "hot", not dominant. Same for LeBron, actually. This was two guys trading baskets, taking advantage of opportunities, and never really appearing to overcome much of anything.

Try and write a script for this fucker and you'd be asleep in five minutes. And no way this even belongs in the same category as Carter/Iverson 2001 or Bron/Arenas 2006. Those were scorers' duels that really felt like battles for world supremacy, had a momentum to them, and also, of course, took place over an entire series. This was rote. Impressive, maybe, but rotely impressive.

I'm beginning to think that all of this is just me refusing to say I was wrong. So I'll stop, but I challenge you: Convince me that this wasn't piling up points out of necessity, the kind of thing that makes us take LeBron's scoring title for granted.

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At 5/18/2008 3:56 PM, Blogger Dan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/18/2008 6:57 PM, Blogger rebar said...

king james left the playoffs too soon this yr.

pistons v celtics is going to be a preposterous matchup. got stuckey?

At 5/18/2008 7:46 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

post extended. please read.

At 5/18/2008 7:48 PM, Blogger Teddy said...

On the one had, that was a great game with two great performances. On the other, it was essentially the same game we've watched all series, except with Bron's 20-footers and Pierce's 14-foot bounceaways dropping for a change. Curious to hear whether the change from tough shot/miss to tough shot/make salvaged the series for the FD crowd. I think that would be a little too outcome-based for the crowd here, but we'll see.

At 5/18/2008 7:51 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I think this sentence gets exactly at what the second half of my post is trying to say:

"On the one hand, that was a great game with two great performances."

At 5/18/2008 7:51 PM, Blogger Teddy said...

...and of course as I write this, Bethlehem comes down on the nay side of the above. In my next life, I'll be a faster typer.

At 5/18/2008 8:35 PM, Blogger Laura said...

just "piling up points out of necessity"? what does that mean?

you just sound kind of salty with this whole post.

At 5/18/2008 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron's scoring title didn't feel like Kobe's when he dropped 81 or 4?5? straight 40 point games.

LeBron just scored the most because his team sucks and it was demanded of him, thus, necessity. His 30-8-7 not being seen as fairly historic did shock me, however.

As for the saltiness, I can't blame the dude. Spurs-Suns was supposed to be apocalyptic, and this playoffs has been a dud after The Best Regular Season Ever.

At 5/18/2008 9:12 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

It means that LeBron scores because someone has to.

Yeah, I am salty. I just watched two players drop 40 each and was only dimly excited about it. No one else on either team did shit, and like Teddy says, both Pierce and Bron just happened to make their jumpers. Not much implacable will behind it.

Someone who understands basketball better than me can explain why they didn't double LeBron at the top of the key every time, and then have everyone else waiting for him in case he drove the lane.

At 5/18/2008 11:25 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

They didn't double LeBron at the top of the key because he was behind the arc most of the time when he got the ball in the fourth. And he seemed to enjoy showing off his jumper, which isn't that reliable.

Had LeBron drove more in the fourth, and finished strongly, then maybe this could have been elevated to Carter/Iverson. Instead the fourth felt like a jumper contest, like penalty shots to determine the winner in a World Cup. It's an ending, it was dramatic, but it just doesn't feel like the fairest evaluation of who was better...

At 5/18/2008 11:57 PM, Blogger Nick said...

two guys put up a lot of points without ever looking unstoppable in a game where the other guys on the floor looked mediocre or worse...guess I'm agreeing with shoals....it's to the point, I think, that the biggest hoop of the game was that 20 footer knocked down by pj brown...

At 5/19/2008 1:37 AM, Blogger Brian said...

BS, I think you're dour because of the overall context of the playoffs, not because of the game itself. Had that been Game 1, or a game in Cleveland, your tone would be WAAAYYYY different.

But as it is you are looking for an impossibility beyond impossibility to try and save the playoffs as a whole from a script that you find undignifying. Looked at on its own merit, there was greatness in that game. I like Sheridan's take much more than yours in this instance, and not just because he HAS to say that kind of thing.

At 5/19/2008 3:13 AM, Blogger R. Lobstah said...

Could you please make links to information that would provide context to your Gene Page comments? I have no clue what you are referring to.

At 5/19/2008 4:15 AM, Blogger D.J. Foster said...

I can understand where Shoals is coming from. Expecting someone else on the Cavs to step up and play well will almost always leave you disappointed. As a whole, the Cavs just simply aren't that good. For the sake of the playoffs the Celtics winning is a good thing. If Lebron went ape on Detroit again and got by them we'd be looking at another 4-0 sweep by the hands of the West. The Celtics can at least make it interesting.

At 5/19/2008 7:03 AM, Blogger mybasketballworld40.com said...

dont like what the celtics are doing on the road they not play hard thats why detriot are going to win
pistons in 5

At 5/19/2008 7:10 AM, Blogger T. said...

I feel this New York times article goes a long way in explaining FreeDarkoism without mentioning it at all, or even alluding to it at all.


At 5/19/2008 7:37 AM, Blogger AG said...

BS, I normally find most of what you write intelligent, witty, and accessible. And to be honest, I felt that same feeling you had prior to tip off. This series had shoved me into the ground.

But to suggest that Bron bron going off for 45 and P going off for 41 is not exciting, flamboyant, even thrilling... isn't that just digging yourself in for the sake of spooning up pieces of the Earth?

Two of the premier players in the league just went for 40. While I admit there were few 'dynamite' moments, I also recognize that this was Game 7. Don't you think LBJ and P probably adjusted their bodies and decided to throw down? While that does not embody the essence of Free Darko, it captures the spirit, thrill and energy of sport. I'm not sure that this means your argument is moot, but perhaps that Game 7 was a bit more than trading shots. Would love to hear your thoughts, and as always, wonderful work.

At 5/19/2008 9:50 AM, Blogger Fredrik deBoer said...

I just don't think you can rhetorically maneuver yourself out of the fundamental bind your in, which is that however you like to self-aggrandize your own fandom ("enlightened!"), your preference for Kobe is merely your own taste, and has fundamentally no greater salience or truth than the opinion of some kid from Iowa who watches six or seven games in a year. I don't like Kobe; I don't like his attitude, I don't like his history, I don't like his game, and I don't like him as a person. You can't prove I'm wrong, because it's just my taste. And as much as I love basketball, I don't pretend that it is worth anymore than the Tiddlywinks championship in the grand scheme of things. It may be worth arguing about but it's not much.

Now, some will jump on me and say "He knows, that's the point," to which I can only reply... sometimes you know. Sometimes you forget. Or so it seems to me.

So how is it disliking Kobe Bryant (who is, I'm sorry, a poseur, whatever his accomplishment) a mark of being bitter and callous, etc., but willfully disliking a game like last night a mark of enlightenment?

At 5/19/2008 10:12 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

@deBoer: I don't like people who use the fair Midwest as shorthand for 'rube'.

I feel you on your subjectivity point, however. Much like you don't like Kobe, I realized yesterday how little I care for Paul Pierce. I find his game slovenly as his appearance - those lazy spin moves, slow-motion jumpers from 20, flailing finishes. Pair that with the untucked jersey, and it's just like, damn man, tighten it up. Did love his reaction to the 4th Q. FTA, where it skied up off the back iron and dropped in.

LeBron was mildly sensational yesterday. His shots were falling, his attitude was good - I just didn't see the apocalypse in his eyes like Game 5 v. Detroit last year. His possessions seemed to lack purpose, as well, he was pulling the ball out, doing a lot of dribbling. I like LBJ best when he gets the pass and starts bulling to the rim.

I think his most impressive shot was his floater over KG, where he slashed to the left and flipped up the shot with his right hand.

All in all, that was a pretty decent game yesterday. The frustration of Damon & Delonte's missed 3pters and Ray Allen's lackluster showing detracted a little from the overall proceedings...

but HOW ABOUT PJ BROWN?! Last year when my Bulls were in the playoffs, he went off for like 30, and was in fact the only guy that showed up to play. I believe that was the game they were eliminated... Anyway, good for PJ. Dude was born like a month after Woodstock.

At 5/19/2008 10:15 AM, Blogger Graydon said...

I kind of agree with Shoals on this one, and mostly because I increasingly felt about the series that neither of these teams were gonna take the title. Maybe you could say they aren't teams of "destiny" or some BS like that, but the fireworks show they put on seemed to short sighted for me. Myths are made by men who get knocked out in the next round.

On a different note: Shoals is totally right about the Mclaughlin Group. The Media is creating Obama's "jewish problem." Jewish people primarily live in states going blue anyways, and I can assure that 70%, if not 80%, if not more of the Jewish population will vote Dem come November. Just thought I'd back him up there.

At 5/19/2008 10:20 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

FDB, you can hate Kobe all you want. I could care less. Whatever "enlightened fandom" is. I think we've only ever used the term "liberated fandom", which just means root for whoever you want, regardless of where you live, or how you feel about the rest of their team.

In retrospect, I probably overdid this. This series, and those two teams, hadn't given us much. That bugged me. This game had all the markers of greatness: Game seven, the Garden, LeBron's myth, etc. etc.

What resulted was undoubtedly exciting, but hardly transcendent. And I feel like it's getting blown out of proportion because people have no choice but to. Maybe I shouldn't say it sucked or did nothing for me, but it has created its own hype.

At 5/19/2008 11:08 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Page's tie, which could be like The Jacet for me. 2:24 in. I saw it right, right?

At 5/19/2008 12:53 PM, Blogger avery said...

i agree that this game should've felt transcendent. But instead you had PJ Brown making the Sportscenter highlight--shouldn't that have been Garnett's shot? The one to seal the deal? He's playing in arguably the biggest game of his life, and his box score is 13 points? And Allen with 4? The problem with this series is that the Big Three haven't justified the hype. It was like they were bullies the whole regular season, and now the Hawks and Cavs have called their bluffs. Perhaps King James felt sorry for The Big Three as he almost ruined the legacy of three decent players for the rest of their lives.

This series would have been more transcendent with four straight blow-outs by either team.

At 5/19/2008 1:12 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

I think part of the malaise with these playoffs stems from the home court dominance we've seen. That combined with the bizarrely one-sided first round matchups (except for the two in the East that were supposed to be one-sided, and then when they ended up being competitive seemed to say more about how overhyped Boston and Detroit might be than about parity or competition in the NBA right now). Someone, I think it was Barkley, said that a series doesn't really start till someone wins on the road, so basically that didn't happen in this 2nd round at all until the Pistons went up 3-1 on the Magic and the Lakers eliminated Utah. Did Boston-Cleveland never happen? What about San Antonio-New Orleans?

We still have two rounds to go, and they could be amazing or they could be more of what we've seen. Boston-Detroit was a matchup most were pointing to all year as being an incredible showdown, but Boston has gone a long way in the last month to really sucking away all the excitement surrounding them. Lakers-Spurs might pit the two most hated teams in the league against each other, leaving people confused about who they should root for. Maybe Lakers-Hornets could save us all, unless New Orleans can't win a road game and starts that series off 0-2. Still, Paul-Kobe would figure to be an insanely compelling matchup.

At 5/19/2008 2:55 PM, Blogger Hallamore said...

It’s not only that the Celtics/Cavs series hasn’t really given anything, so much as Lebron just flat out doesn’t give us anything. There might have been a time, maybe when we (along with Gilbert) were first all called to witness. But this ‘Rise Up’ (that’s the slogan, isn’t it?) is exactly the problem. Kobe goes out and does stuff. He knows he’s going to be making history, he knows he’s writing the book, but it’s still definitely on him (albeit self-imposed) to go out and create. It’s good that Lebron is out of the playoffs now.

It’s good that he’s already making an idiot of himself in his off-season, claiming that his game doesn’t really need any improvement. With Lebron, there seems to be an implied (or sometimes even, obnoxiously enough, overtly stated) ‘get on board because I’m what there is’. I’m a winner, etc. Yeah, he’s stupid.

At least the Celtics offer the possibility (if matched up eventually with the Lakers, or I guess maybe even the Hornets) of having enough personality to play villains against a team made up of individual personalities that could truly become loved.

At 5/19/2008 3:40 PM, Blogger Mercurialblonde said...

The notion that Lebron doesn't give anything is a tad blasphemous a tag to put on a 23 year old who has given us EVERYTHING. He's already been to the finals. He's already had a transcendent playoff moment. His first game in the NBA when everyone wanted him to fail, he threw up 27/7/7 against a then vaunted Kings team. In High School they put his games on ESPN and asked us to find fault, and he showed up for those too. In the McDonald's game, he went out and got MVP and won the dunk contest.

He has turned a 17 win team, with some at best mediocre modifications into a 50 winnish team.

He's threatened at times to average triple doubles.

He's come from behind more times than I can count. He's told Spike in the Garden about 50 and then done it. There's the game against the Blazers and the one against the Raptors this year, where he seemed to take on not just the teams he was playing, but the entire arena, daring the collective will to oppose him.

And yesterday he went into the garden against a team that was about 20 wins better than his team(the Cavs it should be noted, finished with a record barely better than the Hawks this year) and put on a show. And you're lying if in that moment when he made that steal and raced down for that dunk that put the game within one, if for that one moment you didn't think that perhaps the pre-ordainedness of the Celtics glide to the finals, was in question. I live in New England. And it was that moment that a lot of cocky Celtics fans drew in a breath.

To say Lebron gives us nothing, is like that jesus parable where the guy is like "I only see one set of footprints, where the hell where you god?". You only see the disapointments because of Lebron's innate perfection. But what is exciting is that he is not the calm cool assassin diety that a Kobe or Duncan might be. He is a proud old god. More like an Odin, or a Zeus. There's something viking about Lebron when he takes over a game that no one else in the NBA gives you. When he starts blocking shots and getting steals and stops on the defensive end and then bulldozes through multiple defenders--there's the sense of him being a force with no refinement. Just sheer will.

When Lebron is older and more refined. When he has that mid range game or post game down, and he's just boringly picking off the flies of competition from him--we'll look back on this era of his career and you'll understand that the notion of him giving us nothing, is laughable at best.

There's something missing in FreeDarko's portrait of James. Something has been missed in the idea of him as a perfect pristine messiah.

At 5/19/2008 4:27 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...


And you're lying if in that moment when he made that steal and raced down for that dunk that put the game within one

There's a reason I said that that dunk was the only time I got chills.

To say Lebron gives us nothing. .

I said THAT GAME gave me nothing. Look back at anything else I've written about LeBron ever. You're basically agreeing with all of it.

That's why I didn't like this game. It wasn't that kind of LeBron.

At 5/19/2008 4:41 PM, Blogger Hallamore said...

Thanks for telling me what I’ll understand someday Blonde. Sure he’s a good basketball player. I just don’t think that’s what’s at issue. (And I don’t think there’s anything preordained about the Celtics. I don’t think they get past Detroit, and I don’t think either of them beats the Lakers if they’re there in the finals.)

Lebron gives us the thrilling story of a guy who was born with everything needed to be good at playing basketball. You know what they say,if you shake a tree sometimes a physically gifted athlete falls out.

At 5/19/2008 5:11 PM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

Blonde - Great analysis. I've been trying to put my finger on what appeals to me in LeBron's game - I think it's the sense of the primeval.

And Hallamore: You just compared LBJ to a monkey! Racist!

What's really disappointing about this playoffs is there have been zero upsets, the higher seeds have all advanced.

Had the Rockets/Suns/Magic advanced, this would be a more compelling post season.

At 5/19/2008 5:14 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I am being really snippy today, and I apologize for that.

I've long been all about the primeval, Old Testament, angry god LeBron. But it's got to the be the ocean when it seems alive and furious in a way that made someone dream up Posiden. Not just a mountain being big and stoney, or the ocean vast.

The latter is how I would characterize Sunday.

At 5/19/2008 5:26 PM, Blogger Hallamore said...

I compared LBJ to Kobe's much better analogy.

At 5/19/2008 8:36 PM, Blogger Mercurialblonde said...

My comment was aimed at Hallamore. I think your article did a decent job of funneling the experience of that game down. But some were starting to take that Lebron didn't give you enough in that game, to Lebron never gives me anything. Which is something else altogether.

At 5/20/2008 7:46 PM, Blogger brian said...

man, i love jason and the argonauts


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