Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What “defines” a basketball player?

Seeing as how we're all thinking about Phoenix today, I want to raise a point of dispute with Eric Neel that I didn't really touch on the other day. My response to what he wrote involves, among other things, the best game Dallas has ever played against the Suns. Forgive me for getting melodramatic, but I loved last year's playoffs.

Specifically, Neel says that Dirk still doesn't have a “defining moment.”

There's no way to know exactly what Neel means, but I can think of at least two moments from last season's playoffs that emphatically define Dirk for Mavericks fans: one involved Manu Ginobili, the other Tim Thomas.

Dirk's Game 7 Layup

The first moment was Dirk's game 7 layup. The fact that every Dallas fan (and really, every genuine nba fan) who just read that sentence knows exactly what I'm referring to ought to be enough to label it a defining moment. Dallas, playing at San Antonio, had just blown a big fourth-quarter advantage, Ginibili's 3-pointer had just given the Spurs their first lead of the game with 32 seconds left, and Dirk was being guarded by Bowen, who has always given him trouble. Also consider that Dirk's Mavericks had never once bested San Antonio in regular-season record or gotten farther than them in the playoffs.

Dirk's drive was strong, and after he lay the shot on the rim the world stopped for about three quarters of a second while the ball spun there before it dropped in. (You can see the replay at about the 3-minute mark of this youtube clip.) For every fan who had watched Dallas lose to San Antonio again and again, and who had watched Dirk struggle to come up with the big shot, that was about as good as it gets. Dirk hit the and-one free throw, and then as Dallas routed the Spurs in the overtime period, we all knew a new era was beginning for our team.

Fifty at Phoenix

But even though Dirk's layup turned in his team's favor what may have been the best second-round playoff series ever, it was only the second round. But that's ok––Dirk probably topped it the next series, beginning with a confrontation with Tim Thomas.

With 3:27 left in the third quarter of game 5 (series tied 2-2), Thomas hit his 6th 3-pointer of the game to give Phoenix a seven-point lead. Dirk was looking at just 21 points (6/16 FG) and 4 rebounds, and Dallas was looking at another crushing playoff loss: if they had lost game 5 at home, the Mavericks would have gone to Phoenix facing elimination in game 6.

But late in the quarter (right after that 3-pointer, if memory serves), Thomas glared at Dirk during a dead ball, mouthed the word “p***y,” and then blew him a kiss. The scene was simultaneously hilarious and utterly infuriating for a Mavericks fan. No self-respecting player can take something like that from an opponent.

So what was Dirk's response? First, he scored 7 points in the next two minutes as part of a 10-0 Dallas run that helped the Mavericks close the quarter with a one-point lead. And then, with the game (and likely the series) on the line to start the fourth, Dirk went for 22 fourth-quarter points (to Phoenix's 20) and turned the game into a rout.

Altogether, In 14 1/2 minutes of playing time after the blown kiss, Dirk went for 29 points (8/10 FG, 10/10 FT), and 8 rebounds, finishing with 50 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, and only 1 turnover. I would bet there are a fair number of all-stars who would be proud to have a game that good at any point in their career, and Dirk did it to bag his franchise's first ever finals appearance.

I think for the time being, it's safe to call that Dirk's defining moment.

So what gives?

Which brings us back to Neel’s article, where I wonder if he's really saying what he means. The implication is that what Dirk did in those two series is effectively annulled by mediocre play in the finals.

Maybe so, but if Neel's real problem with the Mavericks is that they lost, perhaps he should just say so.

By my reckoning, Dirk stepped up on the road to win game 7 of one of the greatest playoff series I'll ever see, and then he scored 50 in what must be one of the best conference finals performances in history. So all I can figure is that Neel basically is saying that Dirk's not allowed to have a defining moment because he doesn't have a ring. But if that's the case, he should just say he doesn't love Dirk and the Mavericks because they didn't win the championship when they had the chance. All this talk about boring style and lack of defining moments, as far as I can tell, is just a red herring.

The irony, of course, is that it's actually Neel himself––not the Mavericks––that has nothing interesting of substance to contribute. Neel doesn't like Dallas, but the only real weakness he can find is that they blew the championship last year. Problem is (as Marc Stein noted yesterday) that everyone––including Dirk––has been saying that constantly for months now. That's hard to write about. So, lacking any real angle on why not to like Dallas, Neel makes one up.

Fortunately, nothing Neel could write really matters for Dallas fans. The NBA is an entertainment industry, and the Mavericks have put on a spectacular show for their fans the past two seasons. If that's not enough for Neel and fans from other towns, then I can't imagine that anything but a set of rings will change the way they feel.


ryan b said...

Yeah, I cried watching that whole YouTube clip. That was an awsome run by the Mavs.

And I agree that Neel's article has little substance. I've found with a lot of articles on ESPN, the author is just writing something to get people to read and talk about it (which we are doing), maybe even if the author doesn't beleive what's in the article himself. It's all about ratings and entertainment value. You'll often find two articles on ESPN that protray two opposite views of the same topic, no matter how ridiculous one perspective is. But we'll keep reading them!

I gotta figure out how I'm going to watch the Mavs game tonight. It's not on broadcast.

scoots said...

I recommend the community center at University Park, provided you can find someone to let you in. When I was there, they had a big screen tv, and no one was ever watching anything.

What you said makes me wonder about Hollinger –– does he really buy into his own rankings system, or is he just stoked that it puts the Spurs above the Mavs so that people will talk about it/him.

Mike Fisher at had this to say about Neel, which I thought was probably on the mark: “I'll ignore for the moment Neel's gimmick here, which is to simply serve as a contrarian. (Eric is clearly the sort of gent who insists to his friends that Jennifer Aniston is hotter than Angelina Jolie, just so he can contribute something different to the conversation.)”

scoots said...

Oh--and I agree that youTube highlight video was fantastic––complete with slo-mo and flashbacks of the haunting images of having blown the lead. All we needed was a couple of shots from earlier seasons in the mix, and it would have been just like the flashback montages in Rocky IV. Great stuff.

scoots said...

I've got to say, I really need Dallas to win tonight, or I'm not sure I'll have the emotional energy to finish this paper I have due Friday.

ryan b said...

I love it, Scott! Putting the Mavericks before schoolwork! One of my friends who works for Wells Fargo gets real emotional about sports too. When the Mavs lost the finals last year, he said he was depressed for a week and didn't want to go to work.

I ended getting a friend to invite me to watch the game at his house, but I'm missing the first quarter or so. Speaking of UP, that's where I watched most of the playoff games last season. Only it sucked because some nights, there were girls in there watching "American Idol". I missed the first half of a couple of games because of that. Actually, it was just one girl, so I felt like saying something, but I didn't.
On the game 7 versus the Spurs, I was in there watching it, and another guy was there who was taking a short course that week. He was a huge Spurs fan and had a jersey on and everything. It was awesome.

ryan b said...

Oh no! We're down 32-18 in the first quarter against Phoenix already! I hope a bad trend isn't starting this week.

scoots said...

Ok, time for someone to take out Leandro Barbosa. If our quick guy is going down, so is theirs.

ryan b said...

what happened!?!

scoots said...

When Phoenix is playing perfectly on offense, there's nothing you can do to stop them. I don't know why Walton is being so critical, when they do this to absolutely everybody. We all should have figured this out by now.

The way to beat Phoenix is to score consistently (which Dallas is starting to do), rebound well (which Dallas in continuing to do), and hope that you're close enough to catch up when Phoenix hits a dry spell, which they probably (though not necessarily) will.

scoots said...

“Now he's worried. You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see?! He's not a machine! He's a man!”

-Duke, to Rocky, Rocky IV

There's more than one heavy-weight in the fight tonight...

scoots said...

Dallas up 73-69. Looks like we've got a game, eh?

micah said...

Yeah baby! I just started watching at the half. Looks like I showed up for the exciting part. GO MAVS!

micah said...

YEAH BABY!!! JJ Barea is in the game!

micah said...

CHOKE!!!! Dirk certainly didn't earn any MVP points tonight.