A promo for TNT’s Saved being run during the NBA playoffs:
AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHARACTER: Kobe scored 81 points!!
WHITE CHARACTER: (Sneering.) Yeah, but it wasn’t in the playoffs.
(AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHARACTER goes on to remind him that this is a superhuman athletic achievement whose importance cannot be overstated.)
Every April, the National Basketball Association passes through a procedural veil and all of a sudden becomes a real sport. Or so a sizable portion of red-blooded fans would have you believe, as they use the Association’s good postseason name to slight the endless months that precede it. To hear these folks tell it, in the playoffs, basketball gets more physical, less showy, more controlled, and altogether less playful and emotionally complex. While a loose cannon like Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas may see fit to crack a smile upon the battlefield, by and large such frivolity of feeling goes the way of the abacus. And despite the tantalizing presence of high-scoring phantasms like this year’s Suns, who generally ensure at least one series fraught with growth and abundance, the prevailing tone is one of rigor, compression, and eking out one’s God-given right to sail through the heavens.
In the mind of this phantom constituency, the chastening power of intentions most pure can, and will, and should, usurp the integrity of action. This respectable, gravely improved NBA cleaves to the form of March Madness, college football games in which no one scores, and baseball from August on—all those title-deciding blurs that, through no fault of their own, loom larger in the national consciousness than the O’Brien Trophy’s search for a mate. The decision to go best-of-seven from the jump would seem to show without remorse that, in imagining a playoffs whose dimensions put the “season” in “postseason,” the Association is trying to milk this demographic for all it’s worth. In doing so, however, it has opened itself to much of the criticism traditionally reserved for the regular season: too long, static, and not competitive enough, it exacts none of the thrilling exigencies of these other instant DVDs. The narratives of the NBA playoffs require either a prior understanding of the league and its everyday murk in which deep feelings fester and bloom, or a willingness to take an excessively patient approach to emotional payout.
The only way to mask this, then, would be to have less basketball for the sake of having less. On the one hand, less for less’s sake is a valid way of heightening drama. But I have trouble believing that this faction’s cries for less NBA are not just that: cries for less NBA. The NCAA’s playoffs move the crowd simply because of their structure; looking at the bracket itself could inspire the forces of arousal to stir in the spatially inclined. These playoffs-only consumers seek to reduce the NBA, as a sport, to exactly the same place-holding miscarriage as NCAA ball: a technicality that aids in the instrumental production of intrigue, replete with compelling evidence of the participants giving a fuck. That it is basketball is only marginally important, as the game’s positive characteristics are buried beneath a host of allusions to other sports, abstracted competition, and nearly fanatical insistence on the irrelevance of the NBA’s regular season.
Yet, while watching very little of the playoffs in order to prove a point about the NBA may figure prominently into an anti-NBA fatwa, it still counts as major-league-sports consumption. And last time I checked, showing up at the last minute to misperceive and thinly grasp it is what some might politely term “a bitch move.” If I proudly declared that I only watch the major bowls, and then claimed to have an authoritative take on the Heisman, of what worth would I be? Red Sox fans who jumped on the bandwagon only as it approached infinity were reviled beyond belief, yet to do so with your NBA squad of choice is the very picture of nobility? We endlessly mock women who fill out tournament brackets based on mascots and team colors, but not intimately knowing your opponent’s bench players makes you a better, more honorable fan of professional basketball? My yearlong love of this league simply cannot put me at a disadvantage when it comes to living through, and owning up to in my bones’ cores, the basketball events of April, May, and early June.
We’ve certainly heard the players themselves draw a sharp distinction between May and November, and far be it from me to disagree with their perspective. Participants stress the focus and will necessary to advance. This is the playoffs, and only a fool would disregard the tremors of consequence that suddenly echo throughout a league whose regular season has usually determined its extremes of success and failure in its first eight weeks. But turning it on for the playoffs is not the same as upping the ante, and, as Shaq has shown in recent years, it has no place in this sport. The playoffs do not begin as a blank slate, and teams carry over momentum from the tail end of the morbid 82-game season. If you don’t know where they came from, you don’t know where they’re going. And if you don’t get how and why they were playing in the first place, you don’t have a fucking clue about what the games going on now really stand for, whether we’re talking mechanics or poetry.