Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thrilling NBA playoffs prove game wins out over lockout's mess -

The Miami Heat vs. the Boston Celtics. The San Antonio Spurs vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And, barely four months ago, it was the Giants vs. the 49ers and the Patriots vs. the Ravens, and, in the end, the Giants vs. the Patriots.

Tim Duncan's Spurs matching up against the Oklahoma City Thunder is a series NBA fans will love, helping people forget the ugliness of the early season labor strife. (AP photo)

Lockout? What’s that? You remember ... that thing that was supposed to destroy the NBA’s and NFL’s seasons, and the fans’ unbreakable loyalty along with them.

Well, at least one deluded columnist predicted that, repeatedly over the past year or so.

Wrong again.

The game is too good, again. Not the bargaining table, not the suits, not the emotional blackmail â€" the game.

The NFL produced two classic conference championship games â€" one went into overtime, one ended on the shanked field goal of all shanked field goals â€" then turned out another unforgettable Super Bowl, one that made Eli Manning, Tom Coughlin and the Giants 2-0 against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

So, yeah, that turned out all right. OK, so the NFL and the football players’ union apparently hate each other more now with a signed labor deal than they did without one. Give the public another postseason like last year’s, and not a soul will care.

And the same goes for the NBA.

This had disaster written all over it, the way teams and players wore down at the end of the grind of a compressed regular season â€" and the way Derrick Rose’s ACL popped in the final minutes of the Bulls’ first playoff game. You would be forgiven if you dreaded how the rest of the playoffs would unfold.

Instead ... a near-perfect pairing in both the East and the West, and a tantalizing start to both conference championship series.

The game itself always wins out, in spite of what mess gets stirred up outside of it. It’s what makes all the negotiation battles and courtroom tussles and name-calling and posturing and threats to people’s livelihoods all worthwhile. It’s why everybody â€" players, owners, commissioner and fans â€" gets so enraged over the business machinations.

Technically, the game can’t function without all of that. But none of that would mean anything if the game didn’t suck us in the way it does.

Remember the theme of the lockout summer ... “Basketball Never Stops”? It struck the right chord then. It’s pitch-perfect now.

Sure, it would not have been terrible to see Chicago in the East final, instead of Boston. But the Celtics’ presence isn’t just about them winning their way here, of course. They’re the Celtics. They’re the Big Three on possibly the final journey, limping their way in, trying to forget that Father Time is undefeated. And there’s genuine history between this group and the Heat, and between this group and LeBron James.

As for the Heat ... nah, that really doesn’t need explaining. If you need that explained, why are you watching in the first place? Why are you reading this, even? (It’s fun having teams like that in the mix, isn’t it?)

One game into this series, and all the storylines are still in place. The Heat kept doing what they’d done to Indiana in the final three games of their semifinal ... after they had really pushed America’s basketball buttons by falling behind, 2-1, flexing and co-flexing with the underdog opponent and dragging everybody into the Dwyane Wade drama.

The Celtics, meanwhile, looked exactly like a team that barely survived a seventh game against an eighth-seeded 76ers team that would have sent fans fleeing their flat-screens had they advanced further. Nobody outside of Philly really wanted the whiff of luck, or a hint of a lockout-induced asterisk, on the conference final.

In the West, the Spurs and Thunder are merely the two best teams out there. No, we didn’t get the two Hollywood teams. Not the reversal of fortune that the Clippers represent, or the soap opera of the Lakers. Just the future of the NBA in Oklahoma City, and the resurrected past that is San Antonio â€" home of the stealth superstar, Tim Duncan, and of possibly the most underplayed regular season/postseason combined unbeaten streak of all time.

It’s not easy to get old and new, past, present and future colliding in both series, with the torch either being passed or hungrily held onto in each one. We got them. We’ll be hard-pressed to take our eyes off of them the next two weeks â€" especially with a game every night. The same will occur in the NBA Finals between the survivors.

After the off-court ugliness that lasted through the summer and fall and threatened winter, the game, at this level and among these teams, is just a beautiful sight.

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