It was a good news, bad news kind of Tuesday for the NBA.
The good news: They’ll be playing basketball in the fall. The league and the players association have agreed on a new six-year collective bargaining agreement. There won’t be a lockout July 1, as had been feared.
The bad news: They’ll be playing basketball Thursday night.
The Flyover Finals aren’t over yet. The series that’s made America stand up and say, “What else is on?” is going to a seventh game. The Detroit Pistons won in San Antonio for the first time in eight years Tuesday, beating the Spurs 95-86, tying the series at 3-3.
OK, that’s a joke. The Pistons’ victory wasn’t bad news for the NBA. In fact, Rasheed Wallace will tell you that the NBA wants seventh games so badly it’s willing to put the fix in to get them.
Wallace’s expensive conspiracy theory aside — he was fined $20,000 for his comments before Game 6 of the Heat series — it really is always great to have a Game 7. There hasn’t been one in the Finals since 1994. And while you were watching “Family Guy” and “Law & Order: SVU,” the Pistons and Spurs were turning in a pair of close games won by the visiting team.
All of a sudden, this series of blowouts upon blowouts has turned into what most of us expected it to be: a close, hard-fought, intense, grinding battle in which every possession is crucial.
It isn’t Michael Jordan soaring through the lane or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant putting aside their soap opera for 48 minutes to make some Eastern Conference team look like the Washington Generals. But it’s turned into every bit the intriguing series it should have been from the start.
There’s no way to look at those first six games and predict with any confidence what might happen in Game 7. The Spurs have the home floor, where they rarely lose and where they blew the Pistons away twice last week — but also where they got beat Tuesday. The Pistons have the momentum — which they also had Sunday, right before they lost.
The Pistons earned a seventh game and a chance to repeat as champs by doing something not many teams can do. They shut down Tim Duncan, which they also did in their two previous wins, and in one of their losses too.
Duncan had 21 points and 15 rebounds Tuesday, which is actually an improvement on his averages for both the regular season (20.3 points, 11.1 rebounds) and the playoffs (19.8 points, 14.7 rebounds). Which just goes to show you how averages sometimes don’t tell you much.
Duncan got his numbers, but he wasn’t much of a factor. The Spurs offense didn’t go through him, as it does when it’s working well. He went long stretches without touching the ball.
At one point — from late in the third quarter to a little past midway through the fourth — he went 10 minutes without scoring. In that time, he took one shot, got fouled and missed both free throws.
“I’m being as aggressive as I can be,” he said after the game. “I’m not going to demand the ball.”
That’s good news for Detroit, who don’t need Duncan being as aggressive as he should be as they try to become the first team to win Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals on the road. Only three of 15 Finals seventh games have been won by the visiting team, most recently when the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle Sonics in 1978.
These Finals have athleticism and muscle, offensive fireworks and — mostly — defensive stoutness. And for the last two games they’ve even had suspense. They have everything but star power. The CBA agreement is the second time the Finals have been overshadowed by a news story, the first being Phil Jackson’s rehiring by the Lakers.
You get the idea a stray cat having kittens in the SBC Center parking lot would overshadow this series.
But let’s not downplay the NBA’s achievement in getting a deal done. Just because it was clear to any rational person that a lockout would have been a towering achievement in stupidity doesn’t mean it was a foregone conclusion that a lockout would be avoided.
The NHL, after all, was flying a lot closer to the ground than the NBA is, and that league — a reminder: it was in the hockey business — shuttered itself.
But commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter put an end to their little game of brinksmanship and sensibly made the compromise deal that was obviously there to be made.
The players gave a little, agreeing to slightly shorter maximum contracts, slightly lower raises, increased drug testing and a minimum age of 19, marked down from 20, which Stern had said he wanted.
The owners gave a little, agreeing to some minor, player-friendly changes in the escrow system, which holds money back from salaries in case total league payroll exceeds 57 percent of revenue, as well as a guarantee that that 57 percent of revenue will go to salaries and an appeals system for long suspensions.
It was smart to get this done on Tuesday, before the first elimination game started. With no issue creating a major rift between the players and owners, and with salaries and team values both on the rise, it would have been idiotic to let the specter of a work stoppage hang over the winning of the championship either Tuesday or Thursday night.
The NBA is having a hard enough time getting people interested in the Pistons and the Spurs without giving them an excuse to tune out because the league’s about to shut down anyway.
Now the trophy can be awarded and the champagne can flow in a time of labor peace. Labor strife is boring in your own industry, deadly in someone else’s. Thanks to the new CBA, we won’t have to hear about it in the NBA until 2011.
And that’s the best news of all.
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