I've had this theory for a while that NBA regular season games are about as meaningful as baseball spring training games, which is to say not meaningful at all. I also have a theory that the NBA playoffs are a complete waste of time for the first two rounds because the higher-seeded teams pretty much always win. Things don't get interesting until the conference finals, when we're finally rid of all the mediocrities and we get down to four quality teams, the teams that should have made up the entire field in the first place.
I don't know why it's never occurred to me until now that these two theories are contradictory. After all, you get to be a higher-seeded team by winning more regular-season games. Could it be that those Tuesday night tilts in February, played at about half-speed, actually mean something to the participants, even when both teams have been assured of a playoff spot -- or a lack of one -- since about 10 games into the 82-game season?
Actually, no, I don't think that could be. My theories might be contradictory, but I still think they're both right. Call me a postmodernist. Just don't call me until the third round of the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, the two-time defending champs and the best team in the regular season, are playing for the NBA championship in the Western Conference finals. They've gone down to the wire in each of the last two games, each winning once, which leaves Sacramento up three games to two going into Game 6 in Los Angeles Friday.
Over in the East, in a series that's been every bit as entertaining as the one in the West, the Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets, playing for the right to be beaten in the Finals, have played a wacky bunch of games, with Boston spotting New Jersey 20-plus points in each of the last three, and then mounting furious comebacks, one of which has been successful. The Nets lead that series three games to two with Game 6 also Friday in Boston.
(And by the way, I hope you're not missing the real Stanley Cup Finals, which are disguised as the NHL Western Conference finals between the Detroit Red Wings and the defending champion Colorado Avalanche. Game 7 of that series is also Friday, an embarrassment of sporting riches that's threatening the harmony of my household, which only has two TVs, both of which I need, dear wife, and I don't even care about the World Cup. The Detroit-Colorado winner earns the right to beat the Eastern Conference champion Carolina Hurricanes for the Stanley Cup. NHL hockey doesn't get any better than this series has been. And I don't think it's possible to have a better goaltender matchup than the Avs' Patrick Roy vs. the Wings' Dominik Hasek, even if you could magically use any goaltender who ever lived.)
I wrote after Game 1 of the Nets-Celtics series that the Nets, who won that game, were a better team than the Celtics, who seemed baffled by their loss. After the Celts won Game 2, Boston fans wrote me en masse to tell me how wrong I'd been. Except for a once-in-a-lifetime fourth-quarter comeback that won them Game 3, the Celtics have trailed the Nets ever since and lost twice, and now nobody writes me anymore. Don't you people know I get lonely?
Once you get past Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker -- and that's no easy task, I understand that -- the Celtics aren't much. The Nets don't have anybody to match those two, but their starting five is better overall, and Jason Kidd makes them seem even better than they really are. And there's just no comparing Boston's bench to New Jersey's. The only reason Boston wasn't eliminated in five games is that fluke fourth quarter last weekend, when the Celtics went nuts and the Nets went south. The Celtics fell way behind and made furious comebacks in each of the next two games, but the Nets turned them back.
It's not that the Nets are so great. The NBA is absurdly tilted toward the West at the moment, and the best team in the East -- that would be New Jersey -- is roughly equivalent to about the fifth- or sixth-best team in the West. That would be Minnesota and Portland. Remember them? But the Nets are good enough to win one of the next two over the Celtics and advance to the Finals, and all my friends in Boston will write me again, saying, "King, you weh right afta all. Yaw nawt an idiot. Fuhget those things we said about yah mothah."
Those hot starts the Nets have been using to jump to huge leads over the Celtics in the last three games would probably result in about a tie with the Lakers or Kings. And the collapses that have let the Celts back into all three of those games would leave New Jersey down by about 25 and nostalgic for those carefree regular-season days of beating the snot out of Eastern Conference teams. Come back to the five and dime, New York Knicks, New York Knicks.
So who will beat the Nets in the Finals?
I also wrote last week that it was hard to picture the Kings playing defense well enough to beat the Lakers in a long series. That's no longer so hard to picture. It turns out, though, that the Kings' defense isn't the key. It's their offense, which is, of course, the best thing about them, other than their name.
When the Kings are running their offense, they're good enough to beat the Lakers. When they go on one of their runs -- when they are, to use a hockey term, flying around -- they're good enough to bury the Lakers. But never mind flying around, they can't even seem to run their offense for a whole game. There's been a point in every contest so far when the Kings just seem to stop. No more cuts. No more good passes, no more offensive rebounds. Their offense devolves to Chris Webber dribbling aimlessly around the corner of the key and then either launching a bad shot or throwing a bad pass. Either that or it's Vlade Divac holding the ball too long in the low post, having it knocked away on a double-team and crying for a foul.
Now, the Lakers are a great defensive team. I don't mean to say that the Los Angeles defenders have had nothing to do with Sacramento's offensive woes. Shaquille O'Neal and Aunt Sally's Monday night bridge club would make a pretty good defense, and Kobe Bryant and company are much quicker to the ball than Aunt Sally's gang, though the latter are quicker to the spinach dip.
But the Lakers' defense at its best isn't quite good enough to stop the Kings' offense at its best. When the Kings aren't scoring, it's not because they've been stopped, it's because they've stopped themselves. NBC commentator Bill Walton, whose doofiness tends to mask his astuteness, notices it each time. "The Kings have stopped playing," he'll say as Webber goes bounce, bounce, bounce, launch ... clang.
If you ever watched Walton play, you'll recognize his simple formula for success in basketball, expressed repeatedly during this series in reference to the Kings' offense: "Keep attacking!"
If the Kings can follow that advice in either of the next two games without losing their top, oh, three players to injury, they'll be the NBA champions within two weeks.