King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Are you watching? Because the NBA really is fantastic again. Plus: Bonds plunked, fans cheer.


Salon Staff
May 17, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

The Kaufman rule was in full effect Tuesday as the late game on the West Coast went into overtime and then double overtime, the Phoenix Suns beating the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 5 of their series, 125-118.

Are you watching these NBA playoffs? The ratings say not really, but more than you have in the last few years. I'm afraid viewers are starting to catch on but lagging a bit behind a real resurgence in the quality of NBA basketball.

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The Western Conference playoffs have been ridiculously entertaining, from the first round, when the eighth-seed Sacramento Kings took the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs to six games and the seventh-seed Los Angeles Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Suns, to Tuesday night's thrilla at the home of the Gorilla.

And the Suns-Clippers series is only on the undercard, along with the Eastern Conference. The main event at the moment is the Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks in a Western Conference semifinal series that matches the two best teams in the conference.

Oops.

The NBA's going to fix that, commissioner David Stern says, seeding the three division champs and the best second-place team 1-4 according to record in the future so No. 1 and No. 2 can't meet before the conference final.

In the meantime, here's a tip: Watch Game 5 of the San Antonio Spurs-Dallas Mavericks series Wednesday night. The Mavericks lead three games to one after sweeping two games in Dallas.

Kobe Bryant will be a guest in the TNT studio, which might be fun because Charles Barkley hammered him on the air for his Game 7 performance against Phoenix, and Barkley said later that Bryant had text-messaged him to express displeasure about that. But I'm guessing they'll be all lovey-dovey.

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"It's a heavyweight fight, a slugfest," said Mavs coach Avery Johnson after Dallas' 123-118 overtime win in Game 5 Monday. "And, boy, each team was throwing punches."

Don't you hate it when people use boxing as a metaphor for other sports?

Seriously, if I may digress from my digression: We need to find a new way to describe a sporting event in which two powerhouse teams go at each other tooth and nail. We have to stop saying it's like a heavyweight fight. It's not like a heavyweight fight.

A heavyweight fight is two fat guys leaning on each other. You want to see a basketball game that looks like a heavyweight fight? Dig up a tape of a Knicks-Magic game circa 1998. Behold as they slog through four quarters and try to break 80 points.

I got three writing styles. Digressions, digressions off my digressions, and digressions off my digressions off my digressions.

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But I digress. Where was I? Ah, the NBA playoffs. When was the last time you saw a crucial postseason game turn on an eight-second violation?

An eight-second violation? What's that, the new math? They changed the rule from 10 seconds a few years ago. You might not have noticed, but it was a great change. Really picked up the pace of the game.

The Clippers had called timeout two seconds into their possession following a defensive rebound on a free throw, with 36 seconds left in regulation and the game tied. When play resumed, point guard Sam Cassell took the inbounds pass and casually walked toward the frontcourt. But he only had six seconds to work with, not eight. He was called for the violation just before crossing center court.

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Coach Mike Dunleavy immediately made a "my fault" gesture for failing to remind his point guard about the unusual timing issue. Teams usually call timeout quickly upon getting a rebound, or wait till they get to the frontcourt. The Clippers had hesitated for some reason, and Cassell, who wasn't in the game during the timeout, hadn't noticed or had forgotten by the time play resumed.

It may have only meant that Steve Nash and Cassell traded missed three-pointers in that order rather than in the reverse, but it was the goofiest turnover of the playoffs so far.

The drama came at the end of the first overtime, when Raja Bell of the Suns nailed a contested three from the left corner with 1.1 seconds left to tie the game again and send it to a second extra session, where the Suns, who had built and then blown a 19-point lead in the second half, prevailed.

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But overtime thrillers or no, the basketball is just better these days in the NBA. Fairly minor rule tweaks involving defense and fouls have helped to open up the game and led to a slight but noticeable increase in scoring. Two years ago, NBA teams averaged 93.4 points per game in the regular season, the lowest total in a non-strike year since 1955. Last year, scoring jumped to 97.2 points per game, and this year it was 97.0.

But it's at this time of year, the playoffs, when the change is really visible.

The year 2000 was a little oasis in the scoring drought of the last decade. Following the 91.6-point scoring average in strike-shortened 1999, teams averaged 97.5 a game in 2000, a high point amid a decade of scoring averages that hovered around 95.

But in the first two rounds of that year's playoffs, teams averaged 87.9 points per game. This year, with at least four and at most six second-round games to go, teams are averaging 99.1 points per game in the playoffs. The winning team has broken 100 in 38 of 63 games so far, 60.3 percent. In the first two rounds in 2000, with similar regular-season scoring, the winning team broke 100 in 18 of 56 games, 32.1 percent.

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And maybe most important, the Suns and Mavericks are at the forefront of a movement back to an uptempo style. Playing styles follow fashion, so the more years those teams go deep in the playoffs, the more teams will follow their lead.

The slight rise in NBA playoff TV ratings can be credited largely to the presence this year of not only LeBron James for the first time but also the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls and even the Clippers, who may be the Clippers, but once they start winning, they're suddenly from Los Angeles. Jack Nicholson was in the stands at Phoenix Tuesday night.

Here's hoping the new viewers, and you know who you are, realize what they're seeing, and we'll have a little less whining than last year if we have another all-Eastern Daylight Time Flyover Finals.

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Houston fans cheer Bonds plunking [PERMALINK]

We've been talking about uncivil fan behavior around here, and I'm trying to decide if Astros fans' reaction to the drilling of Barry Bonds Tuesday fits in.

It probably does but, you know, conversations about incivility in baseball start and end with Barry Bonds, so it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

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The crowd at Minute Maid Park cheered Astros pitcher Russ Springer's apparent attempts to hit Bonds in his fourth at-bat, leading off the fifth inning with the San Francisco Giants leading the Astros 11-3. Springer threw the first pitch behind the slugger, then threw three more inside pitches, one hitting the knob of Bonds' bat, before finally plunking him in the shoulder with pitch No. 5.

The fans cheered each pitch, especially the foul ball, which looked to the naked eye like it had hit Bonds on the elbow. They booed when umpire Joe West issued a warning to Springer and cheered when Astros manager Phil Garner came out to argue that point. The FSN Houston cameras caught West saying, "He threw the fucking ball behind him" and turning on his heel.

What's funny about that foul ball, on the third pitch, is that if it had been another half-inch inside and hit Bonds on the elbow guard, Springer would have been thrown out by West. So that half-inch kept Springer in the game for two more throws. As if Russ Springer -- career walk rate: 4.03 per nine innings -- could control his pitches to within a half-inch.

The fifth pitch of the at-bat, a 3-1 delivery, hit Bonds on the shoulder as he turned his back. The fans cheered, then booed as West tossed first Springer and then Garner. Springer could be seen in a close-up walking off the field and saying the word "slider." All five pitches registered on the FSN radar gun between 89 and 92 mph, which was the speed of the pitch that hit Bonds.

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The crowd gave Springer a hero's cheer as he reached the dugout.

After the game the Astros argued, pretty convincingly, I think, that Springer was simply pitching inside after Bonds had singled twice on pitches away earlier in the game. The first pitch might have been a message or it might have gotten away. The others, including the one that hit Bonds, were off the plate by only a few inches.

Of course, crowds don't cheer lustily at attempts to pitch inside. Crowd shots showed fans standing and smiling, excited. They clearly thought some headhunting was going on, and they loved it. There was a slightly disturbing, we've caught a fly and now we're pulling his wings off quality to those shots, but maybe it was just me.

But Springer wasn't throwing at Bonds' head, and whether he was trying to hit Bonds or not, message pitches have existed in baseball for as long as pitchers have been throwing overhand. I can't really picture any crowd in the majors not reacting exactly the same way if a home pitcher were treating Bonds or any other disliked opponent to some chin music.

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Previous column: Anthems booed, injuries cheered

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