This cannot be the NBA.
This isn't the league where the fourth seed beats the regular-season leader three straight times in the playoffs, including the pivotal Game 5 on the road, as the Cleveland Cavaliers did to the Detroit Pistons Wednesday night, 86-84.
The NBA isn't built to have its defending champion, the top seed in the dominant conference, get cuffed around in a second-round series by a team that's lost in the second round three of the last five years, and lost before the second round in another.
That's what has happened throughout the San Antonio Spurs' series against the Dallas Mavericks, including in Game 5 in San Antonio Wednesday, when the Spurs were again forced to play at the Mavs' quick tempo, though the champs were able to stave off elimination by pulling out a thriller, 98-97.
One thing about those Spurs: As they showed last year against the Phoenix Suns, they can beat you at their pace, or they can beat you at yours.
The NBA is a league where upsets don't happen. It's a league where surprises are discouraged. This is a league that decided, in the middle of a regular season a few years ago, to expand the first round of the playoffs from best-of-five to best-of-seven, just to lower the chances that the telegenic but wobbly Los Angeles Lakers -- and any other future favorites -- would be tripped up in early May.
What the NBA has wanted for a long time has been for the top seeds to make it to the Finals, because the top seeds are the best teams and usually have the biggest stars. That position has led to a set of rules and circumstances under which only five different teams have won the championship in the past 19 years, with the Bulls, Lakers, Spurs and Pistons winning at least three times each.
In baseball, with its famous competitive-balance problems, six different teams have won the championship in the past six years. In the past 19 years, 13 teams have won, and nobody but the Yankees has won three times.
But that all seems to be changing. Not only are the playoffs more entertaining and higher scoring, but they're more competitive. With one more Cleveland or Dallas win, the top seeds in both conferences would fail to make the conference finals for the first time since 1994.
But it looks great. I mentioned the increased scoring Wednesday, but what has really improved is the way teams score. The new defensive and fouling rules have encouraged jump shooting and athletic drives to the basket. The old rules encouraged isolation and low-post play.
With astonishing speed and alacrity, the NBA has moved away from the entry pass and the big butt backing down his defender and toward James or Manu Ginobili or Steve Nash slashing down the lane.
And since jump shooting and athletic drives are more variable, less predictable than finding out who's stronger under the basket, the outcomes of the game are up in the air more. The Cavs beating the Pistons or the Mavs beating the Spurs in this round -- and remember, neither has happened yet -- wouldn't have been unthinkable five or 10 or 15 years ago. But they would have been much more unlikely and would have seemed much more like upsets.
The postgame comments and morning headlines have all been about how the Cavs' win Wednesday was a stunner, but it didn't feel that way watching it. Antonio McDyess' post-buzzer, thousand-yard stare notwithstanding, it looked like two evenly matched teams going at it, the winner being the one with a little more offensive firepower, mostly in the person of James, whose razorlike pass to Drew Gooden in the final minute set up the winning basket.
I feel like I've been writing ad copy for the NBA the past few days, but it really has been this good. Did I steer you wrong when I told you to watch Wednesday's Spurs-Mavs game? Were you bored at any point up to Bruce Bowen's brilliant block of Dirk Nowitzki's would-be game winner, or Jason Terry's missed jumper in the waning seconds, or Nowitzki's just-missed put-back at the buzzer?
Now I'm telling you to watch Game 6 of the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers Thursday night. The Suns lead 3-2 after a double-overtime win in Phoenix Tuesday.
Don't worry, you won't miss any hockey. The conference finals don't start till Friday, when the sixth and eighth seeds in the West, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, play Game 1 in Anaheim.
No. 6 vs. No. 8 in the conference finals. That's a whole nother story.
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