Boy, am I liking Jeff Van Gundy on the ESPN broadcasts of the NBA playoffs.
Van Gundy has been working with Mike Breen and Mark Jackson on the Western Conference finals, and while I recall liking his work as a TV analyst when he was between coaching stints with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, I don't remember this level of candor. Or anger. Van Gundy, fired after Houston's first-round exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz, is peeved!
In a good way.
He has been railing against flopping, saying he'd like to see those who flop to get foul calls not just not rewarded but punished. We've discussed that around here, and it's problematic, but I like the way that man thinks.
Monday night Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs and Jared Collins of the Jazz got locked up in a mutual flop that would have been comical if it weren't so annoying. It was a race to the floor. What happens when floppers meet? It's like a snake eating itself. Time and space warp. Or something.
Enough of this, Van Gundy keeps saying. Play some damn defense. It doesn't sound like a radical idea out here in fanland, because that's how most fans think about flopping. Pretty much everybody hates it. But NBA insiders tend to think of it as an important strategy, or at least useful gamesmanship.
For example, Doug Collins, who's doing the Eastern Conference finals on TNT with Marv Albert and Steve Kerr, will praise a player for being able to "create a foul," which is to say fall down spectacularly. Hey Ma, guess what I saw today! A guy fell down!
Van Gundy has been taking it a step further than just knocking the floppers. He has been advocating that even legitimate charging fouls not be called. "Step into a guy's path so he runs into you, that's not playing defense," he said earlier in the playoffs. He'd like to see the rules changed to stop rewarding that style of play.
I couldn't agree more. "Taking a charge" should not be a valued basketball skill. It cuts down on offense and increases stoppages in play. Both bad. Let's make defenders play defense.
Van Gundy has gotten apoplectic about this at times, a what's this game coming to vibe dripping from him. And you kids get off my lawn! I don't know if he's mad about that kind of thing or about the Rockets firing him. Either way, it's fun to listen to.
Another thing I like about Van Gundy is that he doesn't have much time for the self-deprecation schtick that's standard for sports broadcasters.
Van Gundy and Jackson -- who played for Van Gundy three years ago, Jackson's last in the league -- have set up a cutting banter with each other, but while Van Gundy will sometimes crack a joke about his slight stature, he won't play along by saying he didn't know what he was doing as a coach and just got lucky in the good years by having good players yadda yadda.
It's pretty clear he believes he knew just fine what he was doing once he got those good players, and it's refreshing. As far as I'm concerned, Bob Uecker can stay with the self-deprecating schtick. Everybody else, cut it out.
Take Mark Jackson. He'll make jokes about his lack of ability. This guy was an NBA point guard for 17 years. He was Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, and he had more assists than anybody in history except John Stockton. Sure, that's because he hung around so long, but they don't just let you hang around for no reason.
Overall, both teams, Breen-Van Gundy-Jackson and Albert-Kerr-Collins, are very good, with top-notch play-by-play guys alongside an analyst who's entertaining to listen to and solid or better on the X's and O's. Jackson and Collins are both a little third wheelish in the unnecessary three-man setup, but they're both OK and neither detracts.
Now that I think of it, my fondness for certain announcers who are widely panned by people whose opinions often line up with mine -- I'm thinking here of Bill Walton and Joe Morgan -- may have a lot to do with the fact that neither indulges in Joe Garagiola-style self-mockery. Charles Barkley, another of my favorites, is not shy about discussing just how great he was.
Great and good players don't talk nearly enough about being great and good players. They talk in platitudes about hard work or God, or they jokingly downplay their achievements in the service of laughs and false modesty.
It's the broadcasting equivalent of taking a charge. It gets the job done, but enough of that. We need to hear more about what goes through a top player's mind in certain situations, less about, har har, I was just hoping all those years that nobody'd notice how bad I was.
Van Gundy does have one thing to learn as an analyst, though. He has to remember to keep justifying his existence. Earlier in the playoffs, one of his broadcast partners was talking about one team's advantage over its opponent in experience.
"I think sometimes experience is overrated," Van Gundy said. "It's how good you are."
Hey, man, if you're going to say that one team beats the other because they're better, you're going to make people think there's no need for two analysts courtside and three more back in the studio. Ix-nay on the how good you are thing.
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Ducks win Stanley Cup Game 1 [PERMALINK]
Speaking of stoppages in play -- scroll up, I just was -- there weren't any in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals Monday night. The Anaheim Ducks beat the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a terrific, hard-hitting game. Travis Moen whacked a bouncing puck past goalie Ray Emery for the game winner with 2:51 to go in the third period.
OK, there were stoppages, but for about a seven-minute stretch there in the second period, there weren't any. None. No whistles. And just my luck I had to pee.
Just kidding. TiVo. But I'd have made the sacrifice if necessary.
Seven minutes? Seriously. Try counting how many times the ball crosses the half-court line in a basketball game without a whistle blowing. If you get to seven -- maybe two minutes of playing time, tops -- you're in rarefied air.
The NHL has niched itself into extreme nichetude, and can't seem to get marquee teams into the Finals, though while the Ducks don't exactly have a high Q rating, I'm scratching my head trying to figure out how a team that plays in the No. 2 market in the union is a "small-market team," as often described.
But even if you haven't taken the league up on its dare to be a fan, you're missing out if you're not paying attention over the next two weeks. I don't think the Senators are tough enough to beat the Ducks, but what do I know, and the teams look pretty evenly matched.
They'll go every other night, except they skip Fridays, and chances are pretty good they'll go into overtime at least once. And if there's nothing quite like playoff hockey overtime, there's no playoff hockey overtime like Stanley Cup Finals overtime.
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