|Life, death and the NBA Finals|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Found myself speaking in tongues during Game 1 of the Finals.
First, I was Ricardo Montalban, as Khan, in "Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan," asking incredulously, rhetorically, "Ad-mirrrahl?! Ad-mirrrahl?!" in disbelief, as David Robinson put up nine points, six rebounds and a couple blocks in the first half. Admiral (Ret.) will fade in second halves, must get off early. Or so I rationalized.
I had picked the Nets. I like the Nets. But you can like Thompson's gazelles on the Serengeti -- that doesn't mean they'll make it.
You know how it is. You pick a team or player, rationalize how they should win. You look for holes in the others, denigrate them and their character. Your pick may be based on pure analysis, but just the fact that it's your pick means your emotions get involved.
So that explains why I then became Mumbles, of Dick Tracy fame, as it became apparent that Jason Kidd, in his own words, couldn't throw it into the ocean in Game 1. Translating my mumbling, what I was said to myself (while frightening my guests) was, "The thing to remember is not that Jason is missing these shots, but the ease at which he is getting them. He won't keep missing those shots."
Yet he did. "Berpsklkxnsaopgnw!" I mumbled.
Finally I became a combination of Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran, Elmer Gantry, and a snake-handling, soft-shoeing, Zydeco band-backed fundamentalist preacher with a hotfoot, attempting to cast out demons from the body of Richard Jefferson, or attempting to cast out the demon Richard Jefferson, whichever works.
If RJ wasn't such a klutz, such a walking turnover, I'd feel like Jim Kelly in "Enter the Dragon" right now, exhibiting inconsiderable acting skills while "stoically" waiting to get more odds, as my partner-in-crime John Saxon was tanking the first two minutes of his martial arts exhibition. I will not only be surprised if the Spurs beat the Nets 4 games out of 7, I'll be stunned. But then the Cape Buffalo will rout the lionesses, if they are not operating as one.
Don't be deceived by Tim B Dunkin's big game. Duncan is going to have big numbers in many of these games beacuse Biscotty doesn't like to double -- like his folded-armed model, Pat Riley.
All well and good. Let Duncan keep tattoing you with 32, 20, 6, 7 and 3. See where it gets you. Down 0-1, is where, maybe 0-2, and not on a couch with any of the phalanx of late-night yakkers.
So, case closed in these NBA Finals?
I don't think so.
Even if the Spurs go up 2-0 Friday night, it won't be case closed.
Am I insane, you ask, or on some frappe of lead paint chips, Ecstasy, peyote mushroom extract, malt liquor and crack?
No, but if I have to watch RJ play like this, I may try it.
There is something uncertain, hesitant and plain wrong about the application of Jefferson's game. He moves like a zebra going opposite of his herd, standing out, putting everyone at risk, and not like the lion he appears to be. He has worlds of skill, we knew that ever since we first saw him at Arizona and we said, in the manner usually reserved for beautiful co-eds, "Wow, who is THAT?!"
But then, if you find out he's an on-court air-head ... this has nothing to do with actual intelligence. In interviews, RJ sounds like a smart young man. I'm sure he is. But he doesn't play smart world-class hoop. The Nets were so superior to their Eastern opposition earlier in the playoffs, that didn't matter. Now it does. He plays like he's on roller blades. As long as his chosen angle is unobstructed, he's fine; even spectacular. But if he is made to adjust, cover your eyes.
In one sequence Wednesday night, Jefferson, playing as if in a fog, threw a pass in the half-court set, telegraphed it, then made it cross-court in slo-mo, like he was in a high school scrimmage. Malik Rose, a shrewd man, a Hulk-like figure and a smart player, knew where the pass was going. Rose, having studiously watched film of the Nets' motion offense, shot the gap, made the steal and ran down to sink the lay-in. Jefferson didn't race after him and contest a layup off his turnover, as most world-class hoopers and all true predators would do. He sorta jogged after the play dully, as if this was the CYO league and he a herd animal.
I frankly cannot count the times he blew end-break lay-ins because Ginobili or Jackson or Bowen had hustled back and made the angle tougher, or threw a soft entry pass that was picked off, or didn't swing the ball quickly to overtax the defensive rotation. Stank.
Surely Jefferson has to be aware enough to make the pass crisply, see the defender laying back waiting to shoot the gap, and then improvise off that fact. The key will be to watch what happens now. If he makes that same turnover in another game in this series, you'll know Biscotty has to cut his minutes drastically, or lose.
John Havlicek, one of my first-five all-time Boston Celtics, now that I stop and think about it, said in an ABC promo during Game 1, "You have to learn from your mistakes, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes win championships." Now, John Havlicek's no threat to win a MacArthur, or even to load a computer, or write a play. He is no great intellect. He learned the hard way. By playing. He played hard all the time. RJ probably never saw him. Too bad. If RJ played as hard as Hondo, he'd quit thinking so much, thinking I'm so Jim Kelly in "Enter the Dragon," raking in all that 3-to-1 money.
But the Spurs can extend and turn up their D, too. They have to be discouraged, which they very well can be; Duncan and the Admiral (?!) are just waiting to go into their slump- shouldered shambling gait, it is natural for them, they are magnificent giraffes, but still giraffes; one lion is no threat to them, not even two lions; but a den of lions, or, more correctly, lionesses, can bring them down; but they have to be outplayed from the get-go, particularly in their building. And the Nets have to get one game in the Spurs' building.
Judging from RJ's learning curve, it'll have to be the last one.
Jefferson's the one who has the edge in this series, he, and then Rodney Rogers, Lucious Harris and Kittles from deep, after RJ drives and scores, then drives and kicks it back out to them for open threes. When he does handle it. That's where we are. The marquee is not about these role players. But the championship itself is not about Tim Duncan, K-Mart, Jason Kidd or Parker. Taken in tandem, they should actually cancel each other out.
Bruce Bowen should not be able to cancel out Richard Jefferson.
RJ for now seems thoroughly incapable, not of understanding this but of implementing it; and so somebody -- Biscotty, Jase, K-Mart or somebody -- better get to him, and quick. Otherwise, it falls to Kittles, Harris, Rogers, who are good, very good, but have a less capable skill set than RJ's. Which doesn't matter if he freezes.
When RJ gets the rock on the wing, extended, or posts up on the weakside box, on this level, he seems to pause, wait for it to come to him, just what to do. He is good enough to still get his jump shot off, even under these circumstances; but are the Nets willing to live and die with RJ's jumper? His drives and finishes would seem to be the answer, but they are not authoritative unless virtually unopposed. In short, he is no James Worthy.
The fact that Jason Kidd runs the Nets and their break so adroitly may have this drawback: With those old Piston champion teams, Isiah could run the break; but Joe Dumars could as well. None of the other Nets in their win line-up has much of a handle; and that, along with RJ, who personifies this flaw, could be their undoing.
If I see this, I'm sure Byron Scott does.
Yes, Jason Kidd shot 4 for 17, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen again. Kidd had 10 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and a couple of steals, and the commentators said how Tony Parker outplayed him. Tony Parker got into the pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan, is what happened, and converted six of 14, mostly out of that set. A couple of times Jason sank down, and Parker hit the three and you could almost see Jason saying, "Well, can't do that as a regular diet." That's why it's called Game 1.
So, what am I saying?
First, appreciate where we are. This is the highest level of hoop, the NBA Finals. These are the same guys who sent Shaq and Kobe home, who blitzed through 10 straight playoff wins, going through Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace like they weren't there. This ain't the Clicquot Club Eskimoes, baby. This is Louis Armstrong.
Which is why Jefferson playing like a dead fish or a grazing cud-chewing beast of burden seems so incongruous, and off-key, and obvious, and may end up costing the Nets.
It depends on how long Scott wants to stay with him. He should be able to take Bowen, back-door him, not because Bowen is a stiff, hardly, but Bowen is looking at Jason, taking a step toward him. Bowen can't actually guard Jason, no matter what anyone tells you; at 6-7, he's not quick enough laterally to keep Jason at bay, and trust this, the hole is where Jason will be going now.
When Bowen steps toward the middle to help on Jason, Jefferson has to be bold, step up, be a lion. In Game 1, he didn't. He looked lost, like he wanted to cry, or curse himself, or just lay his neck over like a wildebeest caught by crocs. Anything but confident.
It's not his skill that's in question, it's his application of his game. He's either too young, too inexperienced, or too aware of his surroundings, and he plays as if in a state of slowly freezing to death, and I'm afraid it's not an aberration. I'm not going to get into the ear thing because it has nothing to do with anything, but when he screws up, as he did in Game 1 constantly, everything stands out more. Will he stop thinking so much? Live to hunt, and, having hunted successfully and feasted, live to hunt again.
That's why they play the games. That's what keeps Vegas open.
What else can we pick up from Game 1, other than some 2-to-1 so-called "smart" money being waved around by Spur backers, who don't know yet that they're whistling past the graveyard? (Like Jim Kelly in "Enter the Dragon," I'm waiting for that 3-to-1 action).
There's purity to hoop at this level, the purity of jazz, or of the Serengeti plain. You can speak the language, or you can't; you can play the game, or you can't; you can do improvisation, or you can't; you're either predator, or prey -- there's nothing higher, nowhere left to go, nowhere to hide. You might as well play.
It becomes so complex it's simple.
Be what you are, RJ. Be what you are.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."