Friday, May 16, 2008

A Series Of Unlikely Coincidences

I'm naturally a conspiracy theorist. I don't know if it's the lingering hangover from a father that worked in Naval intelligence, a natural paranoia brought on by upbringing or environment, or a simple willingness to believe in the existence of "master plans."

Being self-aware of this, I strive pretty hard to suppress those thoughts. No matter the context in which they happen, I tend to apply Occam's Razor pretty broadly. No matter my own perception, I know that the league doesn't engineer finals matchups, doesn't pressure referees to adjust their calls for the Lakers at home, doesn't rig lotteries in order to help out or punish franchises. Things happen, and a lot of time in this world, things are merely coincidences.

It's only in the existence of a series of unlikely coincidences that I am unable to shout down my highly developed dedication to squashing my own cynicism.

Such is the case with the San Antonio Spurs and Robert Horry.

Let's be clear on some things.

The San Antonio Spurs would have defeated the Phoenix Suns last year, regardless of the suspensions that resulted from Robert Horry's check on Steve Nash. There has never been a moment over the last three years where you could look at those two teams and say to yourself, "Wow. The Suns really might be able to beat these guys." The Spurs just have their number. Plain and simple. There may not even have been a game seven.

Second, the San Antonio Spurs are one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports. Yeah, you heard me. I don't care about back to back. I don't care about the talent level in 05, the injuries in 2003, or the weak Eastern conference in 2007. They have consistently won more games than almost any other team in sports over the last 9 years. They have 4 championships, with a possible fifth on the horizon. They have been consistent, they have been efficient, they have been lethal, and they have beaten all comers. They have what I would argue is the best coach in the National Basketball Association, tremendous trainers, a brilliant GM, a terrific organization, and an elite roster. They are one of the greatest teams we'll ever see.

Third, this Spurs team, this year, right now, is good enough to beat anyone in the NBA in seven games. They have three of the best players in the league right now, including the best power forward in the history of the game. They have tremendous veteran leadership. They have excellent role players that will contribute whatever is asked of them. They play phenomenal defense, and they shoot the lights out when they're on. This team can beat anyone based on talent, grit, and poise.

Which is what makes it all the more disappointing that they resort to the tactics they do.

When I first started to notice Bruce Bowen's defensive tactics, I brushed it off as my own bias. Sure, he grabs Nash's wrist when he comes around screens. No big deal. Okay, yeah, he kicks a little bit here and there. Okay, he tosses an elbow. But then the evidence began to mount. And mount. And mount. And now there are entire tomes of YouTube videos based on his dirty play. It went from "Is this guy a little cheap sometimes?" to "Maybe this guy is a little dirty around the edges" to "This guy CAN play a little dirty" to "Okay, yeah, he's dirty, but he's a really hard worker!" It's pretty evident. And again, Bowen is still a good enough defensive player to not need to do such things. But that's not enough. He feels that he has to do these things. And Bowen continues to say they're accidents. At some point, if it smells like a rat, looks like a rat, and acts like a rat, it's a rat.

Robert Horry is even more painful to watch. I grew up watching the Rockets; they were the first team I followed intently in the playoffs during their championship run. Watching Horry knock down big threes used to send me into, pardon the expression, paroxysms of joy. He is one of the best clutch players in the history of the NBA. And now, he's nothing but a cheap shot artist. Spurs blogs constantly rail on Horry's defensive liabilities. He's got little lift on his three-point shot and he often mistimes rebounds because he's trying to muster the energy to jump. He has very little to contribute on the basketball end at this point. So what does he do? The only thing he can. Cheap shot important players for the other team.

Yes, West was jumping back. And yes, you have a right to defend players in the lane. But don't try and tell me that Horry didn't know what he was doing. You have a player with a back injury, and you just "happen" to nail him directly in his back? If you watch the clip, you're going to notice that not only does Horry go into his back, but he goes up into him. He dips down, just slightly, and puts the elbow into him, up. He knew what he was doing, and he did what he wanted.

Now, if this was all? If this was the first time Horry's been pegged as such? Absolutely. Let it slide. These things happen. Basketball is a physical game. Every now and again, guys are going to get hurt, especially when they're already nursing an injury. No big deal. Let's talk about Game 7.

But you can't do that with Horry, or with the Spurs. They have built a reputation of being dirty, trying to deceive referees with flops to a degree that puts to shame every other flop artist in the league, smacking players whenever they get a chance, and using every advantage to get the win. This is Horry, who just last year in the second round, in the exact same situation, made a malicious hit on the leader of the other team. You can try and talk about Nash selling the foul all you want. But the fact is that after a game was already over, just like last night, with a pivotal game coming up, just like last night, Horry targeted and took out a marquee player on the other team. Just like last night.

I want it made clear that I don't think Greg Popovich had anything to do with what happened last year, this year, or at any point. He employs veteran players that fit his system and are willing to work within his system. He's a class act and has never been anything but. And he's honestly too smart to ever want his players to do anything that could get them suspended.

But Horry knew what he was doing, just like Bowen knows what he's doing every time he tries to undercut a player or wrench a point guard's arm out of it's socket. Just like Parker knows what he's doing when he lands on the floor on every single drive, inevitably lays on the ground like he's been shot, and then is miraculously fine thirteen seconds later before icing both free throws.

What makes me the most angry about this is that they really don't need to do these things. I don't think the Spurs win because of these actions. They win because they play committed team defense, strike at their opponents' weaknesses, shoot the lights out when they need to, adjust their phenomenally versatile offense to whatever attack faces them, and generally beat the crap out of teams with whatever is most effective. They don't need to win like this. They can just go out, play their game, use their talent, and win championships. But for some reason, they don't feel that it's enough. Maybe it's an obsessive need to hold on to their fading youth. Maybe it's a simple dedication to winning at all costs. Maybe it's spurred on (no pun intended) by their endlessly classy fan base that chanted "Horry, Horry, Horry" last night after Horry, intentionally or not, injured a star player for the other team. Whatever the reason, they have decided that this is how they will win. And they have won. And in the end, no one can take that away from them. They will always have the shine of championship rings to bask in, while the rest of us know the truth. This team's legacy will always be slightly sullied by their dirty play.

If it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, and sounds like a rat, then you don't need to make excuses about it acting like a tough hedgehog, or whatever else Mark Jackson wants to say. It's a rat. Call it that.

And that's the saddest part of all.

Spurs in 7.

Add to Technorati Favorites