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Thursday July 24 2014
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Brainstorm: If You Love Hoops, Watch the NBA Playoffs

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Okay, I give you permission... No, really, you can admit that you're now watching the NBA because if you're not, you're going to miss the best basketball you'll watch all year over the next two weeks -- and I'll guarantee it for a number of reasons.

The Defensive IntensYes, they play defense in the NBA despite what everybody who doesn't watch the NBA still claims.

Take the Spurs' Stephen Jackson: the energy he exerted trying to bother Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant was my favorite match-up of the first game of the Western Conference Finals. A game, by the way, won by the Spurs, their 19th win in a row, despite the fact that they probably played at around 78 percent effectiveness offensively. Think about that. The Spurs played poorly -- for them -- on offense, but still managed to pull it together enough to score 101 points and beat the Thunder by 3.

The Ball Movement: Watch how many open shots the Spurs get, how they send their opponent's defense scrambling after either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili gets into the lane or turns a corner off the dribble. They'll send a simple bounce pass to a cutter, throw back to a shooter, or attack the basket themselves. Any of these decisions inevitably lead to either an open shot or a series of pop-pop-pop passes that result in an open shot. The Spurs are skilled and surgeon-like offensively (an incredible 51 percent on 111 3-point-attempts vs the Thunder over the last two seasons).

Which leads me to the next reason why you should watch this series in particular.

POP: Gregg Popovich is the best basketball coach in the world.

He has been for several years.

He's completely gone away from the style that won four titles and embraced a new one that gives his team their best chance to win. A lot is being made, incorrectly, in the media today of  Pop's "snarling plea" to his team to "get nasty" heading into the fourth quarter in the opening game. Pop was not snarling, in fact he was rather calm and his plea actually began with the question: "Are we having fun yet?"

He then went on to explain to his team that this -- the playoffs and trying to win a championship -- isn't going to be easy. The "nasty" comment was meant to relate what needed to go into the effort that every single aspect of the game had to include in order for his team to come out victorious. How they needed to drive the ball extra hard, how they had to move the ball with more urgency, how they had to understand just how good the dudes wearing the other jerseys are, and what it's going to take to best them. 

A lot of coaches really think they're smart. They think they're geniuses and they're not afraid to explain that to you. photo by Zereshk

Popovich is exactly the opposite.

He's not interested in letting anyone know how smart he is, he just wants to coach his team in his way and be left the hell alone. But here's the thing: Pop is truly that dude that all those other posers think they are. Pop could actually sit down with the world leaders in different areas and hold his own. He could really be doing anything he wanted to do in life and it's his choice to coach ball because he loves it that much and understands its what makes him happiest.

I had to laugh at a piece I read out of Orlando bemoaning the fact that Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard had missed out on their chance to be another version of Pop and Tim Duncan. I laughed because just a few weeks ago I read a profile of Duncan in SI that included the story about how, when Duncan was a rookie, Pop flew to Duncan's home in the Virgin Islands and spent four days or so with his new draft pick, just swimming in the ocean and talking about life on the beach.

It went on to explain that when Duncan was weighing leaving the Spurs for Orlando about a decade ago, he and Pop figured it out over beers in Pop's backyard. Let's just say I can't see Van Gundy, and especially Howard, being able to even have a conversation that didn't go through the media first. But sure, they could've been another Pop and Duncan.

Anyway, Popovich is really good; the best at his craft, and any coach worth his salt realizes that.

So watch how he does it with a mixed bag of talent and personalities. Watch how his bench reacts, how the dudes not playing are standing right behind him during short timeouts. It's the perfect example of a team, an example that's too often missing in today's sporting landscape, especially at the highest level.

My last reason is just that, the level.
 
Talent and Pace: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are exquisite talents. Diamonds, really. Durant is a 6'10" scorer in the mold of... well, how about a mixture of George Gervin, Michel Ray Richardson and Larry Bird?

He's so rare, moves so smoothly with or without the ball and plays so hard that it's really just ridiculous how freaking skilled and good he is. Plus he plays through contact and doesn't bitch over every little call.

Westbrook is a jet, a young point guard still coming into his own while being the third player in NBA history to accumulate 5,000 points, 1,900 assists and 1,300 rebounds in his first 274 games (Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the other two).

Tim Duncan is a top-10 player of all time and probably this generation's most under-appreciated superstar. He's got four titles and is working towards a fifth. Tony Parker is as fast or faster than Westbrook with the ball in his hands. Ginobili is an offensive force who flings his body all over the floor.

The pace of these games has been like what the Chicago Skyway would be if they gave every driver Turbo Porsches at the toll booth. The teams will only get sharper now that the series are underway. Do yourself a favor if you dig basketball.

Watch.

You won't be sorry.

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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