Praising the Bull, Savouring the Curry

There were no great surprises in the first round of the NBA playoffs, though two series rose above the others for interest and flavour. I would cheer for the laundry of the Golden State Warriors – their regular duds, not the short-sleeved jerseys with the weirdly non-matching pinstriped shorts – even if they didn’t have Stephen Curry and several other players I find easy to like. Meanwhile, what the Chicago Bulls did in taking a seven-game series on their opponents’ court was heartening evidence that coaching matters. (Thibodeau may not lead the most balanced of lives, but his Bulls teams are superbly prepared.) Character matters, even in the star-tossed salad of the National “Big is Here” Association.

Derrick Rose, Chicago’s dynamite point guard, hasn’t played in a year. (Loved his teammate’s sincere “shaddap” to Mr. Rose’s couch-bound critics.) His backup, Kirk Hinrich, missed the last two games of the Brooklyn Nets series with a bum leg, as did their Mr. Everything small forward, Luol Deng, who has been

The little fella has driven coaches nuts, but he’s been clutch. Boozer and the young kid, Jimmy Butler, have been aces, too.

seriously ill. Third-string point guard Nate Robinson is shorter than me, though he is a mighty mite and an absolutely conscience-free scorer. Centre Joakim Noah has been gutting out his minutes because of plantar fasciitis (sore feet). I hadn’t seen much of the Nets/Bulls collision, the only first-round matchup to go seven games, but I’d read most of the fairly astonishing accounts of how the Chicago men were getting by on focus, cohesion, toughness, and last-ditch defensive efforts that lasted entire games.

In this tug-of-war, the Nets out-weighed and out-muscled the Bulls at four out of five positions, and had at least three proven NBA scorers (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and emerging star Brook Lopez) to the Bulls’ one, the much-criticized Carlos Boozer. It didn’t matter in the end. The Bulls ferociously implemented Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme, and lived with whatever shots they could get from Robinson and Boozer as the shot-clock ran down. Marco Bellinelli hit more big shots, and Joakim Noah, my goodness, Joakim Noah is such a winner: fire, length, speed, intelligence, what John Wooden called “competitive greatness”, and one of the ugliest set shots the Association has ever seen. He’s even a greater player than I thought, and I’ve been a fan — in spite of my normal preference for beautiful shooting strokes, players that don’t woof constantly, and haircuts that don’t scream for a set of hedge

So good together, and so different: wacky hair versus none north of the sideburns, defence and offence, length as opposed to muscle. They do both scream a lot.

trimmers. Scoring is the least of his game, but he matched Bellinelli’s 24 in a game where his team desperately needed it. As Bill Simmons recently wrote, before this gutsy series win and their game-1 throttling of the Heat yesterday, they are the rare team that carries itself like a proud champion even though they haven’t been one yet. They are tough, classy, and together.

Out west, the Nuggets were without shooter Danilo Gallinari, and the Warriors were missing double-double machine David Lee. (Injuries seem to play a bigger role than they used to, or should. Yes: the season’s far too long; money is the root of all evil; and, Michael Jordan was pretty competitive.) I would have been happy to see George Karl — and his idealistic commitment to fast-paced play, and his organization’s one for all embrace of team basketball in the absence of stars — win the series. However, my soft spot for Golden State is long-standing (back to the 1975 Rick Barry/Clifford Ray/Jamaal Wilkes champs), colourful (love that royal blue and gold) and tied to numerous players, especially their young guys. Klay Thompson is a quiet assassin as a scorer, and can guard. Jarrett Jack was a Raptor for awhile, so has a little Canadian glow for me; he’s also really tough). Harrison Barnes got too much hype as a college player, but he’s another quiet guy with skill; I also liked that he was a high school kid who wasn’t afraid to be known as a good student, though I don’t know if he’s finishing his degree after leaving early from North Carolina. I’ve been a frustrated Andrew Bogut fan since he was a mid-major monster at Utah, and I’ve loved to see him getting healthy and becoming a force again, tipping the Denver series in Golden State’s direction.

Still, I’m like everybody else – my eyes are mainly on Stephen Curry, and have been since long before even his NCAA tournament glory at little Davidson University. I saw him play in Toronto when he was in grade 5 and his daddy was a Raptor. He was skinny and little, and even on his own team, there were other kids who seemed more explosive. (Un)wise coaching heads nodded. Yeah, Dell’s boy’s a nice little player, but he’ll never be a pro. (Did I mention he was in grade 5? Sometimes I hate coaches.) The big NCAA powerhouses didn’t recruit him out of high school because, well, all he really had was smarts, hands and incredible skills.That quicksilver,

Gone in a split second. Look at the form. Look how calm his eyes are.

butter-smooth release was a joyful thing to see when he was at Davidson, but most people just looked at the body and said, nope. Coaches and scouts obsess about metrics, measurables. (The NFL combine is the worst example of this; every year there are guys who get hyped because of leaping, pressing, sprinting or throwing numbers – or the nigh-on homoerotic drooling over this or that magnificent specimen in his spandex tights – all of which mask the fact that he doesn’t think or play the game all that well.) Basketball minds that should know better say things like, He’s got what you can’t teach. They usually mean long arms, beefy pecs and shoulders, or legs that can jump out of the gym. In the NBA, though, they haven’t the time (and often the ability) to teach what Curry came into the league with: exquisite ball skills, great eyes, a deep understanding of the game, and the hunger of the undersized and undervalued kid who hadn’t had his skinny little arse kissed ever since he was 12.

The Spurs got the Warriors in game 1, despite Tim Duncan’s illness and another scorching third quarter from Curry, who finished with 44 points and 11 slick, almost arrogant assists. I like this series. The basketball will be fast and smart, and I’ll be reasonably happy (though kinda sad) whichever way it goes. I’ve loved the way the Spurs play for a long time, and I’m hoping they get one last kick at a title. However, if the Warriors pull the upset, I’m betting it’ll be a continuation of the Steph Curry Coming Out party: skills and thrills and the best laundry in the league.   

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