We're looking at every NBA Playoff series through the eyes of both Free Darko and Basket Bawful. Here's Free Darko's look at the San Antonio Spurs-Phoenix Suns series. Your author is Dr. LawyerIndianChief.
Rollin rollin rollin, we ain't slept in weeks. That's how the entire NBA feels about this whole Shaq-to-Phoenix thing. The universe is ill at ease. The weather patterns have shifted. A subtle tremor has rippled throughout the land, from the electricity in Steve Kerr's vibrating chair, to the tofu crumbs in Phil Jackson's beard, to the Buffalo nickels in Mark Cuban's moneybin. Since arriving in Phoenix, Shaq has been bad, he's been good, he's been fast, he's been slow, he's been important, he's been self-important, he's been a dick, he's been a comedian. And not a damn bit of his regular season hijinks matter now.
Steve Kerr knows championship basketball as well as anyone, and he knows that eight of the last nine championships were won by Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal. Kerr had a single purpose in obtaining Shaq, and that was to defeat Timmy D (doing damage to Pau Gasol along the way). The verdict on Kerr's decision is still to be determined. The Suns have gone 18-11 with O'Neal on the squad. The trade has elevated the game of only a single Phoenix Sun (Amare Stoudemire) and has put more pressure than ever on Steve Nash to win the whole darn thing.
And now that Kasparov versus Big Blue moment is here: Shaq and the superfriends meeting Duncan and the hardhats in the first round. Perhaps the defining showdown of our generation, and yet it all feels so anticlimactic. I can't help but think that the Suns have disturbed some cosmic chi in acquiring O'Neal. As my colleague Bethlehem Shoals has stated many times over, the Suns are not THE SUNS anymore. Ever since they traded in Shawn Marion for Shaq, Phoenix is pumping out nuclear energy, no longer that natural Canadian air. Whatever remnants of Eddie House/Quentin Richardson unbridled mania has dried up. NPR got bought out by Clear Channel or some shit.
The best analogy I can come up with for the circumstances is when Mixmaster Mike took over DJing duties for the Beastie Boys (bear the fuck with me here). The whole charm of the B-Boys was that they were janky, freewheeling and refreshingly spur-of-the-moment. Sure, their lyrics were always simplistic and sometimes corny, and their voices sucked, but you could overlook these flaws because they were fun as hell and each of their first four albums sounded like a beautiful mess. Then, all of a sudden they replaced the rag-tag cuts of DJ Hurricane with the incredibly precise scratching of Mixmaster Mike, and it's like, wait, were these guys trying the whole time? Were we supposed to take them seriously? The addition of the Mixmaster sucked all the spontaneity out of the group, and next thing you know they are cranking out some some J-Pop bullshit like Hello Nasty, or even worse, some watered down pseudo-revivalist bunk like To The Five Boroughs.
It's the same story in Phoenix. Now that we realized that the Suns were actually trying to win the damn thing the past couple years, it's harder to see that era as a period of rich cavorting and effortless expressionism. On top of it, isn't any post-Lakers Shaq team really just a bastardized version of the Zenmaster three-peat squad? We're basically looking in our playbill to see who is starring in the Rick Fox and Derek Fisher roles. The whole story feels so sterile.
And on the other side of the ring are the Spurs, a perhaps too-easy villain after last year's Robert Horry hipcheck, the purposeless consequent suspension of Amare Stoudemire and the Tim Donaghy-tainted smog cast over the whole series. Much will be made of how much the sting of that series lingers in both teams' minds. Yet, the Spurs are focused on a whole higher mental plane. The Spurs have more legitimate depth than any other team in the playoffs — I'm talking real, focused depth; not that Dallas Mavericks store-bought Jamaal Magloire depth. Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan. And any time a balding guy (e.g. Ginobili) is getting insanely better instead of insanely worse, I have suspicions of destiny on that team's side.
Look, this series is going seven games. It's essentially a draw. The Spurs are the champs until proven otherwise, and Ginobili's rise completely compensates for any "steps lost" on Duncan or Tony Parker's part. On the other hand, Shaq has too much pride to roll over, and Steve Nash's presence and free throw shooting alone counts for at least one win for Phoenix. This is about as close as it gets. But aha, in consulting my secret Kabbalah-based NBA playoff-betting guide, it says here clearly on page 317: "NEVER bet on the Spurs to lose a first-round series." A decision has been made. Look, I know that the West has been a dogfight this year and I know it's now or never for the Suns, but San Antonio losing in the first round? That just doesn't look right.