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A Plethora Of Playoff Prognostication

TRUMAN CAPOTE ONCE said the worst thing that could happen is to have prayers answered. (He also said a lot of other things, but I could only listen to that voice in short bursts.) Anyway, for years I wished and hoped the NBA season would drag into summer and that football would start earlier to cut down on the baseball-only time of year. I have to be more careful in the future.

Sure, the NBA playoffs started the day before Easter, but that's like saying the Ice Age began last month. In either case, there's still a looong way to go. The first-round, best-of-five series between L.A. and Sacramento was scheduled to take 14 days to complete! And that's with a 90-minute plane ride between the two cities. Besides the paramount -- "What idiot is in charge of scheduling?!" -- other questions abound.

Among them:

· Will the Lakers win the championship? I wouldn't bet on it, and I've been betting since I was a small kid back in the 'hood, wagering on which direction the wino would fall when stepping off a curb.

Certainly the Lakers have all the pieces in place, with studs at every position, the league's MVP in the middle, and Zen-master coach Phil Jackson on the bench. They might roll through the playoffs unscathed, or they may struggle from the get. It's hard to tell. They cruised to the league's best record this year, but they still seem fragile and ego-heavy.

All I know is that if they don't win the title this year, we'll get a foreign language lesson. We'll know once and for all that Shaquille is Swahili for "big, underachieving lump" and that Kobe, depending on the dialect, means either "selfish" or "poor shot selection."

By the way, Kobe Bryant has recorded a rap album, with his first video featuring Tyra Banks. I don't care if Tyra Banks delivers it to my house personally and promises to give me swimming lessons afterwards, I'm not listening to that mess. As it is, I can hear what it's probably going to be like already:

I drive to the hole almost every night,
Like Talking Heads, I Remain In Light,
I could play 'D', but that would be lame,
I need to shoot, 'cuz that's my game.
Ni -- -, gimme the ball!

(The version sold at Wal-Mart will have "Hey, gimme the ball!" instead.)

That would be followed by 16 more verses in which he disses John Stockton, threatens to punch Sean Elliott in his transplanted kidney, and explains why the Lakers keep blinking out early in the playoffs every year.

· Do the Phoenix Suns have a chance? To suit up the league-required minimum eight players? Yes. After that, it's pretty iffy. The Suns have been hammered with injuries this year, losing All-Star and Olympic team member Tom Guggliotta to a devastating knee injury, and then All-Pro point guard Jason Kidd to an ankle injury.

Kidd, who was expected to be done for the season, is making noises about coming back any day now. I've heard players and fans questioning why Kidd would hurry back and risk further injury. This is one of the things that are wrong with sports in general and the NBA in particular. Athletes have a small window of opportunity in their lives. They need to go hard and, as corny as it sounds, play with pain.

I salute Jason Kidd for making the effort. Let him play now and rest the ankle when he's 40.

· What would you rather watch other than a New York Knicks/Miami Heat playoff game? Test patterns. Televangelists. That Christopher Lowell guy who fixes houses with seashells and toilet paper.

Last year I watched one of the games which was played in Madison Square Garden. The last time there were that many muggings in New York City, somebody coined the term "wilding." Those two teams could play about two-thirds of each game without a basketball, and no one would notice.

Heck, if Latrell Sprewell had been on the Knicks at the time, his choking of his coach would have been considered part of the pre-game warmup.

· Would you like to see the Toronto Raptors make the finals? Yeah, as long as they don't win it all. I like Vince Carter, and Charles Oakley deserves good things. But the last time something like that happened, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series and all we got in return was Celine Dion.

Talk about a trade imbalance.

· Is this the last chance for the Utah Jazz to win a championship? No, that was a couple years ago, when the refs let Michael Jordan push off and shoot a wide-open jumper for a Bulls victory. Since then, Karl Malone has gotten so old, he stopped endorsing Rogaine and is currently negotiating with Geritol. John Stockton appears bent on sticking around until his short shorts come back into style. And Jeff Hornacek is retiring, as is, apparently, the art of shooting a jump shot.

· Do you foresee any surprises? Actually, if I foresaw them, they wouldn't be surprises. Anyway, there may be an upset or two, but with teams playing five- and then seven-game series, the chances of real upsets are pretty slim. I look for these playoffs to underscore some emerging Truths.

For example, flashy white boy Jason Williams makes more turnovers than a bakery, leading to the conclusion that highlight-reel stuff doesn't win championships. And Allen Iverson still couldn't guard a chair with a gun, although I'm willing to bet he has the gun.

On the upside, Kevin Garnett is becoming a monster, making him the first guy since Moses Malone for whom it was probably the right thing to go from high school directly to the NBA. But his T-Wolves still won't last long.

· Who will you be rooting for? The Suns, until they lose. Then the Jazz, until they lose. Then the Spurs, until they lose.

And then against the Lakers.

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