Usually by mid-May, a sports fan can argue that the NHL playoffs are the true rite of spring, because of their incessant drama and intensity, or that the NBA playoffs are the height of entertainment, with the world’s most spectacular athletes playing games that matter.
As is so often the case, the true basis for these arguments often is rooted in regional bias or childhood experience, and either stance is justifiable.
Not this spring. The “Quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup” has proved magnificent, and “The Search for The What Is It Called, Oh, Yes, The Larry O’Brien Trophy” has been hacked to death.
The contact sport featuring toothless men on skates carrying sticks has become not only more compelling. It’s somehow become more attractive.
There is a simple reason for this.
The NHL no longer allows players to randomly bump and hug opponents.
The NBA seems to be encouraging it.
The NHL has become the faster, more skilled, even the prettier game. The NBA has ceded its inherent advantages in its constant pursuit of the casual sports fan who might watch either league.
The NBA playoffs have become a wretched succession of body checks that aren’t called fouls and intentional slaps and embraces that are.
For years, the NHL has chased and envied the financial success and star power of the NBA. When the NHL needed a commissioner, it plucked Gary Bettman from the NBA offices.
The NBA, because basketball is more popular in the United States and more accessible to more people, always will hold a financial advantage over the NHL. It no longer holds an aesthetic edge.
The unofficial symbol of the NBA used to be Michael Jordan flying. Now it’s DeAndre Jordan getting slapped on the arm. “Harm Jordan” would be a terrible basketball shoe brand.
There is a born-and-fled Minnesotan at the heart of the problem.
It’s not Kevin McHale’s fault that the NBA allows the Hack-a-Whomever strategy to exist. It is McHale’s fault that he has ruined a playoff series with it.
McHale’s Houston Rockets facing the Los Angeles Clippers: That should be as entertaining a series as we could see this postseason, with James Harden and Dwight Howard facing Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan.
Instead, Clippers coach Doc Rivers chose to repeatedly foul Dwight Howard, a poor foul shooter in Game 2. In Game 4, McHale responded by trotting out players with “fouls to give” — in other words, basketball’s version of old-school NHL thugs — to repeatedly foul Jordan.
McHale chose to send Jordan to the line to slow the game and to prevent the Clippers from displaying their run-and-gun talents, or perhaps because his hypercompetitiveness won’t allow him to watch another coach exploit a rule without response.
There is no question that the strategy violates the spirit of the NBA itself, a league based on great athletes with star power playing a flowing, high-scoring game. Rivers and McHale should be ashamed of themselves for ruining such a potentially great product.
What’s fascinating is that the strategy hasn’t even worked. The Clippers lost Game 2. The Rockets were blown out in Game 4, and Harden himself said he didn’t like the strategy.
Before the NHL lockout in 2004-05, hockey faced similar optical problems. The game was often unwatchable. Excellent defensive coaches like Jacques Lemaire exploited the rules to clog neutral zones and clutch and grab skilled offensive players. Coaches wanted to score the first goal and order their players to literally hang on until time ran out.
With defenders no longer allowed to illegally impede offensive players, the NHL has become a tremendous entertainment product, and most of the goons who can’t skate or shoot have been weeded out of the league. Today’s NHL is fast and skilled. Even excellent defensive teams like the Wild and Blackhawks quickly transition to offense, looking for breakouts.
Devoted NHL fans are unlikely to care about the quality of the NBA playoffs, and vice versa. For casual fans flipping on the television looking for the best available sports entertainment, it has been no contest this spring. The NHL offers the better game.