In today's overly crowded world of TV sports viewing, April and May are my favorite months. The baseball season is dusting off its cleats and swinging to life, while hockey and basketball are filling our plates with non-stop playoff games. It's hard to know what to watch.
Thankfully, one of these winter sports is making this choice easier. When it comes to sheer postseason tension, breathless action to lock you to the couch without bathroom breaks, the Stanley Cup playoffs deliver a clean body check to their hoop roommates every spring. I'm not talking about TV ratings here, just pure entertainment value. Living in a city where the local hockey team getting eliminated in a thrilling overtime game warrants maybe 1/16 of the Times front sports page, you may understand why I'm compelled to write about this.
Now I would never call myself a hockey expert. One of the first NHL games I attended was the Canadiens winning the Cup from the Rangers at the old Montreal Forum in 1979, Guy Lafleur's thinning blonde hair flying behind him, yet I've only been to a handful of Kings/Ducks games since then, and I couldn't tell you the names of three players on any current team. But when the Canucks outlasted a furious three-game Chicago comeback last week and won Game seven with an overtime goal, I was transfixed and then transported.
Playoff hockey overtime is an oxygen-deprived chamber of near misses and miracle saves, and it was the ninth straight day there had been at least one of them. As I tweeted that night, "this is only the first round of the playoffs, and I feel like I've aged five years." Of the 50 first-round games, 26 of them were decided by just one goal and 14 of those went into sudden death. How can you top that?
The late, great George Carlin once did a famous stand-up routine comparing baseball to football, and if he were still with us today, I'd love to hear his winter sequel on hockey vs. basketball. It might include the fact that from the on-the-fly line shifts to the one 30-second timeout allowed per team per game, everything about hockey is designed to keep the action flowing. In the NBA, everything conspires to clog the action to a standstill. Between the ticky-tack foul calls and endless, exhausting time outs, it often takes half an hour to play the final three minutes of a game. Case in point was in the final Spurs/Grizzlies match, when Zach Randolph went nuts, worked the Memphis arena into a frenzy, only to have an exhausting series of fouls and unnecessary time outs obliterate the crowd buzz like a yanked electrical cord.
I pay almost no attention to the NHL and NBA regular seasons. So many teams are allowed in the playoffs, and I'm usually so embroiled in the World Series and most of the football season that I'm willing to forgo interest until the games mean something in April. It's uncanny, though, how many times I put on an NBA game, note some team's 16-point lead and switch immediately to a hockey game.
When the Hornets topped the Lakers and Grizzlies beat San Antonio on the first day of this year's NBA playoffs, announcers made a point about how rare it was for a no. 1 and no. 2 seed to lose their first game. This happens in the NHL a lot. While the closing minutes of a close hockey game often feature dazzling heroics, it is fairly likely that an NBA team will choke miserably in last-minute crunch time, either by throwing up stupid shots, failing to defend a great outside shooter, clanking at the foul line or losing the ball out of bounds. Imagine the 9th inning of a baseball game in which the third baseman, shortstop and second baseman took turns throwing ground balls into the stands. In the NBA, it always seems that the eventual champion is the team that chokes the least.
Instead, what we often hear is that basketball has the "greatest athletes in the world," but let's see them perform their spectacular moves while on skates. Or have Michael Jordan try and hit a baseball again.
And don't get me started on the 3-point shot. This rule has been around since the 1979-80 season, and from what I can see, has done nothing but gradually make basketball offenses more and more stagnant. How many times do you see a team overcome a huge deficit by playing smart, inside ball, only to chuck everything away when they get close by throwing up a series of panicky, 3-point heaves? If I were an NBA commissioner with ultimate power I'd limit the 3-point option to the last two minutes of every game. (I would also reduce team timeouts by 80%, re-start the score from zero at halftime and make a team win both halves to avoid a two-minute, timeout-free overtime, so don't expect to see me made NBA commissioner anytime soon.)
I certainly didn't always feel this way about basketball. Back in the big-hair, high-socks, small-shorts days, I remember watching the Bill Walton 1977 Trail Blazers beat Doctor J.'s 76ers in a great finals round. Watch this clip if you want to see the difference. Less than two minutes left in the game, and there's a stretch of basketball with no timeouts or fouls, just one quick pass after another, searching for the open man. It's like a human pinball game, or better yet... it's like hockey.
Jeff Polman is the author of three fictionalized historical baseball replay blogs, The Bragging Rights League, being his newest endeavor.