By Steve Lichtenstein
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I’m such a big NBA fan that I can’t even watch college hoops without the gambling inducements provided by the pools for the NCAA Tournament, but these last two pro seasons have been irksome.
For all of you who overpay like me to watch games in person or at home via your cable/satellite/internet provider, you are getting swindled.
This is supposed to be the home of the best professional athletes in sports. We pay to see them perform magnificent feats on the court. We pay to see stars.
Unfortunately, too often we are getting the understudies.
For a second consecutive season, injuries are ravaging the league. No other sport, not even the head-banging NFL, has so many A-listers sidelined. The list of current players in street clothes could form an awfully good Dream Team—Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Al Horford, Chris Paul and Marc Gasol, to name some of the most notable.
Oh, and let’s not forget Brook Lopez and Deron Williams, the youngest of the stars in Brooklyn’s $190 million (including estimated luxury taxes) galaxy.
Wednesday night’s matchup in Brooklyn against streaking Golden State was highly anticipated for the showdown between two elite point guards in Williams and the Warriors’ sublime Stephen Curry.
What we got instead — Curry versus Shaun Livingston, thanks to Williams’ chronically sore ankles that necessitated platelet rich plasma and cortisone injections — doesn’t elicit the same fervor.
Now, the game turned out to be terrific, with the Nets halting both the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak and their quest for a historic 7-0 road trip with a nail-biting 102-98 victory. The Nets played with both effort and intelligence, two traits largely missing during their 10-21 performance in calendar-year 2013, to record their fourth straight win.
A good chunk of this change can be attributed to the return of forward Andrei Kirilenko, who might have the highest basketball IQ in the league. This guy is on the court for only 18-20 minutes a game, yet he always seems to be in the middle of big plays.
Last night, he saved two separate possessions by alertly and deftly tipping loose balls off the rim as the shot clock nearly expired, thereby allowing the Nets to grab the ensuing offensive rebounds. After another Nets’ missed shot, he hustled to the baseline, saved the ball from going out of bounds, and in the same motion rammed it off an opponent’s leg to create a new possession.
And, with the Nets up by three points with a minute to go, one of Kirilenko’s Doc Ock arms caused a crucial deflection to Livingston off an Andre Igoudala pass intended for Curry. (Important to note that, for the first time, Nets coach Jason Kidd used offense/defense substitutions in end-game situations like, you know, every other coach does.)
Kirilenko’s impact on his team had been delayed for 26 games due to back spasms. Going into last night, the Nets had already lost 75 games to injuries to seven different players this season. Lopez is out for the year with a broken bone in his foot while Williams’ return to action will probably be deferred until after the Nets travel to London for a game against the Hawks next week.
Now that the injury bug is plaguing the league for a second go-round, it’s safe to say that this is no fluke. The NBA has to do something to fix the way it schedules these games.
It’s insane. The Warriors were playing their third game in four nights and fifth in seven nights, all on the road. On top of that, they had to fly into New York City after playing a game in Milwaukee last night. (And now have to go all the way across the country to get home for a game on Friday only to come back to New York to play the Knicks at the end of February. Somehow the NHL, a league seemingly run by clowns, figured out that the least they could do for western teams was to schedule all three metropolitan-area clubs in one trip.)
Not that the Warriors would make excuses, but maybe it wasn’t just good Nets defense that induced their 3-for-18 inefficiency from three-point range over the final three quarters after a 6-for-8 start. Forget the streak; the Warriors should be celebrating on the plane that they’re getting home in one piece.
Last night’s game was the commencement of the Nets’ own three-games-in-four-nights stand, with Miami coming to Brooklyn tomorrow before the Nets head to Toronto on Saturday. Already there are doubts whether Heat All star guard Dwyane Wade’s knees are up for Miami’s back-to-back with the Nets and Knicks this weekend and there’s a good chance that the Nets will designate forward Kevin Garnett as (copyright: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) DNP-OLD for one of the games. What, you don’t get “rest days” on your job?
Garnett played a ferocious fourth quarter last night, scoring 11 points and intercepting a Curry pass with 13 seconds left, so maybe the Nets will opt to save him for the game against the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors.
That would mean that three-fifths of the Nets’ Billboard Five, with a combined salary of about $45.5 million, will be inactive tomorrow. A lot of that is money you and I contribute, either directly through ticket sales or indirectly through TV subscriptions. To not see these players of extraordinary talents play basketball.
As usual, I’m not expecting the league or the players to bother to concern itself with any issue that affects the fans, not unless someone files a lawsuit. The only way the league cuts back from the 82-game season is if it comes out of the players’ take.
But since this also affects the players’ welfare, it should be in their interest to propose better workplace conditions and make an offer to offset any ensuing revenue loss.
If they won’t cut the total games played, then stretch the calendar to include more games in October. Make sure that the travel is reasonable and that there’s sufficient days off between games. It’s not going to eliminate every injury, but any reduction in the wear and tear that these guys have to endure would be a positive for fans who deserve to see more of them at their best.
And last night’s game, which featured a road-weary Curry against the depleted Nets, was far from their best, even if it was entertaining and had my preferred outcome.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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