Although we lost decisively to Dallas, Houston, and Cleveland in rapid succession, I was still feeling pretty upbeat on Monday. I was in a chipper, George Bush-ian mood—optimistic and cheerful despite the relentless stream of bad news. In fact, I nearly broke into a little tap-dance routine while waiting for the Memphis game to arrive like it was John McCain. Memphis is terrible after all, and after them, we had Indiana and Miami scheduled, and that’s about as sorry a threesome as Gov. McGreevey’s “Friday Night Specials.” So even though the immediate news wasn’t good (folks), things seemed fundamentally sound.
Side note: although it has nothing to do with basketball, another positive beacon was that they finally, FINALLY replaced the huge billboard ad for The Kingdom on the building adjacent to my apartment. Although the replacement was an ad for the 8 millionth energy drink concoction with some sort of “nuclear”-sounding name, it’s still an improvement. That stupid movie ad had been up there so long (“On September 28th, Trust No One”) that I thought I was doomed to a lifetime of looking at Jennifer Garner dressed ridiculously in Special Forces gear (yet with long, flowing hair).
Anyway, it's 72 hours later, and I’m completely broken. Darkness imprisoning me, all that I see: absolute horror. Who even cares how the Miami game is going to turn out? At this point, the only thing worse than losing would be winning. We have no chance at anything this year, so we might as well go for a draft pick. And yet, the draft doesn’t guarantee any salvation either, because it's not particularly top heavy with talent. I’ve been “playing” ESPN.com’s draft lottery a lot lately (they ought to come up with a cell phone version of this thing, a la Tetris and Solitaire, so I could do it on the subway), and the overwhelming majority of the time we end up with the 8th pick and Brook Lopez is our selection. And guess what the scouting report on him is? “Great big guy who can’t rebound.” Well, we already have two of those, and they’re called “Ryan Hollins” and “Jermareo Davidson.”
As for these last two games, I’m trying to decide where this Memphis-Indiana combo lands if we were to build a Top Ten 2008 Losses list. Before you even build such a list, you have to decide what hurts you more: close losses to good teams that rip your heart out and show it to you before you die (e.g., the Ray Allen Massacre game), blowout losses to good teams that grimly reveal how truly far away you are from relevance (e.g., that Pistons loss where they shot and made a million 3-pointers, that Golden State loss by 500 points, the recent Dallas loss), or blowout losses to bad teams that make you question how a fair and just God could ever allow such evil to befall you.
As you probably guessed, it’s that third sub-genre of losses that is the most dispiriting to me, and off the top of my head I’d throw the first loss to Philly in there (God, did the Sixers outplay us, and this is back when they were on the verge of fire sale-dom); at least two of the three Bulls losses (exacerbated by commentary by Red Kerr); that atrocious Nets loss in which we’d had about a week to prepare and Jason Kidd had just demanded a trade; that loss to the Wizards right after they found out Gilbert was gone for the year and Haywood for the game; that disgusting loss to Milwaukee in which we blew a 7-point lead and had the ball with, like, a minute left; the Knicks loss which I witnessed in-person like a public hanging…And I’m sure I’m repressing the memories of some others.
But these two losses to Memphis and Indiana have got to be 1-2 on the list, because they were not only miserable and humiliating, they also effectively killed the season. Memphis is essentially a scab team at this point, and Indiana ought to change their name to the “Milk Cartons”—anybody seen Jamaal Tinsley or Jermaine O’Neal lately? I was about to say Ike Diogu too(remember when he was the “wild card” of the Dunleavey/Hudson-Jackson/Harrington deal?), but he actually had a cameo last night. Indiana’s also a team bombarded by scandals and off-court drama involving Tinsley, O’Neal, most of the management, Shawne Williams, and David Harrison (who gets my vote for "Best Real-But-Fake-Looking Hair" Award—doesn’t he look like a cast member of Semi-Pro?). Also, their coach looks like the comic strip character Dilbert’s boss—not that that’s really relevant. Add it all up and these losses were truly disgraceful season-enders.
In Memphis we only scored 80 points, or roughly one point for every fan in attendance. I think there were actually fewer people at this game than those who saw that “Secret Game” between Duke and the NC College for Negroes in the 1940s. This was exactly the type of game that Jason Richardson should dominate, and instead he put up 8 points, and then blamed the road-heavy schedule. I’m sorry, but could someone please explain to me what exactly is “tiring” about being on the road? It’s not like Sam Vincent is making the team travel by canoe. If you’re a player, you pretty much have to just sit on a bus, sit on a private airplane, sit on another bus, and sit in your hotel room and order room service. During every one of these activities, you could also be asleep or doing nothing more aerobic than changing your DVD from Season 4 of CSI: Miami to a bootlegged copy of 10,000 B.C. You’re arguably less active on the road than when you’re at home and being pestered by children, baby-mommas, and entourages. I just don’t by the “on-the-road” excuse for a second.
If anything, it might be the cumulative fatigue of not having a reliable bench. How else to explain Raymond Felton failing to keep up with Flip Murray in Indiana? Felton’s logging almost 38 minutes a game this year–up 3 minutes from his career average–and it’s taking his toll (please keep this in mind, Rod Higgins, when it’s our pick in the draft and Russell Westbrook is still available). Meanwhile, Emeka Okafor’s minutes have increased as well, plus he hasn’t missed nearly as many games to injury. I expected him to deliver like Halle Berry in these last two games, and instead he put up a grand total of 10 points and 9 boards.
Getting schooled by the likes of Murray, Juan Carlos Navarro (21 points), Hakim Warrick (19 points), Darko Milicic (double-double), Troy Murphy (double-double), and Shawne Williams (16 points and a posterizing dunk on Jared Dudley) are bad indicators. So are allowing 18 offensive boards to the Grizzlies and nearly 50% shooting to a Pacers team playing without Danny Granger. They’re alarms akin to triple-digit oil prices and $2-a-share Bear-Stearns buyouts. Blaming all this poor performance on long road trips is like blaming the bad economy on tax breaks that might expire in two years. Without a more reliable bench, rebounders, and point guards, we’re not fundamentally sound, nor should we be optimistic about our future.