This time of year marks a wonderful one for sports fans. Baseball’s getting into its swing, football minicamp begins, but most importantly: the NBA and NHL playoffs are on. Every single night there’s sports action – I don’t think I need to express how great that is.
While Game 2 of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Boston Bruins game was being played out on Pennsylvanian ice, my eyes became affixed to TNT where the less-than-dynamite Game 7 between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. If TNT knows drama, it certainly forgot it that night as Miami set the pace and blew by Indiana by 23 points.
Not to say that the Bruins game provided a double-overtime tense watching atmosphere like Game 3 as they chased Tomas Vokoun from the net in the first period, pouring four goals past the sieve.
I chose basketball over hockey, but why?
As NHL fans saw in the first round, games can flip as easily as a light switch. Three goals in ten and a half minutes to tie Game 7 against the Maple Leafs exhibited hockey’s ability to be unpredictable. However, as soon as the Heat won the second quarter by a 33-16 margin and momentum favored South Beach, you could feel the Pacers defeated nature – it was palpable.
So I don’t understand myself on why I continue to watch the NBA over the NHL.
Could it be marketing? Advertisements on TV like Kevin Durant helping that Asian mother clean her gutter, or Dwyane Wade and Durant going back and forth in their dreams are much better than Nicklas Bäckstrom’s 15 shots in 15 seconds or his “splinter” – which is a hockey stick running through his arm.
While the ad may not be that good, its accuracy is indisputable.
It may not be a hockey stick through the arm, but hockey players have sustained serious injures and – in accordance with their reputation – played on. Teeth are optional, like in Game 3 of the Montreal Canadiens versus Ottawa Senators when Ottawa’s rookie Center, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, put one into the back of the net for the go ahead goal. Simultaneously, he received a vicious slap from Montreal Defensemen P.K. Subban with his stick. After scoring, Pageau celebrated by retrieving his tooth off of the ice and bringing it to the bench.
That’s not even the most amazing story. In Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Boston series – an eventual double-OT Bruins win – fourth line (or Merlot Line as they call it) was facing a tough penalty kill. Then Center Gregory Campbell broke his leg. Not his foot, not his ankle, his right fibula. He stayed on the ice. For one minute. On one leg. He killed the penalty, avoided the 5-on-3 and played the most heroic hockey Boston needed.
That sentiment of playing through injury and winning an Oscar for acting as if you were fine and nothing pained you is the exact antonym for flopping. It’s anti-flopping. It’s the opposite of whatever Dwyane Wade did in the 2nd Quarter of Game 6 when, holding the ball and beginning to teeter off balance and out of bounds, he pretended that Pacers’ Lance Stephenson, standing nearby, pushed him and lunged out of bounds. With wonderful slow-mo replay, every viewer in America saw Wade’s acting as Stephenson wasn’t even touched.
An effect of that tough, gritty play, the NHL contains tough interior defense. The defensive effort and pressure exacerbates the excitement of one-man breakaways, the showdown between goaltender and player heightens. It also magnifies goals because on any given evening, a goalie may turn in an unreal performance and shut-out a team, such as Tuukka Rask did twice in Boston’s Eastern Conference Finals when he kept an elite Penguins offense off the board.
Appreciation for defense is not hard to come by as it’s the basis of any sport and the ancient cliché that defense wins championships.
With the Indiana Pacers elimination last week, the NBA’s second-best defense fell to the Associations best offense. It’s not too hard to imagine why when you see any box score. For example, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers fell 103-102, but it was 103-102!
There’s no defense there! You can’t even say there was defense because Chris “Birdman” Andersen made 18 shots in a row, and 41 of 51 this postseason. Eighteen. Chris “Out of a job until he signed a series of 10-day contracts earlier this season” Andersen. That nickname probably won’t catch on, but his streak shooting certainly has. He did even make five jumpers in that number of converted field goals.
Another point in favor of the NHL is the urgency. Since the average shift in a hockey game approximates at about 45 seconds to one minute, skaters push themselves and go hard. This leads to fresh legs, battles and increased effort. The intensity amplifies when all hockey players know a re-direct in front of an errant skate or stick, or a bad hop on choppy ice could lead to a goal. And goals are precious, more than even Smegal realized.
The tension does not dissipate for players on the ice, fans in the seats or even fans at home as they know the importance of each shift. Also, unlike basketball with breaks in action, there are limited TV timeouts. Since line shifts are common, there’s no timeout or dead-ball needed for lineup shifts whereas that’s the norm in basketball. The absence of TV timeouts also allows drama to build on its own in hockey.
After the drama rises and falls – TV timeout free of course – there’s possibly the greatest tradition in all of sports. As a commensurately graceful gesture, after each and every playoff series, the two teams form no longer opposing lines and skate by, offering congratulations.
In a consummation of sportsmanship, the two teams who had just fought arduously for multiple games exhibit enough class to acknowledge the other side. It’s perfect in theory and execution; it also casts shame on basketball, who doesn’t participate in any handshake of any sort. As an aside, however, it makes baseball’s post-game handshake tradition look atrocious. After victories, each MLB club goes through and high-fives each other. Congratulating yourself just makes you look bad. It’s like actually patting your own back after accomplishing something.
After all these points, I find myself writing this on Sunday night while the Spurs from San Antonio play the Miami Heat.
So to put it bluntly: I don’t know why I watch the NBA over the NHL. It’s unexplainable, but I do it anyway.
But when the Boston Bruins finally take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday (the first between two Original Six teams since 1980), I absolutely will be watching.