Years back, before multiple banners hung in the AT&T Center, I worked at Regal Northwoods movie theater on 281 and Thousand Oaks. The pay sucked and I'd always go home smelling like popcorn and caramelized soda, but it was a great job. Not only did I tear tickets for Tony and Manu multiple times and once served Malik Rose a Mr. Pibb and Jujubees, I got to watch free movies. I also found out there's this thing that happens at movie theaters. You settle in, watch the credits, see Tom Cruise or Jerry Bruckheimer's name flash across the screen (unless you're lucky enough to be watching Top Gun in a theater, in which case you see both), see the camera pan over the first scene, and vvvvvvvvvrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzzppppppppp! The reel breaks.
What do you do in that situation? Ask for your money back? Get different tickets? Or do you wander the halls in search of other opportunity for entertainment?
For Spurs, the playoff reel broke when Chris Paul's banker skimmed across the tips of Duncan's golden fingers in game 7. Maybe some of you gave up on basketball at that point, turning your attention to summer, Schlitterbahn, baseball, golf, or garage sales. Maybe some of you tuned in to the second round merely to hate-watch the Clippers, only to find you hated the team they played even more.
For those who truly watch the sport based on its own merits, however, there's a real conundrum. Who am I supposed to root for now that our Champs are on the sidelines?
The second round is over (LOL, LAC) so the list is pre-whittled down to four entrants. So how do the four Conference Finalists stack up number-wise and according to the eye test? More importantly, which one is worthy of a temporary transfer of fan capital?
For reference, NBA.com says the Spurs' numbers from their 7 games were 106.7 points per 100 poss (3rd in the playoffs), 104.4 points allowed per 100 (9th in the playoffs), 2.3 net rating (6th in the playoffs), and 53.6% True Shooting, which takes into account 3 pointers and free throws (5th in the playoffs):
102.0 ORtg (9th), 98.2 DRtg (2nd), 3.9 net (4th), 52.6% TS (9th), 8-1 odds to win NBA Title
Pros: Bud's team, superstar-less group of unselfish talent, a more mobile and even more accurate Matt Bonner, who we all secretly wish the Spurs had agreed with Bud and Ferry to clone at some point so he could play for us too.
Cons: Still haven't shaken the stigma that comes from being the Atlanta Hawks, didn't inspire confidence with their performance in the first two rounds versus a shipwrecked Brooklyn team and an injury-riddled Washington team.
I was really excited to root for Spurs East, then they did a face-plant in front of their home fans in Game 1 vs. Washington. After injuries took down Bradley Beal and John Wall, Atlanta still found themselves down 2-1 after Paul Pierce hit a step-back jumper in game 3 that is somehow only tied for the second-biggest clutch shot of this postseason. Oh, and the Hawks let Brooklyn tie them up in the first round, too, and in this year's first round, being tied 2-2 with the East's 8th seed was equivalent to getting swept by the Washington Generals. Last year's Hawks knew the drill. They were the 8th seed and just wanted to make some noise before their inevitable demise. Now that the birds of prey are prey themselves, they've gone through a crash course in adversity and matriculated all the way to the East Finals, and with solid numbers to boot.
For my money, not only are the Hawks the most likeable bunch of the remaining four, they also have that whiff of underdog about them even though they've gone from the bottom of the bracket to the top. I feel comfortable saying not a single person would feel bad about seeing Al Horford (a quiet, Tim Duncan-type who answered Pierce in game 5), Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap or Kyle Korver holding the trophy a month from now - except for the other three teams on this list.
Oh, and they're still Spurs East. Go Hawks Go!
108.2 ORtg (1st), 98.8 DRtg (T-4th), 9.5 net (1st), 54.5% TS (4th), 9-4 odds to win NBA Title
Pros: LeBron in the twilight of his prime, playing David Blatt Bad Decision Bingo, feeling vicariously happy through long-suffering Cleveland fans, the inevitable J.R. Smith Game
Cons: Seeing LeBron back on the doorstep of the Finals one year later, Kyrie Irving - only not good, Varejao's suits.
Admit it, if the Spurs made the Finals this year you'd have no problem with LeBron being back as well, if for no other reason than one superstar facing the same team in the Finals three years in a row is unprecedented in the modern NBA.
Alas, the rubber match of the Spurs-LeBron Trilogy won't happen, but that doesn't mean we should jump right into schadenfreude mode with the Cavaliers. We've seen how San Antonio parties after a winning a title, now it's time to see what Northern Ohio does when its half-century Berlin Wall of Misery finally gets torn down.
The way the Cavs responded to their early-season struggles was impressive, with the acquisition of Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov to shore up what many had predicted would be a thin, defensively-flawed roster. After sitting at 19-20 on January 13th, Cleveland is in the midst of a 42-11 run, including the playoffs, and they weathered a spirited opposition by the Bulls in round two, thanks to this and the game 5 that followed.
Maybe we're all tired of seeing LeBron, though maybe we're not as tired of seeing him lose. So if you can't root for him as Conquering King Returned, root for the Cavs to advance because he makes such a great foil.
Golden State Warriors
107.4 ORtg (2nd), 98.8 DRtg (T-4th), 8.6 net (2nd), 56% TS (1st), 5-6 odds to win NBA Title
Pros: Watching a true juggernaut in action, rooting for Coach Kerr, feeling vicariously happy through long-suffering Warriors fans, that inevitable moment when the five on the floor congeal like the pieces of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 and go on a five minute killing spree.
Cons: Watching Steph Curry and Friends and knowing they were afraid of us.
I go through the same thing every year the Spurs are knocked out early. I find myself looking ahead to some big, defining matchup in the Conference Finals or the Finals. In 2012, I looked ahead to Miami; in 2008, it was Boston. In 2007, the Mavs flipped the script by losing to the Warriors. In each case, seeing a different team playing in that dream matchup feels wrong, like getting to the end of Die Hard only to see Hans Gruber take on the janitor instead of John McClane.
Gruber is what I think of when I watch this year’s Warriors, a squad of basketball masterminds who commit acts of on-court terrorism all while robbing your team of a prayer. End to end, pillar to post, Golden State has been the best NBA team we've seen in years. Which is why it would have been so much fun to see the Spurs revert to mid-2000s form, shutting down the party and snuffing the joy out of Steph Curry's cherubic face. That will have to wait at least a year, and maybe forever, like the Spurs-Celtics Finals I craved five years ago. In the meantime, if there's one team with the entertainment value, talent ceiling, and motivation to reach the heights of the 2014 Spurs, it's these Warriors. Let them win the 'chip this year, root for it, even. That will make any future Conference Finals meeting with the Spurs even sweeter.
105.9 ORtg (6th), 106.8 DRtg (12th), -0.9 net (8th), 55% TS (2nd), 14-1 odds to win NBA Title
Pros: Um, I dunno, the Championship stays in Texas, I guess? They have a half-crazy old Argentine shooting guard? Seeing Kevin McHale lope along the sideline looking like he slept on a park bench the night before?
Cons: If their shooting cools off, they might not even eke out a Gentleman's Sweep versus GSW, Trying to decide which of their starters is least unlikable is like trying to decide which Starbucks flavor produces the most aromatic third-degree burns when thrown in your face.
On the surface, rooting for the Rockets seems defensible. They're a franchise that's been rather snakebit since the "Heart of a Champion" 1995 title team, and even that win and the one the year before will always be asterisked by a label that says NO JORDAN. Spurs fans can relate to such subtext. In James Harden and Dwight Howard, Houston have two idiosyncratic superstars who've each been to the Finals but never won a ring, making them something like latter-day interpretations of Drexler and Barkley.
Most ingratiating may be the way the Rockets have constructed their roster with the unwanted detritus of other teams and assimilated it into a hyper-efficient Borg collective hungry for 3-point shots and free throws and averse to individualistic mid-range glory-mongering. The team has surrounded its two superstars with veterans and unproven prospects willing to take the minimum. It's a system with merit, and GM Daryl Morey has stuck to his guns even in the face of criticism. (His Twitter savvy might be a different story.)
Then you remember the bridges Howard has burned, you remember Harden's shot in the 2012 WCF, his beard, and the way his Emeril-inspired strutting makes you want to go BAM! across his fluffy face. You might also remember the old I-10 Rivalry which remained largely dormant through the Steve Francis and Yao-McGrady years, and visions of Shake-n-Bake suddenly dance in your head.
You might think to yourself "If Houston hadn't traded Alexy Shved to the Knicks for Pablo Prigioni, the Spurs might not have lost that game in March and we would've been the 2 seed." In other words, Go Warriors. At least for one round.