Much has been said about the decline of the NBA and of professional basketball in general. Steep prices, diminishing talent due to expansion and the "bad-boy" behavior of many professional basketball players have all contributed to this accepted view of pro b-ball as a wayward animal. Even the playoffs in recent years have not been able to take the game to the plateau that it reached during the time of Magic-Larry in the 80's and MJ in the 90's.
However, this year's playoffs have changed many attitudes about the game and the direction that it has taken. One can primarily look at the Eastern Conference semifinals and see how basketball arguably remains the most exciting and entertaining sport to watch. Allen Iverson, the captain of the Philadelphia 76ers, recently selected as this year's NBA MVP, has locked horns with Vince "Vinsanity" Carter and the rest of the Toronto Raptors in a brutal playoff battle of "can you top this" showmanship and skill. Carter and Iverson have shared high-scoring duties and victories have been switched between the two teams.
The showmanship of this series has been unrivaled in recent playoff history, as far as I can remember. Carter and Iverson have proven why they represent the new breed of NBA talent. In Game One, Iverson scored 36 points to Carter's 35, but Carter's Raptors took home the victory in a 96-93 triumph. Then in Game Two, Iverson took complete control with a game-shredding 54 points and single-handedly carried the Sixers to victory.
Did Carter wilt under the pressure of his first big-time playoff series? Did Iverson's Game Two 54 points put a stake in the heart of Vinsanity and the Raptors? You've gotta be kidding me. Carter answered Iverson's call and destroyed the Sixers, tying a postseason-NBA record of nine three-pointers in a game set by the Phoenix Sun's Rex Chapman in 1997. Carter, who sunk eight 3-pointers in the first half, finished with 50 points and the Raptors took the game 102-78.
Game Four was a much more subdued affair, with most of the solid play done by the Sixers' Aaron McKie (the NBA Sixth Man of the Year), who guarded Carter like a hawk for most of the game and took some of the pressure off of Iverson. Allen did sink the three-pointer in the fourth quarter that killed the Raptors' chances of winning, however, continuing the string of back and forth oneupsmanship with Carter.
In Game Five, in which NBA commissioner David Stern presented Iverson with the MVP trophy right before the game, the MVP exploded again, this time with 52 points in a Sixers win. The Sixers planned to close it out in Toronto in Game Six, but Carter had no plans of going home for the summer early, scoring a game-high 39 points and helping out in double-teaming Iverson, who only finished with 20 points.
So here we stand, at Game Seven in Philadelphia. Both sides will try to contain the opponent's star player as much as possible, but these two players have transcended all levels of expectations for this year's playoffs. Much has been said about Carter and his talent; like Michael Jordan, he attended North Carolina, left early to join the NBA and has thrilled fans with his array of aerial moves and incredible dunks (witness the 1999 Slam Dunk Competition). Carter has recently received a lot of flak regarding his decision to attend graduation ceremonies yesterday at Chapel Hill (Carter went back to school last summer to finish his degree) before Game Seven, but also has received much support; his commencement speaker, ESPN's Stuart "boo-yeah" Scott, commented on Carter's attendance and supported his decision to attend.
On the other hand, Iverson has been under the NBA microscope for much of his pro career. Dubbed "the Answer" early in his career to answer the question "Who's the next Jordan?", Iverson was plagued with controversy before this season even started. Criticized by his coach Larry Brown about his commitment to the game and about his foul-mouthed rap CD, Iverson has answered (no pun intended) his critics with an MVP season and an incredible playoffs, showcasing his intense desire to win a championship.
Other players, like San Antonio's Tim Duncan and LA's Kobe Bryant, have also answered the call of who's the best young player in the NBA. However, neither player has had to single-handedly carry their respective teams by themselves, and while Bryant might have the potential to be the next megastar, he still has to answer many questions about his maturity (especially after his well-publicized tiffs with teammate Shaquille O'Neal) and desire, although his 43 points on Saturday against the Spurs may have helped quell that rebellious media scuttlebutt.
Surprisingly but yet ironically, neither star completely dominated in Game Seven. Although the Sixers did edge out the Raptors in an 88-87 thriller, Iverson played unselfish basketball throughout, posting a career high 16 assists while only scoring 21 points. Carter also played an unselfish game finishing with 20 points and nine assists while distributing to open teammates out of double teams all game much like Iverson. In the end it was Carter who had the ball for the final shot, but he couldn't make an 23-foot fallaway jumper at the buzzer.
As the decisive game showed, these brilliant talents were able to play "team basketball" when necessary in order to win, and yet still be in control with the game on the line.
Hopefully this will signal for basketball fans not only a major potential change in the selfish players who are playing our beloved game but a switch to a more exciting and engaging form of basketball.