Amazing has actually happened in NBA playoffs

Thrill ride rivals past NCAA tourneys

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 28, 2009 

John Clay

Three decades ago, there was that Magic-Bird NCAA Tournament finals.

Then there was Michael Jordan's shot, and Lorenzo Charles' miracle follow, and Keith Smart and Indiana, and, yes, dare we say it, Christian Laettner's shot for posterity, in 1992, the one now reduced to a bad television commercial.

Used to be, the NCAA men's basketball tournament was the place for post-season magic.

Not this year.

This year, the NBA playoffs are what the NCAA Tournament used to be.

Amazing has happened:

■ The Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics play as close and dramatic a first-round series as there has been in the history of the league. Four of the seven games spill into overtime. Five are decided by three or fewer points before Boston finally prevails.

■ Even without center Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets take the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games before losing in the Western Conference semifinals.

■ After its seven-game series with Chicago, Boston goes seven games with Orlando before the Magic eliminate the defending champs.

■ The first two games of the Denver-Los Angeles Western Conference finals are decided by two and three points respectively.

■ Three of the four games in the Orlando-Cleveland Eastern Conference finals have been decided by two points or less, including the Magic's riveting 116-114 win in overtime Tuesday night.

■ And though Orlando might advance to the NBA Finals, many might remember the series for LeBron James' heart-stopping three-pointer at the buzzer that gave Cleveland a 96-95 win in Game 2.

■ Or maybe they'll remember that James has scored 49, 35, 41 and 44 points in Cleveland's four games with Orlando. This, after LeBron scored 47 in a semifinal series win over Atlanta and 38 and 36 points in the first-round series sweep against Detroit.

■ Or maybe they'll remember that, before Wednesday night, Kobe Bryant scored 40, 32, 41 and 34 points in the Lakers' series with Denver. This, after Kobe had four games with 32 or more points against the Rockets, or 38 in a first-round win over Utah.

I point this out as a college basketball devotee who had soured on the professional game. Too many elbows, not enough offense.

But the league has smartly tweaked its product — the 8-second rule to get the ball past halfcourt; the arc underneath the basket eliminating charging calls — to make it more fluid and entertaining, not to mention competitive.

Consider that in the 64 NCAA Tournament games this year, only 14 were decided by five points or less. Scottie Reynolds' length-of-the-floor drive and score with less than a second left, giving Villanova the East Regional title over Pittsburgh, was practically the lone dramatic moment in the entire tournament.

No wonder viewership was stagnant to downright down for the men's finals. The North Carolina rout of Michigan State drew the lowest rating (10.8) ever for the title game.

Contrast that with the NBA playoffs. Through Monday's games, TNT's audience was up 18.7 percent over last year's numbers. The first two games of the Lakers-Nuggets series drew the biggest basketball audiences in ESPN history. College or pro.

That should tell you something.

This year, the NBA playoffs are what the NCAA Tournament was in past years.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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