Age, Beauty and the NBA Playoffs

Rajon Rondo (with Ray Allen) brings a new dimension to a veteran team. (US Presswire)

Here’s a question that came to mind as the Heat and Celtics were creating their Sunday late-night drama (and again on Monday as the Spurs and Thunder were creating theirs): Which team, of the four left in the NBA playoffs, is playing the most beautiful basketball?

Beauty, of course, comes in many different forms. Meryl Streep is a beautiful woman; her beauty comes from her eyes, her body language, the way we’ve gotten to know her over the years as someone who’s smart and talented and funny. Brooklyn Decker is a beautiful woman; her beauty (at least what we know of it) comes from… elsewhere.

It strikes me that all four teams left in the playoffs have their moments of beauty, but how it’s expressed has a lot to do with their age.

The line between young and old is so much thinner in sports. If you work at a bank, the line between age 31 and age 39 means nothing. If you play basketball for a living, that’s probably the difference between playing in your prime and retirement.

In sports terms, the Celtics are old; the Heat are young. The Spurs are old; the Thunder is young. Both series have been tremendous, not just because of the closeness but because of the contrast. Two clashes in style. Four different versions of beauty.

Boston’s Big Three: Paul Pierce, 34; Kevin Garnett, 36; Ray Allen, 36

Pierce takes a pass at the top of the three-point line and drives right. Garnett breaks down the left side of the lane. That clears a passing lane for Allen, open in the left corner. All of a sudden Pierce has three good options: one drive, two dishes. At the foul line he lofts a pass toward the basket. Garnett grabs it for a two-handed slam.

The Celtics’ beauty is in knowledge: three players with a total of 47 years in the NBA, playing their fifth season together. None of them does anything fancy. They’re playground stereotypes — Garnett’s the woofer, Allen’s the guy who just shoots jumpers, Pierce is the old man who shuffles and dekes his way to 25 points. But they’ve played for so long, and played together for so long, that when one has the ball the others just float to the right spots on the floor.

Rajon Rondo is the complication in all this Big Three talk (and the premise of this column). Many nights, now, he’s the Celtics’ best player, and he’s 26. But watch them closely. Rondo has his own bizarre genius, but sometimes the other guys don’t get it; he has to wave Pierce or Garnett to where he wants them on the floor. The Celtics are better with Rondo. They wouldn’t have made it to the Eastern finals without him. But the other three don’t need to wave one another around. They’re already where they need to be.

Miami’s Big Three: LeBron James, 27; Dwyane Wade, 30; Chris Bosh, 28

A Miami big man blocks a shot; Mario Chalmers grabs the loose ball and fires a long pass up the left sideline. Too far left. But LeBron wheels around and picks it out of the air with his right hand — then spins back left and with one motion, falling out of bounds, throws it all the way across to Wade, streaking to the basket for a dunk.

The Heat’s beauty is in boldness. Yes, at the end of the game, the Heat — especially LeBron — are significantly less bold. But when they’re out on the break, they eat up the court from end to end in one or two huge bites. They throw passes only they’d throw, and catch passes only they’d catch, and so they see the court in ways only they see.

In the halfcourt, though, they often seem to get in each other’s way. No coach would ever try this — not to mention the players — but in the fantasy playoffs in my head*, I wonder what would happen if LeBron played just two quarters every night, and Wade played the other two. (They could rotate the fourth quarter, you know, for ego’s sake.) What if they knew they’d play just 24 minutes a night, and they could go absolutely all-out on every single play? Assuming Bosh was around to be the No. 2 for both guys… that team could be terrifying.

*The sad thing is, even in my fantasy season, the Bobcats still only won seven games.

San Antonio’s Big Three: Tim Duncan, 36; Tony Parker, 30; Manu Ginobili, 34

Spurs on the break, 4-on-2. Parker, middle right, dribbles to the free-throw line with Ginobili on his right. He passes to Ginobili for an open three. But James Harden flies out at Ginobili, so he dribbles left as Parker curls into the right corner. Ginobili draws the defense and flicks the ball behind his back to Parker, who is so alone that he takes two full seconds to square up his shot. The fans have time to stand even before the three goes in.

The Spurs’ beauty is in geometry. No other team understands passing angles better; no other team moves the ball so smoothly, spreads out on the floor so evenly, creating openings that defenders can’t close. Their games are a collection of lovely shapes. Even their shots are distinctive. No one shoots that 8-foot teardrop the way Parker does. And no one (except maybe Wade) shoots the jumper off the glass the way Duncan does. He’s had that shot for 15 years. No one has stopped it yet. Shallow angle, off the backboard, through the net, Q.E.D.

Oklahoma City’s Big Three: Kevin Durant, 23; Russell Westbrook, 23; James Harden, 22

Durant curls to the top of the key, catches, shoots and scores. Westbrook pulls up with two defenders on him, rises above, shoots and scores. Harden glides down the lane on a lefty drive, too big for the fast guys and too fast for the big guys — layup, and one.

The Thunder’s beauty is in promise. They are really, really good already, but what you notice every game is how good they could be –and will be, someday soon, if they hold together.

The three main guys have such breathtaking talent that the Thunder really don’t have to play as a team. They’re smartly built, with a lot of tough defenders around the Big Three, but on offense they run in streaks: Westbrook takes over for a few minutes, then Harden, then Durant. Instead of a five-star meal, where the chef prepares the flavors to blend together, the Thunder is the world’s greatest potluck dinner. That means their game is more fragile than the others’ — if the degree-of-difficulty shots aren’t dropping, they don’t have much else to fall back on.

But Lord, when it works… Durant, especially, makes a 20-foot jumper look as easy as putting on your socks. The Thunder isn’t quite ready, I think. The Spurs have a little too much for them this year (although check back with me on that on Tuesday morning*). But scroll up and look at those ages again: 23, 23, 22. If they keep playing together, and learn how to play together, this team will win a lot of rings. And a ring, to an NBA player, is the most beautiful object of all.

*Yeah, I wrote this before that fantastic Spurs-OKC game on Monday night. The Thunder might be ready NOW. But I don’t think the Spurs are dead yet. I do think I’m looking forward to Game 6 as much as any recent NBA game I can remember.

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