Nets. Bulls. Game 7. Here We Go.
This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
Honestly, there are a lot of things making me happy this week. The Vinyl Revolution Record Show I attended this past Sunday. The Vampire Weekend and Atlas Genius gigs which I wrote about this week. Even something as simple as the turning of the weather here in NYC, as we’re officially into spring. But nothing makes me happier than a Game 7.
Last Saturday, my beloved Brooklyn Nets lost a heartbreaking game to the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of the first round of the NBA playoffs, dropping them to a 3-1 series deficit in the best-of-seven series. The Nets had a 14 point lead with 3 minutes to play but were outscored 16-2 the rest of the way to send the game into overtime. The first overtime that is. The game went into a second and then a third overtime before the Nets ran out of steam and lost 142-134, seemingly losing the series on that otherwise sunny afternoon.
The Nets didn’t lose hope though, and with the Bulls ailing and shorthanded they were able to win the next two games to pull the series even at 3 games apiece, setting up tonight’s pivotal Game 7. Do or die, loser goes home for the summer, winner gets the honor of facing (and inevitably losing to) LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Other sports have single-elimination playoff games. In the NFL, all playoff matchups are single-elimination. In college basketball, the NCAA tournament is a 68-team whirlwind of non-stop wall-to-wall single-elimination games. Those games have tension, and intrigue, but they generally lack one thing that a Game 7 has – drama. Drama is something that cannot be manufactured artificially. You need a story, an arc, twists and turns, characters that are developed and change over time. In a Game 7, the teams have had six intense playoff games over close to two weeks to get to know one another. Animosity builds. Both fan bases have a chance to cheer their teams, rally them from deficits. Strategies are utilized, counter-strategies are developed to thwart the initially successful ones, and so on until you reach the deciding game. Players get injured and plans change. Some shrink from the pressure. Others rise to the occasion as confidence builds over time.
Once in a while you have a Game 7-like event in the NFL, where years of repeated battles yield a playoff game among familiar foes, creating a story to add drama to an otherwise important event. The 2006 AFC Championship game – when the high-powered previously under-achieving Colts led by Peyton Manning defeated their nemesis, the scrappy, cerebral, 3-time champion, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots – comes to mind. But those games are few and far between. In the NBA, and similarly in the NHL and Major League Baseball, you get numerous chances to play out that drama every playoff season.
The Nets finished the regular season very strong, with many predicting them to be a playoff sleeper (as much as any team can be a sleeper with Miami lurking). They had home court advantage, playing their first ever playoff series in Brooklyn, and a surging Deron Williams playing like the best point guard in the league over the second half of the season, having recovered from nagging injuries. The Bulls, meanwhile, had been without their own star point guard, former MVP Derrick Rose, all season and appeared to lose All-Star Joakim Noah to injury as well just before the series started. Had the teams been playing a single elimination game, that would have been your story-line: surging Nets vs. ailing Bulls.
The Nets could do no wrong in Game 1, blowing the doors off the Bulls in taking a 60-35 halftime lead, and a sweep was not considered out of the question. Noah played, but was significantly hobbled, and was taken advantage of by his counterpart Brook Lopez. Deron Williams was unstoppable throughout.
Somehow the Bulls pulled out a win in Game 2 – in Brooklyn – shutting down Williams and getting a heroic effort from Noah. At that point you couldn’t tell if it was a fluke or an adjustment by the Bulls which yielded the win. But in Game 3, after weathering an early 17-5 lead from the Nets, Kirk Hinrich of the Bulls shut down Williams again and the Bulls defense led them to another win. The story had shifted. The Bulls had a decent chance to win. Then came the instant-classic Game 4, where Hinrich played 60 valiant minutes (out of a possible 63) and Nate Robinson scored 23 points himself just in the fourth quarter, leading the frantic comeback. Suddenly the Bulls were the heavy favorite and the Nets were holding on for dear life. Bulls coach Tom Thibideau had a decision to make, the kind you can only face in a seven game series: Should he rest his depleted team, conceding Game 5 in Brooklyn, to try and get everything he could out of his team in Game 6 in Chicago? Or should he coach each game as if it were the last? Thibideau, normally a mastermind, opted for the latter, and it may have cost his team the series. Without Hinrich (injured after playing all those minutes in Game 4) and Luol Deng (the team’s leading scorer, injured in Game 5) the Bulls lost both games 5 and 6. And now the Nets are favored again, just as they were before Game 1, but the dramatic stage has been set. Consider that now Noah has gone as far as to predict that the Bulls will win.
Before this series started, no one could have foreseen Hinrich playing a pivotal role, let alone being the key missing cog to his team. No one could have foreseen the streaky Robinson elevating his game to elite level. No one would have expected the Nets to be down 3-1, with Noah playing again at an All-Star level, and if they did, no one would give them a chance to come back. And it would have been impossible to think that the series would turn on a come-from-behind triple overtime win by the Bulls, only that it would be the Nets who benefited most from it. None of that happens without a seven game series. This is what a Game 7 is all about.
And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.