By David Mullen
The NBA should be in a great spot, and the league will tell you that they are. They have the best athletes in sports playing at the highest level. There is a lot of star power. They have a global presence. Locally, the Dallas Mavericks sell out every home game.
Still, many once rabid fans have soured on the professional game for a variety of reasons. Many casual NBA fans like to say, “I only have to watch the last four minutes of the fourth quarter to see an entire game.” While that statement shows more sarcasm than sincerity, the point is worth considering.
Twenty teams (10 in each conference) end the regular season with a chance to win a championship. There are 30 teams in the NBA. The NBA playoffs are to the regular season what the last four minutes are to an NBA game.
The Eastern Conference is not very competitive. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics dominate the division. It seems to be a forgone conclusion that they will face each other in the conference finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the only team that could cause a stir.
Milwaukee is led by the previously selfless center Giannis Antetokounmpo. On March 5, he seemed disinterested in anything but achieving a personal milestone. With three seconds left and undefended, he bounced the ball off the backboard to give himself 10 rebounds for a triple double (23 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds). The next day, the NBA ruled, “no board for the bored Bucks center.”
The 76ers have a star player in Joel Embiid but they also must rely on the unreliable James Harden to compete. Embiid plays all-out. Harden frequently plays out of it.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a great story, rejuvenated by the offseason acquisition of Donavan Mitchell. The New York Knicks, led in part by 2022 Mavericks playoff hero Jalen Brunson, have been on a recent hot streak. But Cleveland gets little love because they play in Cleveland. Win nine in a row in New York City, and the Knicks get a tickertape parade.
The Miami Heat won the Eastern Conference last season yet hover around .500 this season. The Brooklyn Nets dismantled the team while in playoff contention by unloading Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns and Kyrie Irving to the Mavs. The other East teams are just frustrating to watch, for 48 minutes or four.
When two, maybe three conference teams have a real chance at winning, interest wanes. Thoughts of winning the Eastern Conference are concentrated in areas where consumption of cheese curds, clam chowder and cheese steaks thrive.
The Western Conference is full of big-name players. The Los Angeles Lakers have marketing superstar and NBA all-time leading scorer LeBron James. Watch NBA highlights and one will know everything about James and his out-of-the-playoffs Lakers. But try to find out how close the Denver Nuggets are to 50 wins. While the NBA claims their immense popularity is driven by James, the league missed the tutorial on overexposure.
The Memphis Grizzlies are consistently the NBA’s most exciting team, led by the current human highlight reel Ja Morant. But Morant decided to brandish a gun at a Denver nightclub on March 4, post a video on Instagram and was suspended indefinitely by the league. Morant was known as a “sharpshooter,” a definition he redefined with one foolish move.
The Golden State Warriors and all-world guard Steph Curry are the defending NBA champions, but in 2023 can’t win games on the road. The Portland Trail Blazers have amazing guard Damian Lillard but may not make the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings are an exciting, playoff-bound team relegated to media obscurity in a town that San Franciscans drive through on the way to go snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.
Except for the Denver Nuggets and a couple of cellar dwellers, all teams in the West play at about the same level. At press time, eight teams (including the Mavericks) are three games apart in the standings. Three games separate a playoff lock from not even qualifying for a playoff play-in game.
The Nuggets personify team play. It is unfathomable that Denver center Nikola Jokic is a two-time MVP yet rarely in the discussion of the league’s top players. He shoots and passes with great skill. But windmill dunks make the “ESPN Top Ten” feature, not bounce passes ending in flawlessly executed layups.
The Mavericks, by acquiring Irving, banked that he and superstar Luka Doncic would create an unstoppable force. So far, so meh. The presence of two elite shooters in the same lineup has made the overall defense suffer. Dallas went the entire month of February without holding a team under 100 points. Since Irving joined the team, the Mavs are 5-6.
The Mavs are the poster children for the four-minute rule. In today’s NBA, a lot of games are decided in the last four minutes, especially Mavericks games.
Recently, they blew a 27-point second quarter lead at home against the Los Angeles Lakers and lost in the final minutes. They also lost late in the fourth quarter against Indiana and Phoenix at home. Dallas plays like a team that doesn’t know how to finish a game, no matter the level of competition.
On March 7, the Dallas Mavericks had to hold on late for a 120-116 home win against the Utah Jazz, one of the many teams — like the Mavericks — trying to qualify for a chance to make the NBA post season. With the Mavs, no lead is safe until the final buzzer sounds.
For the Dallas Mavericks, watching the last four minutes is a must. The Mavs have fallen into the trap where they can’t seem to put teams away. Wallowing around the .500 mark, from March 11 to April 2, Dallas plays 10 of 13 games on the road. The NBA may not be in trouble, but the Mavs might be.
The remainder of the season will be a test of how good the Mavericks really are and if they are a playoff caliber team.
Having Irving and Doncic on the same team means they are on network TV often and may give casual fans a reason to care about pro basketball. Watch the last four minutes of the game to find out.