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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

It's the NBA playoffs!

NOTE: On Wednesday, August 26, players for the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a widespread protest of the shootings in Kenosha, Wisc., among major league teams, resulting in the postponement of that day's NBA playoff and WNBA games, as well as several Major League Baseball games. The NHL followed suit the next day. Some NFL practice sessions also were canceled.

As of Friday, August 28, those leagues were planning to resume play, based on the players' decision that it would be more effective to continue to use the high-profile platform of their televised games to promote the cause of social justice and racial equality than to go on strike.

I stand in support of the protesters in placing the need for change above the desire for sports entertainment (see the Bucks players' statement here). The following content of this post remains as I originally wrote and published it on August 18. - DB.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks are the two best players in the NBA, and their teams each topped their respective divisions going into this season's playoffs. Will they meet in a Finals series set in October for the first time ever?
Close readers of this blog will recall that, from time to time, I write about basketball, and I can't resist the opportunity to celebrate publicly the successful return this summer of the NBA inside its Florida bubble.

I've always liked this league for its solid leadership, respect for players, and willingness to adapt to change, and the coronavirus pandemic provided further support for that opinion. The league was the first at the pro level to announce a shutdown (following the even more impressive leadership of the Ivy League, which pulled the plug before anyone else in sports), and it has been the clear United States leader in figuring out how to come back safely.

With a severely shortened season, the NBA's eight-game-per-team "seeding" round proved to be a total blast, with terrific technical innovations, stunningly competitive games, and no COVID outbreaks. I only caught a few of those games, but they were all highly entertaining, due in part to the "virtual" fans shown live on mega-screens surrounding the courts (imagine a Zoom meeting on steroids) and in part to the virtual silence, which allowed the TV audience (not to mention players and coaches) to hear the on-court patter.

The culmination of this phase of action was a fabulous "play-in" game, the first of its kind ever in the league, in which Portland and Memphis battled to a last-minute victory by the Blazers, placing them first in line to confront the league-leading Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, which began this afternoon. Portland's late run to the final seed included three consecutive games in which its star player, Damian Lillard, averaged 51 points a game. That's right, averaged.

I should also mention the classy and effective way the league has handled the urgent issue of Black Lives Matter within the context of presenting entertainment in the form of professional basketball, by establishing a long list of slogan options for players to wear (or not wear) in place of their names on the backs of their uniforms. For the first week or so of games, these slogans appeared above the number with no player name shown at all, underlining the players' desire to place this issue above their own egos. Later, the players' names were added below the numbers, while the slogans remained in the top position (I don't know if this was planned or an afterthought - I will say that it helped me identify who was who on the court, so it may have come from popular demand).

I liked a lot of the slogans, and it was interesting to think about the choices each player made - for example, a younger, brasher guy might wear "I Am A Man," while a lot of the older guys opted for "Peace" or "Education Reform." "Black Lives Matter" and "Equality" seemed to be the most popular choices - with "Equality" appearing in several different languages on foreign players' jerseys (I observed and then confirmed Serbian, Latvian, Slovenian, German, and Italian among them).

Most interesting of all was "Group Economics," touted for the approved list and then worn by Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver, along with a couple of other players (and quite adequately explained here). This level of educational opportunity just doesn't normally come with major league sports, and I loved seeing it as part of every game.

Meanwhile, throughout the league, there are so many stars vying for a Finals ring that fans can rightly expect plenty of fierce competition and outstanding play in the weeks to come - with no risky travel, clear and strong controls in place, and what appears to be little likelihood of COVID-related issues (unlike, ahem, MLB).

My hat's off to the NBA, its administrators, coaches, and players for having the ability to pull this off together. And may the best team win.

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