VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Now THAT was one fantastic finish to an NBA regular season.
Not even the spoil-sport antics of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg “Sourpuss” Popovich could ruin it (MAS will explain later).
Instead of having to snooze through the usual dreary ending to six long months of competition, this go ’round fans were presented with compelling, down-to-the-last-day viewing.
Regular campaigns just don’t close any better than the one just completed featuring the Golden State Warriors breaking the NBA record for wins (73) and Kobe Bryant’s 60-point farewell tour adieu for the Los Angeles Lakers.
If only they could all somehow end this way.
Were it not for the Warriors-and-Kobe drama, the only suspense provided over the last few weeks would have been which of the three Eastern Conference teams would squeeze into the last two postseason slots (Indiana and Detroit in, Chicago out).
And in the West, the outfits that would secure the bottom three seeds and serve as first-round sacrificial lambs for the Warriors, Spurs and Oklahoma City.
Fortunately these items would become almost non-stories, lost in the shadow of the far more intriguing Warriors-Kobe plots.
And a lot of related subplots contained within each of those.
Combined, they created early-April interest that had been unseen in the NBA since, well, almost never.
Every Warriors contest over the last two weeks contained all the intensity and tension of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Each GS foe brought a Super Bowl of hoops mentality to the fray.
Except one. Golden State’s penultimate win (No. 72, by which it tied the record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls) came against the Spurs in San Antonio.
The irascible Popovich tried his best to throw a wet blanket over that key contest by resting his star center, Tim Duncan.
The Warriors’ win was a squeaker that Duncan’s presence could have possibly reversed. But people didn’t care. A win is a win.
72 is 72.
Popovich had succeeded only in cutting his nose off to spite his face, as he denied his own club a chance at a perfect home record of 41-0.
The first in NBA annals.
All in the name of staying fresh for the playoffs.
Popovich had once more thumbed his nose at fans who had paid big bucks to see stars and, this time, history being made.
And almost everybody, including the league office and much of the media, just shrugged and gave him yet another hall pass.
Just like they do when Popovich makes snide remarks to and exhibits rude behavior toward polite, well-meaning questioners during in-game TV interviews and postgame press conferences.
Pop being Pop is their lame reasoning.
Amazing how so many people can excuse ignorance.
Meanwhile, Kobe’s Black Mamba fade-out, culminating with his 60-point exit vs. Utah, almost ended up stealing the Warriors’ thunder.
At worst, it was a 50-50 deal as to which event was more enthralling.
MAS wore out his remote clicking back and forth between the Warriors and Lakers contests.
He wanted to see the Warriors’ celebration upon completing a rout of Memphis for a 73-9 campaign.
But MAS missed the beginning of it because he was transfixed on an other-worldly Bryant, looking like his old self, scoring 15 straight points to rally his team to a stirring last-minute comeback victory.
With a regular season ending like that, the playoffs will have to be EXTRA special to avoid being anticlimactic.
The big question now: Will the grind involved in setting the wins record empty the Warriors tank?
And in the eyes of many somehow validate Popovich’s reprehensible “kiss my butt, NBA patrons” conduct.
MAS buys into what Warriors superstar Stephen Curry said after win No. 73, during which, by the way, he passed 400 3-pointers made in a season (something else people were watching down the stretch).
Said Curry: “Going for the record has enabled us to keep our focus. It has kept us at the top of our game and will help us going into the playoffs, not hurt us.”
MAS has a ton of respect for the way Steph and Co. embraced the record chase.
The Warriors were definitely all in.
During Golden State’s final drive, though, there were surprise losses to Boston (snapping Golden State’s 54-game home winning streak) and lowly Minnesota. Those upsets could have eventually caused the Warriors to fall short of their stated goal.
And many folks, no doubt, would have unfairly labeled the ending to their remarkable regular season “disappointing.”
Instead, those defeats only served to ratchet up Golden State’s sense of urgency and the stretch-run drama.
And, boy, did the Warriors ever respond.
They are fun to watch and come off as a likeable group, Draymond Green’s occasional temper tantrum aside.
Safe to say, most of the U.S. and the rest of the world were pulling for them to break the record.
Similar support was somewhat surprisingly afforded Bryant, who turned from vilified villain to hailed hero as the season wore on and eventually wound down.
Kobe’s Hollywood ending couldn’t have been scripted better, or occurred in a more apropos place.
On a night that started with probably only people in Los Angeles and Bryant’s homies in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, tuned in for his swan song, Kobe managed to change what had at first looked like a mere poignant send-off into a finale for the ages.
Bryant’s 60-point performance, even if it took him 50 shots, including a 6-for-21 effort from 3-point range, has to go down as the basketball equivalent of Babe Ruth clouting three home runs in his last full MLB game.
It helped transform what is usually nap time on the NBA calendar into arguably the league’s greatest 10 days ever.
And, to top it all off, Golden State’s stretch run and Kobe’s farewell tour also made MAS forget, for a while at least, how annoying Gregg Popovich can be.
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