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Another Lesson...

The big game between the Hornets and Spurs last night offered another opportunity to ponder the larger lessons that the playoffs teach us.  The emphasis point here was simple:

Don’t believe it until you see it.

This is kind of a riff on the earlier “it takes four games to win a series” observation, but this one is really less about the teams and more about the fans.  I want to preface what I’m about to say with the assurance that I fully realize (from first-hand heartache on more than one occasion) that this will be a hard day for Hornets fans.  I mean no disrespect to them or their team by this discussion.  Everything I’m saying about the Hornets also applies to the Blazers…which is the point of saying it here.  Nevertheless, at the risk of pouring salt in wounds, I would point out that the Hornets have received more accolades from common fans relative to their (admittedly fine) accomplishments than any other team in the playoffs.  The buzz had them as the Next Big Thing ™.  They may indeed be the NBT™ but remember all of those things we said yesterday about youth and the need to gel and the importance of being tested and bloodied in the playoffs?  Those all applied here in spades.  The Hornets were doing fine up to the point their success put a crafty, veteran, championship team up against the wall.  When Game 6 of this series hit we got to see what the NBA playoffs were made of.  Until then the Hornets had been looking great in this fight.  The opponent was bloodied, stunned, and had just been dumped on the ground courtesy of some fancy stunt-man moves straight out of the movies.  As soon as it became apparent that the old guy could lose…WHAM!  Right there from the ground:  elbow in the crotch, stab the guy in the back while he’s doubled over.  Good fight, kid.  You’ll have to teach me some of those fancy moves sometime.

We fans have a natural tendency to embrace the new and different.  We love New Orleans because we haven’t seen New Orleans like we’ve seen the L*kers and Spurs.  Who wouldn’t be captured by the fresh, vibrant play of Chris Paul?  Think it’s going to be as fresh and vibrant six years from now?  Probably not.  But the Hornets may well be a better team then than they are now.

Another contributing factor is the impatient society we live in.  If we can’t have it immediately we dismiss it.  The entire palette of sports discussion in tinged with this hue.  We value prediction over observation.  A guy proves his chops by fantasizing about tomorrow’s outcome instead of helping us understand today’s.  You can’t make an assertion anymore without people assuming you’re talking about the way it should be instead of describing the way it is.  This whole prediction game has always seemed silly to me.  Anyone who could reliably forecast even 6 out of 10 games wouldn’t be commenting on a blog or radio show, he’d be making a mint in Vegas.  Casinos build empires on margins far slimmer than 10%. 

This fascination with Magic-8-Ball-ism causes us to demand future results now and to speak of things that will never happen as if they were already accomplished.  Thus five games into a seven-game series in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs New Orleans were one of the favorites for the rings.  Not so much after Game 7. 

It’s not just the fans either.  I didn’t write down the exact quote but one of the commentators tonight said the Hornets were a legitimate championship team.  Sorry, but when you strip away all of the excitement, promise, and publicity New Orleans is a team that didn’t make it past the second round, just like Portland was a team that didn’t make it past the Conference Finals in 2000, seven games or no.  And, by the way, just like the Blazers are a lottery team this year.  No more, no less…that’s it.

You want to be a legitimate championship team?  There are two simple steps.  First you have to make it to the NBA Finals.  Then…well…you have to WIN IT.  That’s when you’re a legitimate championship team and not a moment before.

In Portland’s case…you want to be a playoff team?  Then you have to make the playoffs.  Not talk about the playoffs…not draft big names that should take you to the playoffs…not look promising during stretches of the regular season either.  None of that does it.  You have to make it in order to claim it.  Hard, cold reality:  as far as the playoffs go, we haven’t done anything yet.  Not even step one.  For Portland fans also, the lesson applies:

Don’t believe it until you see it.

Rosy predictions are nice.  Encouraging mileposts are nice.  Good feelings are nice.  But all of those wrapped together don’t put you anyplace different than Hornets fans are today.  Meanwhile Spurs fans, L*kers fans, Pistons fans, and Celtics fans have something a little more tangible and meaningful to hold onto.  Their teams are actually doing it.  There’s no substitute for that.

This is a good thing to keep in mind next time we’re wondering why everyone hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon yet.  It’s also a good thing for the team to keep in mind when they’re tempted to pat themselves on the back a little too hard for that .500 season.  Yeah, it was a great year compared to the ones we’ve had recently.  Yeah, it was an oddball year in the West.  Yeah, 41-41 would have made you a playoff team most years.  So what?  It didn’t this year, we didn’t win the 48+ that we needed to, and that means we’re still not there…end of story.

One of the fanposts to the right wonders how the Hornets will react to this.  It’s a good question.  The same can be asked of the Blazers.  If either team has even a fraction of the promise people attribute to them they will come out stronger, more focused, and wiser for the experience.  If they don’t, then that promise didn’t matter much and neither did they.  Either way we won’t really know until we see it done, one way or the other.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)