I'm not one to adhere to sports cliches, but this one has always made sense to me logically.
You can't win a title without facing some adversity along the way.
Why has that one always spoken to me? Perhaps it's because I've always felt being on a sports team is a lot like being in a long-term relationship (which I've been in, very happily, for a few years now). Any two people can be in a relationship when everything is going well. You're constantly happy, and you're having fun. That's all great. But the real test of a long-term relationship is how you respond to each other when things aren't all fine and dandy. How do you handle disagreements? How do you find a way to overcome obstacles like distance, a busy work schedule or a lot of travel, for example? What do you do if maybe your friends and/or family aren't all thrilled that you two are dating? Those are the moments when you really find out if your relationship is made to last. You can't fully commit to someone unless you've been with them in your worst moments.
A sports team is very similar. At some point, along the journey, things are not going to go according to plan. Someone is going to get injured. Two players are going to feud with each other. The coach will have a disagreement with a player. You'll lose a game you were supposed to win. You'll struggle to beat a team you should beat. Etc. And it's in these moments where you really find out what a team is capable of doing. Some teams pull apart and fold (*cough* Nuggets *cough*). Some teams continue as usual. But those that pull together and pick it up are the ones that are best equipped to accomplish their goal.
That's always been a gut feeling of mine, but I never had any evidence to back it up. Now, though, thanks to John Hollinger, I do. In his PER Diem column today, Hollinger writes that every single championship team in the last eight years has struggled to win their second-round series.
I'll call it the Law of Second-Round Strife. Each of the past eight champions has hit a major bump in Round 2. The last one to skip through this minefield cleanly was the Lakers' juggernaut in 2001.
It's easy to forget now, but a year ago the Lakers lost Game 2 [Note: he means Game 1] at home to Houston and went on to submit a pair of truly pathetic performances against an undermanned Rockets team in Games 4 and 6. Following those games, folks couldn't get off the L.A. bandwagon fast enough.
Each of the other eight past champs has a similar story. Five of the eight dropped one of their first two home games in the second round, including a 2005 [Note: he means 2007] San Antonio team that did so while also lacking home-court advantage. The other three managed to hold serve, only to drop Games 3 and 4 in such humiliating fashion that pundits openly questioned their fortitude.
Hollinger's theory is that the second round is where the playoff hangover sets in. You've lost your enthusiasm that you had in Round 1 when the playoffs started, but you're also not far enough along in the journey where the championship trophy is in site. It's a solid theory, backed up by a ton of evidence that's really, really hard to ignore.
What does this mean for this year? Don't count Cleveland out just because they haven't played well against the Celtics. The Cavaliers are going through their fair share of adversity right now. As much as we're all tired of hearing about LeBron James' elbow, it's clearly bothering him and affecting his play. Anderson Varejao is dealing with back issues, and they're playing a team that's just finding itself after a disappointing regular season. But if the Cavaliers can pull together (which I think they will), then this experience will make them much stronger going forward.
In contrast, the Orlando Magic are dominating, but unless the Hawks make an improbable comeback, the Magic will enter the next round without having to face a situation that really tests their character. They faced that adversity much earlier in the season, when they were figuring out how to mold all their new pieces, but that was a long time ago. In the last two months, they haven't had one real gut-check moment. That lack of experience is going to hurt when they inevitably face a road block going forward.
Ironically, we're seeing a complete role reversal from last year. Last year, the Cavaliers stormed into the Eastern Conference Finals after having a regular season for the ages. Their first two rounds were both sweeps, because the Pistons and depleted Hawks didn't provide them with any sort of test. Meanwhile, the Magic were one shot away from going down 3-1 in the first round, then had to rally from a 3-2 deficit to win Game 7 on the road in the second round. Obviously, the Magic beat the Cavs mostly because of all the matchup difficulties they presented and the defense they played on every non-LeBron player on the Cavs. But they also had more experience dealing with adversity, and that mattered. It's hard to say how, but it mattered.
Let's be clear: I'm not necessarily declaring that the Cavaliers have the upper hand against the Magic. It's too early to call that potential matchup one way or the other. However, I do think that this difficult series with Boston will be a positive development for the Cavs going forward. Provided they can win it, of course.
Onto tonight. Two great games on tap. Let's break them down.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics: Game 3, 7:00 p.m., ESPN
Problem the Cavs must solve to win: Rajon Rondo is just killing them right now. He had 19 assists in Game 2, setting up his older teammates whenever he wanted. The Cavaliers need to do more to make Rondo a scorer. If I were a head coach, I'd suggest some way to do that. I'm not, so I'll just leave it at that. Analysis!
Problem the Celtics must solve to win again: Their offense got stagnant at times in the fourth quarter, but that always happens to them, so I won't go in that direction. Instead, I'll say this: they should work on cutting down their turnovers. As SB Nation's Celtics Blog notes, they have 34 in the first two games of this series. That's too many.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: LeBron's elbow actually talking. Kind of like this:
That comes from J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas of The Basketball Jones, and it's probably the most brilliant thing I've watched the entire season.
Prediction: A great game, but one in which Cleveland responds and takes it. I'm looking forward to this. Cavaliers 97, Celtics 94.
Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs: Game 3, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 in one sentence: Led by Jared Dudley, the Suns bench erased an early double-digit Spurs lead, and the Suns' small lineup took it home from there.
Problem the Spurs must solve to win: Well, score one for Suns fans. After Game 1, I wrote that the Suns should be concerned about San Antonio's small lineup. In Game 2, though, the Suns completely turned the tables, going small to race past the Spurs late in the game. The Suns toyed with Tim Duncan by making him guard Channing Frye, who rained threes when Duncan was late to close out. When the Spurs adjusted by switching those screens, the Suns simply gave Grant Hill the ball, and Hill beat Duncan off the dribble for two jumpers.
The Spurs are going to have to figure out a way to deal with this problem. Maybe it's as simple as Frye missing more, because he was on fire in Game 2. But otherwise, the Spurs are in a world of hurt, especially because Duncan's probably not the defender he once was.
Problem the Suns must solve to win again: The Suns got off to a really, really bad start in Game 2. Luckily, their bench came in and patched that hole, but that was at home, and role players, by and large, play better at home than on the road. In Game 3, in a hostile environment, the starters are going to have to come out much better, because I don't think that bench could rally them from a double-digit deficit on the road.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: I want to see that lone Suns fan in a sea of black, especially if the Suns win tonight. How will that guy deal with success? How will that guy respond if the Suns pretty much put this series away?
Prediction: San Antonio's been pretty close, and now that they're home, I'm expecting a win. Spurs 105, Suns 97.