November 6, 2014

Playoffs Redux

During the 2012-2013 NBA season, I started exploring the hobby of collecting basketball cards. I used this blog as both an excuse and a justification to shell out some dough for a few rectangles of cardboard which I thought would occupy my attention for a few minutes.  I didn't think this was anything new for me. When I was a kid in England, I used to collect football (soccer, that is) cards and then when I moved to this country in the late '70s I got hooked on football (NFL, that is), baseball and hockey cards and kept that going in part as late as sophomore year of college. Since the mid 1980s though, the landscape of sports card collecting has changed drastically and I learned that pretty quickly. This hobby is now big business. During the 2012-2013 season, Panini America, who owns the NBA trading card rights, produced 26 different lines of basketball cards including some series that retailed for over $1,000 for a pack of 10. Insane, right?

I declined to pick up the box of 10 cards for over $1,000 ($1,250 to be precise) that year but ended up spending a significant amount of money anyway and accumulating a pretty good collection of Wizards cards. Some of these things are absolutely gorgeous and perfect for collecting signatures but I knew I couldn't continue at the pace I went at in my first year; it was just too much. So last year I cut back a lot and spent less than half of what I spent the first season, choosing to concentrate on specific series of cards. This year, I vowed to cut back even more. My intent was to ignore the first few issues of cards entirely and just make sure I collected what I really thought was worth collecting.

Unfortunately, Panini America made a series of insert cards in their Hoops cards that were just too good to resist; I fell for it and I'm glad I did. This year's Hoops collection includes a "Road to the Finals" set of cards which features a card for each playoff game in the 2014 NBA playoffs. The front of the card features the star of the winning team for each particular game; the back of the card shows the final score and a quick narrative about the game. As a point of clarification, most sets of sports cards these days feature a base set of cards which is pretty easy to collect and then a series of insert cards that are aligned against a number of themes which are rarer and take a little more hunting to gather a full set.

Last year's Wizards team made the franchise's deepest playoff run in 35 years, moving out of the first round of the playoffs for the third time since 1979 and then securing two wins in the second round before ultimately collapsing in the second half of game four against the Indiana Pacers and succumbing for good two games later. These cards are the perfect way to remember each game in that couple of weeks' period so I decided to get a hold of the cards for all eleven playoff games to add to my collection. I know these will stir memories every time I pull them out and look at them.

Our first round playoff series last year was against the Chicago Bulls. It lasted just five games with the good guys winning four games to one so Panini's set features four Wizards cards and one Bulls card, each one numbered to an edition of 2014. The notable thing about this five card set for me is that the Wizards cards feature four different players in Nenê, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and John Wall. That series was truly a team effort with no one player from our side dominating for more than a game. That balanced attack allowed us to completely overwhelm the Bulls and make them look like an offensively challenged, overworked-in-the-regular-season squad, starting with the 2-0 lead we took in Chicago.

Coming home for one game at least wasn't so sweet; we lost game three behind 35 points from Mike Dunleavy, who is featured on the one Bulls card in this series. That was the same game that Nenê was ejected (and subsequently suspended) for holding his head against Jimmy Butler's (there's really no other way to put what he did) for a few seconds. Game four featured a 17-2 game opening run, a dominant performance from Trevor Ariza and some late game "Free Nenê!" chants from the sellout crowd at Verizon Center. We never saw the Bulls that year again in Washington, finishing them off in game five in the windy city. John Wall was the star that night.

Unfortunately, game four in the first round was the only win the Washington home crowd would see in those playoffs. The second round against the Pacers was a six game affair with each team winning more than losing on each others' floor but the Pacers managed a win at home in game two (when Roy Hibbert who had been invisible for the entire playoffs decided to acknowledge he actually knew how to play basketball) for the edge in the series. Because the Pacers won, the second round series of cards feature four Pacers cards and just two Wizards cards, this time numbers to an edition of 999.

This series is not so much fun to remember. Trevor Ariza was perfect from three point range in game one and the win in Indiana that night seemed like it foreshadowed a repeat of the Chicago series. Some folks around Washington even started punching the Wizards' tickets for the Eastern Conference Finals. Not so fast. There was a reason the Pacers were the best team in the east in the regular season and Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George proved it in the next three games. George killed us in game four when it looked like we were on our way to an easy victory, up 17 with less than nine minutes to go in the third quarter.

Marcin Gortat stemmed the tide a bit in game five with a career game (and thus he's on the game five card) in Indiana, scoring 31 and grabbing 16 boards before David West and the rest of the Pacers put us away for good in the next game. That series featured only two games where the winning team scored over 100 points and it was the two games the Wizards won. But ultimately, it seemed that our team wasn't ready for that sort of stage quite yet. Hopefully it's something we can build on this year. We started to exorcise some of those demons last night when we defeated the Pacers in an ugly all too close overtime affair at Verizon Center.

If I had my druthers, I'd love for Panini to produce a set like this every year. I think it's a great way to celebrate teams' playoff runs. I know these things will serve as a memory jogger every time I want to take a trip to past Wizards success. Thanks, Panini. I've got a ways to go to get through the rest of your card issues this year. Looking forward to each one.

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