May 6, 2017

Playoff Villains

I first bought Washington Wizards season tickets in the year 2000. I've been there for this team every year since. In 2005, the franchise rewarded me as a season ticket holder by making the playoffs for the first time this century. That would be the start of a four year run in the postseason that featured just one series win, the very first one played vs. Chicago in 2005.

Once Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison got by the Bulls that first year, we ended up in a series with the number one seeded Miami Heat. Despite the sometimes close scores, it was not much of a series and it lasted just four games. The Wizards despite all their good play that year were no match for Shaquille O'Neal, Dwayne Wade (42 points in the series clincher) and company. It was a domination. After a 4-0 nothing sweep during the regular season, the Heat made it 8 losses in a row in a single season for the Wiz. It was humiliating. And just like that Shaq became my first Wizards playoff villain.

For the next three years, I forgot all about Shaq even while he and the Miami Heat won a Championship the very next year. For the next three years, the playoffs and hating people on the other team were all about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The 4-5 matchup in 2006? Cleveland-Washington. 2-7 the next year? Cleveland-Washington. 4-5 the year after that? Cleveland-Washington again. 4-2. 4-0. 4-2. Three first round playoff losses to the Cavs back to back to back.

So let's be honest. LeBron was generally speaking really good at basketball those three years and that can totally make a playoff villain. But that wasn't it with LeBron. It was the whining, crying, babyish, smug way he won. It was whispering in Gilbert Arenas' ear before a free throw. It was protesting every call. It was telling referee Danny Crawford that Brendan Haywood was trying to hurt him (Haywood was ejected). It was taking Darius Songaila's hand and hitting his own face and then flopping mercilessly (Songaila was suspended). It was all the nonsense that James used to get his way over and over and over again. As if playing the games on an even playing field wasn't enough. 

It was those three years that will make me never root for this guy. I'd rather have JaVale McGee win a title before I see LeBron win another. It was those three years that put LeBron in a category by himself as the ultimate playoff villain. And then it was over. No more Wizards playoffs for six years.

Nice flop, LeBron! Got Songaila suspended for game six though.
2014. New team. No more Arenas-Butler-Jamison big three. Enter John Wall, Nenê, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal. Two rounds and out. Beat Chicago; lost to Indiana. The next year? Ariza out, Paul Pierce in. Two rounds and out again. Swept Toronto and bowed out to Atlanta. Those two playoff runs were great and when they were over Wizards fans were buoyed by the fact that if it wasn't for John Wall's broken wrist, there may have been an Eastern Conference Finals berth in there.

But one thing they didn't produce for me were any playoff villains. Jimmy Butler maybe due to his tete-a-tete with Nenê that got our big man suspended or Al Horford for his game winner in game five of the Atlanta series. But it's difficult to despise teams you beat handily like Toronto in 2015 and the Bulls the year before and honestly the players on both the Pacers in '14 and the Hawks the year after were just difficult to dislike those years. No villains there for me.

So now it's 2017 and the Wizards are back again in the second round of the playoffs and locked in a battle with the Boston Celtics after taking care of the Atlanta Hawks in six. And holy crap there are so many guys on these opponents to thoroughly loathe it's amazing. There are villains all over these teams. I knew I'd feel this way about the Celtics but honestly I had no idea that I cared enough about anyone on the Atlanta Hawks to dislike them even slightly. I guess it's the competition that bring this stuff out.

On the Hawks side of things, let's start with Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore. Both are decent players but they both clearly both think they are way better than they actually are. The whooping and celebrating by Bazemore when things are going well drives me crazy and Schröder even suggesting he's in the same league (metaphorically speaking that is) as John Wall makes me laugh. Bazemore also gets no love from me for the push in the back on Bradley Beal in game six after Beal made a layup. I'm really not sure Beal fell due to the push but the very act of pushing a defenseless player to gain no competitive advantage when he's in a dangerous and vulnerable position is dirty. That could have turned out really badly.

But the guy on the Hawks who I loved to see sent home for the summer was their so-called All-Star power forward Paul Millsap. Since he got his game handed to him in game one (19 points but just 2 rebounds) by Markieff Morris on Easter Sunday, Millsap had a good series, averaging 24 points and 11 boards over games two through five and dropping 31 and 10 in the Wizards game six clincher. He for sure some damage to the Wizards but that's not why I was glad to see his season over. It's the whining, crying and flopping he did on and off the court that's got me upset. This dude's supposed to be an All-Star and one sub-par game against Kieff and he's complaining like the second coming of 2009 LeBron James. Good riddance.

If the Hawks got my blood boiling a little, there's no comparison to how I'm feeling about the Boston Celtics right now. I expected this. I mean there have been regular season in-game and post-game run-ins with Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart the last two years, two role players who use their physicality to gain an upper hand every now and again against opponents. This year featured Crowder poking John Wall in the nose after a game in Boston and Boston police standing between the locker rooms minutes later. The Wizards followed that up with the funeral game, one of the simultaneously silliest, immature and awesome stunts any Wizards team has pulled ever. It helped that the game was a Wizards blowout.

In this series Crowder and Smart have been doing their usual things but honestly other than Smart undercutting Bojan Bogdanovich on a three point attempt in game one and two consecutive flops for fouls from the same guy against John Wall in game two, those two have been pretty quiet. By the way, why don't superstar calls apply to John Wall? How is he getting whistled for two questionable calls back to back? And does the NBA still fine for flopping? It seems like that was either an official short term initiative or they've just gotten tired of fining. 

But there is no shortage of playoff villains on the Celtics side of things. Al Horford made sure his foot was well-placed under Markieff Morris to knock Kieff out of game one before Smart tried it with Bogey later in the same game. But the two guys who are going to have me yelling the loudest tomorrow afternoon are Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk.

So let's face it, Thomas is good. On offense. I don't understand how this dude hits half the stuff he hits around the basket. The only thing I can think is that his release comes from a spot vertically that is so much different than any other player in the NBA that no defender can get the right angle to defend him properly. But he's also taking his shots when he can under the protection of the refs and the rules I guess. The jumping backwards into Kelly Oubre bloodying Kelly's mouth in game two minutes after hitting Otto Porter in the nose with his head got zero fouls. And the constant yapping from a guy who can't D up makes me nuts too.

But let's also face it, Kelly Olynyk is just plain dirty. And I guess he's smart enough to get away with it most times. Olynyk is going to draw a lot of booing and I'm sure some things way less civil than booing tomorrow evening after his shoulder to the neck screen on Kelly Oubre made our Kelly lose it and get suspended for bumrushing and knocking down Olynyk in game three. But that's not the first time Olynyk has done something like that. He had a raised forearm to the neck screen on Oubre about two minutes earlier in Thursday's game and you can ask Kevin Love about his broken arm courtesy of Olynyk a couple of years ago. I have to believe Verizon Center's crowd will be doing everything they can to make this guy feel insecure tomorrow.

In the NBA, rivalries are made in the playoffs. Forget divisions and the regular season; there is nothing like a playoff series to solidify some hate between two teams. The only thing that makes these rivalries more heated is throwing a couple of guys out on the other team that you just plain love to hate, some villains that you want to see get what's coming to them on every play if possible. We got that in spades this year in Schröder, Bazemore, Millsap, Crowder, Smart, Horford, Thomas and Olynyk, although the kind of nastiness Olynyk is known for has no place in this game.

Game four is tomorrow. Let's tie this thing up, Wizards, then go to Boston and take game five.

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