Christmas is an annual showcase for the NBA, but never more than this year — the holiday marking the official tipoff to a season shortened by 16 games and nearly two months thanks to a lockout.
Or as the TV announcers covering Sunday’s action might ask, “Lockout? What lockout?”
Then again, the networks’ collective amnesia is perhaps to be forgiven — reflecting, as it does, the mentality of many fans, having gone almost immediately from “A pox on both their houses” regarding the league’s labor unrest to giddy trade chatter, as in “Chris Paul is going from New Orleans to LA? Wait, that LA?”
Sports fans are pretty pathetic on this score, like a guy who finds out his girlfriend cheated on him but happily forgets everything because she agrees to serve him a nice dinner.
Dinner, in this case, was a five-game Christmas feast — a 13-hour quintuple-header, split among TNT, ESPN and broadcast sibling ABC. For those who couldn’t bear the thought of talking to their families on the holiday, well, the NBA had your back.
Of course, the announcers couldn’t completely ignore the lockout, inasmuch as it has significant playoff implications, raising all sorts of on-the-court questions. As TNT’s Marv Albert put it, the “condensed season” or “compressed schedule” — which averages out to more than a game every other day — has consequences regarding how well teams, especially those with veteran rosters, will hold up.
“There’s gonna be some ugly play,” conceded ABC’s Mike Breen — who pulled rare double duty with Jeff Van Gundy, calling both the Heat at Mavericks in Dallas and Clippers at Warriors in Oakland — referring to the juggled lineups and abbreviated preseason.
Still, the flurry of trades and personnel moves helped announcers spin the discussion forward instead of looking back. Hell, even Lamar Odom — a.k.a. Mr. Khloe Kardashian — moved his reality TV act from LA to Dallas.
There have been key personnel changes in TV land, too, and based on Sunday, few for the better. Shaquille O’Neal, who is prone to mumbling, was a non-factor as part of TNT’s crew for the first game. Fortunately, they still have the irrepressible Charles Barkley, who (bless him) not only balked at making playoff predictions given the jumbled state of things but also refuses to use Twitter, whose presence in TNT’s coverage is ratcheted to obnoxious levels.
Meanwhile, ABC had Michael Wilbon awkwardly presiding over its pregame and halftime chat, and during Miami-Dallas opted not to replace Mark Jackson, who (mama, there went that man!) mercifully left the booth to coach Golden State.
The only problem is that format leaves Breen as the sole line of defense to prevent Van Gundy’s shtick from getting out of hand. And with Miami’s blowout creating time to fill, Van Gundy harped on two themes: Nobody should criticize LeBron James for his 2011 NBA Finals performance, and — yes, referencing the lockout —cable should discount the “NBA League Pass” because the season consists of 20 percent fewer games. (Analyst Chris Mullin joined them later and actually did a solid, comparatively laid-back job.)
From a broadcasting standpoint, the day’s highlight had to be listening to Hubie Brown laboring to identify Metta World Peace, the Laker formerly known as Ron Artest. He generally called him “Metta,” but appeared to do all he could to avoid saying his name at all.
Practically speaking, the NBA caught a break from this year’s calendar: Since Christmas fell on Sunday there were no college bowls and only one Sunday night NFL game to compete for viewers’ attention.
“For an opening-day game following a long lockout, what a fiercely played, exciting game,” Albert enthused during the Knicks-Celtics, which like the Bulls-Lakers, went down to the last shot. All told, it was a pretty good day of basketball and should stoke interest in the season to come.
Nevertheless, the league didn’t leave much to chance, incorporating image-building messages throughout — such as players handing out gifts to underprivileged kids — seeking to ensure people feel good about the game again.
Not that the NBA needs to worry. Because as Sunday’s gentle treatment from its TV partners demonstrates, once the ball goes up the assumption is that hoops fans either have forgiving natures or, just as good, extremely short memories.