By TOM POWERS
LOS ANGELES The NBA clearly is in a down phase right now. How else can we explain the fact that not one semifinal game from either series will be shown on network television?
Where have you gone, Michael Jordan?
The entire series between the Wolves and Los Angeles Lakers is being televised by TNT. The Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers are being shown on ESPN. That lack of network exposure probably is good because the basketball has been terrible in the playoffs much like it was during the regular season.
No network coverage of the semis says something. That's almost as bad as it was 25 years ago when Game 7 of the championship series was shown by CBS on tape delay after the evening news.
In those days, ABC's world's strongest man competition routinely trounced NBA games in the ratings. And the popularity of college basketball was far greater than that of the pros.
But the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought the league mass appeal for the first time. Popularity skyrocketed. Jordan and the Chicago Bulls came along soon after. For a while, the NBA was the glitzy "in" league. It was pure excitement.
The Boston Celtics, Lakers and Bulls were glamour teams. They had charisma. Their followings were so great they almost were national teams, like the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and baseball's New York Yankees. Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks were almost a glamour team. And the league was rocking and rolling.
The only glamour team left today is the Lakers. The NBA could use the Lakers in the finals because the other three remaining teams lack national recognition. Actually, the other 28 teams lack national recognition. All that's left is the Shaq-Kobe Lakers.
Again, it's probably a good thing that so few playoff games are being telecast by a major network. The basketball has been excruciating to watch. It is so predictable.
It seems like just a few years ago that most teams were offering fans free pizza or burgers if the home team scored 125 points. Now they might as well offer their fans diamond rings. There's no chance they will have to pay up.
If your team isn't playing, you would be crazy to watch one of these 80-74, thump-thump-thump affairs. They are uniformly boring. The defenses have evolved well beyond the offenses. The closest thing to team basketball is a two-man pick and roll. And the number of fast breaks in a game can be counted on one hand.
The way it is today, a guy expects a pat on the back when he passes the ball. After Game 3, the Wolves' Kevin Garnett talked about having to make "sacrifices" by not shooting quite as much in the third quarter. That's when red-hot Wally Szczerbiak scored 14 points to single-handedly carry Minnesota.
Yet it was a sacrifice for the team's top star to fade into the background for a while. It was a burden to let the hot man take over. That says a lot about today's NBA.
Today's NBA game is lousy. It's all three-pointers or dunks. Nobody knows how to play in between. So the midrange jump shot it a lost art. Guys don't feel comfortable shooting unless they are far away or in tight.
How many times, while channel surfing, have you stumbled onto a playoff game with the score 59-57 and said to yourself, "Must be early in the second half." Then they flash the time and there are four minutes to go.
The NBA truly is in a sorry state. The beginning of the end came when Magic, Bird and Jordan retired. It has gotten progressively worse since.
The National Hockey League isn't much better, with its super-evolved trapping defense. But at least in hockey, someone might pop somebody in the nose. That always livens things up. In the NBA, they promote the threat of violence replaying the Anthony Peeler elbow, the Karl Malone forearm etc. during TV promos. But there really isn't any.
The league has come almost full circle from where it was 25 years ago. The college game again is considered a superior product. If nothing else, the college kids have a better image, both on and off the court.
Unless your favorite team is playing, watching a playoff game is like having a tooth pulled. Without anesthetic. By a lousy dentist.