NBA playoffs 2013: Centers have come to play in the conference finals


Memphis’s Marc Gasol prepares to release a hook shot over San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter during Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Gasol is one of a few prominent big men providing stellar play during the NBA postseason. (Ronald Martinez/GETTY IMAGES)
Mike Wise
Columnist May 25, 2013

“Steve Nash, [Leandro] Barbosa, [Josh] Howard, Gilbert Arenas — those type of players are the future of basketball, not some lug who’s going to stand around and be a 10-year project before they completely break your heart.”

— Bill Walton, 2006

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The Hall of Fame center, maybe the greatest interior-passing big man ever, called from his couch in San Diego exactly seven years ago Friday. He didn’t just pronounce the center position an endangered species; Big Bill said it was pretty much dead. Mesmerized that neither Dallas nor Phoenix needed a bona fide, old-school post player to advance to the NBA’s Western Conference finals, Walton lamented that no one really needed a true center anymore.

“Every kid now 6-10 or over wants to jack up three-pointers – it’s just horrible, an abomination of what the greatest game invented should be,” Walton said.

He called back in a very different mood late Friday night, after the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert had drop-stepped and jump-hooked Miami to sleep, the 7-foot-2 former Hoya scoring 29 points on the defending NBA champions to tie the Eastern Conference finals at a game apiece.

In San Antonio, where Marc Gasol would trade up-and-under baskets with Tim Duncan, and Zach Randolph would bull his way inches from the rim — “where all of them should be,” Walton said — the old center couldn’t wait for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in Memphis.

“The circle is complete. The unbroken chain is now closed.”

Okay, Walton can be a tad dramatic. Still, they’re b-a-a-a-a-ck.

(Author’s note: This is one of those geeky, inside-hoops, big-man columns that cannot possibly be comprehended by anyone who had a Rafer Alston mix tape or thought “The Professor” and “Headache” in the back of the AND1 Bus were actually big-time players.)

Thought to be near extinction at the end of the last century, with roughly the same slow-twitch muscle fiber as sloths, the true big man in pro basketball has come back after what feels like 17 years of dormancy to reclaim the paint — like 7-foot cicadas.

Well, except Hibbert, Gasol, Duncan and Randolph don’t actually fly as much as hop, usually centimeters from the ground. Their standing vertical leaps can be properly measured with Costco cards.

Unspectacular, occasionally unathletic and always unmarketable to sneaker and apparel companies, they trudge into NBA arenas like the crotchety old-timer at your local Y, the cat with goggles and knee braces bent on just two goals before every Sunday run: winning and causing you physical pain.

Their baby-hook, low-post footwork ilk is expanding, too. Al Jefferson. Brook Lopez. Joakim Noah. Greg Monroe. Al Horford. Tyson Chandler. Okay, Nene. The only drawback is the most gifted and often dominant among them, Dwight Howard, has yet to properly carry the torch bequeathed by Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.

Still, lasting change in the NBA happens in late May and June, and three of the four teams remaining rely heavily on their post presence. Not everyone 7 feet tall wants to be Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki anymore. Crazy, no, big men are actually playing big.

Duncan is somehow still contemporary at 37, two wins away from leading San Antonio to its fifth NBA Finals appearance since 1999.

Gasol and Randolph didn’t even need a shipped-to-Toronto Rudy Gay to dispatch Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Lob City in the first round. Oklahoma City and Golden State, the league’s other two stop-and-pop squads competing for the unofficial title of Best Church League Team in America, went down in the second round because they had no answer for the inside presences of either the Spurs or Grizzlies.

Don’t look now, LeBron, but size does matter.

“Basketball, like everything else, is completely cyclical,” Walton said Friday night by telephone. “This is the first incarnation of a new style in the post-Shaq era. You have three legitimate post players that control the paint, and another freak of nature in LeBron who can play with his back to the basket as well as any of them.”

Just three, Walton was asked. “I don’t count Zach Randolph,” he said. “His game is more pushing and shoving. He’s extremely talented, but he’s a bully in a game that now allows bullies.”

But he kept going on about Hibbert, Gasol and old man Duncan.

“They’re all selfless teammates whose goal is to win the game,” Walton said. “These guys are not about self-promotion, whose egos are out of control. Their games are based on skill, timing and position. And even though they are winners of the genetic lottery, they’re not successful and good because they are jumping over people nor pushing them out of the way. They’re really good passers, they have terrific touch and all their games are hardly about dunking. It’s refreshing, invigorating and it’s really fun.

“Duncan is such a timeless player. He’s legendary, exquisite. Hibbert and Marc Gasol are just getting on stage and aren’t great. But they can become great.”

It’s easy to trace the dearth of great NBA centers the past two decades to a youth basketball culture catering to kids who cross-over each other all summer and work more on their 25-foot heaves than left-handed gimmes near the rim.

But it’s more proactive to laud the players who got past that, the kids who concentrated on their power dribbles, breaking down their defenders by craftily sealing them away from the rim with their rumps before that jump-hook swished through.

Walton said the game’s success is predicated on three things: You have to have the top player, you have to have a top coach, and “you have to dominate underneath the basket.”

“Whether that’s through Shaq, Duncan or Robinson, Hakeem or, yes, LeBron James and Michael Jordan,” he said. “Even though they weren’t the biggest guys, they still dominated the paint. People forget that. Miami can’t be beat if LeBron can’t be stopped inside by one of those three guys. The key is once again a big man.”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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