Andrew Unterberger

Andrew Unterberger

Andrew Unterberger is a chemically-dependent League Pass and Billboard chart user living in Astoria, New York. When not writing for The Basketball Jones, he is likely either attempting to master the keyboard part to Billy Joel's "Big Shot" on Rock Band 3, watching Observe and Report on cable, or obsessively refreshing his TBJ columns hoping for new comments. In between, he also writes about America's Team, the Philadelphia 76ers, for The700Level.com. He is currently available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, provided that you supply the necessary karaoke equipment and/or magician props.

Recent Posts

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Andrew Unterberger is the Last Angry Man in the crusade against LeBron James and his not-so-gradual march towards total unassailability. He’ll be checking in with us once a month this NBA season for an update on where he’s at with his LeBron hating, and how his attempts to channel all the world’s negative energy towards one generally well-meaning basketball player are progressing.

In my pre-playoffs edition of the LBJ Hate Index, I ranked the 10 most likely obstacles to LeBron winning his second ring this season, taking another step towards basketball’s innerest circle in the process. No. 1, of course, was LeBron himself — as fearful as I am of the man, I always believe him to be the person most in control of his own destiny — and more specifically, “Whatever weird stuff happened with LeBron during his handful of prior playoff meltdowns.” I wrote the following in explanation:

That guy can’t be completely dead and gone, can he? Sure, LeBron seems like he’s “clutch” now, and he’s figured out when to “take over” and all that other nonsense. But there must be a little bit of 2010 LeBron remaining, right? Something that can be triggered, and cause him to act weirdly passive and inert during big games and big moments as his team and the world crumples around him?

Last night, the San Antonio Spurs absolutely steamrolled the Miami Heat, running them off the AT&T Center floor to the tune of a 113-77 final. This isn’t as big a deal as it would be if the Heat hadn’t essentially done the same thing to the Spurs the game before in Miami, rocking them 103-84 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final 19-point margin would indicate. But it’s still a pretty big deal. It’s by far their biggest loss of the season — they hadn’t lost by more than 20 all year — and more importantly, Miami now trails 2-1 in the series, facing the possibility of the Spurs winning out before the Heat can even make a return trip to South Beach.

This is doubly notable, for both this column and for national news purposes, because LeBron James has not played particularly well over that stretch. Well, by mortal standards, he’s still been fairly boss, going for a triple-double in Game 1 and keying a 33-5 second half run in Game 2 that put the game well out of reach for San Antonio. But he’s been uncharacteristically ineffective when it comes to scoring the ball, going for less than 20 in each of the first three games, shooting under 50 percent in all three, and most stunningly, only getting to the line a combined six times, including a big ol’ bagel in FTAs for Game 3, his first game without a single trip to the charity stripe since 2009. Also worth mentioning: The last time LeBron went three straight games, regular season or playoffs, without scoring 20? Games 3-5 of the 2011 Finals, where the Heat let the series against the Mavs slip through their fingers.

It begs the question, and I certainly doubt that I’ll be the only one asking it today: Is it happening again with LeBron? Is this going to be another playoff series — his third in four years — where we sit around waiting for the Chosen One to flip the switch, put the team on his back, and blow away the inferior competition … only to never have it actually happen? Are we due for another post-elimination press conference where we stare dumbfounded at LeBron, expecting some sort of explanation to make sense of what just happened, but without him giving us any kind of satisfying answers with either his rote responses or stupefyingly blasé demeanor? Is 2010 LeBron alive and well after all?

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I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening last week in the City of Brotherly Love for “The Doctor,” the new documentary on basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving, promoted to death on NBA TV and finally debuting tonight. In fact, so merciless has the promotion been for this documentary that the first thing Erving did in his pre-showing press conference was to apologize for how “shamelessly advertised” the movie had been. Hell, if you’ve been watching the last few rounds of the playoffs at all, you can probably do a pretty good impression of Magic’s unavoidable “When greatness … meets class … that’s what God created in Dr. J” quote by now.

But the promotional blitz makes sense — NBA TV clearly took a step up in terms of prestige for its original films with last summer’s rapturously received “Dream Team” documentary, a fantastically fun, impressively deep look into the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one squad. Archival clips of the team playing were a blast, everyone showed up to be interviewed, everyone shared hilarious and revealing anecdotes, and watching some of the rarely-if-ever-before-seen footage felt like getting to listen to bonus tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” for the first time 20 years later. It was a slam dunk of a doc that raised the bar for the channel’s feature-length documentaries, especially considering how rote and by-the-numbers most of their original programming had been to that point.

The Doctor” can’t possibly live up to “Dream Team” in terms of star power or behind-the-curtain revelation, but it does do a fairly good job of demonstrating the many strengths and few weaknesses of the NBA TV doc format, and what should be a model for the channel’s original docs moving forward. Like its predecessor, “The Doctor” is littered with visual goodies (clips of Dr. J playing at Rucker Park in an old-school adidas shirt, with shots of kids perched on the roof of a nearby school to watch, like something out of “The Birds”), great interviews (Magic gushes about Doc like a 10-year-old who just saw “The Dark Knight” for the first time, Sixers teammate Darryl Dawkins basically steals the show) and awesome footage of the Doc in action (even doing it on the defensive end — seriously, he looked like Serge Ibaka getting up for blocks back in the day). That’s the good stuff, and it makes Doc’s doc a must-watch, or at least a really-should-watch, for NBA fans of all eras.

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I fear that because it wasn’t technically a game-winning shot, history might not end up acknowledging Tony Parker’s bucket last night with 5.2 seconds to go in Game 1 of the 2013 Finals as one of the greatest shots in NBA playoff history. Make no mistake — it absolutely was. True, the Spurs were already up two with the ball, and even an offensive rebound at that point would’ve been just as deadly to the Heat as a made basket. But if he misses (with three Miami players in rebounding position), the Heat have five seconds and LeBron James to make up a two-point lead, and there’s little doubt in my mind they would have done it. Even if they were already leading, I have no issues with calling Parker’s shot a game-winner.

And holy hell, what a shot. The number of factors that added to the degree of difficulty are basically countless, but let’s see if we can count them anyway:

  1. The shot was taken with less than a fraction of a second remaining on the shot clock, close enough to a violation that even though he appeared to get it off on time, had it been ruled no good on the floor, it’s uncertain if that decision would have been overturned on replay.
  2. Even with time dwindling down, Parker had to go right, into his defender’s body, then pivot left for his leaning jumper, before just barely get the ball off underneath the jumping defender’s outstretched arm.
  3. That defender was LeBron James, arguably the best (and definitely the toughest) perimeter defender in the entire NBA.
  4. This all happened after a wildly broken play resulted in Parker dribbling manically around the right wing, at one point even losing his footing and slipping to the floor, but somehow maintaining his dribble throughout.
  5. It was the final seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, on the opposing team’s home court. Worth mentioning.

There are probably a whole lot more minute factors that I’m missing, but those are most of the big ‘uns.

So yeah, it was an absolutely breathtaking moment in NBA Finals history, one that deserves to be anthologized and replayed to death and should undoubtedly make an appearance in next year’s pregame Finals history montage. (Hell, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh has already pieced together an Oral History of the shot from all the postgame comments from players and coaches involved, and it might not be the last one published on the subject matter before all is said and done.) It’s enough to make your skin crawl with anticipation for Game 2 on Sunday night.

All that’s missing now for the shot it is a nickname, a catchy, easily identifiable, and preferably alliterative nom de legend for it to be forever known as. I don’t pretend to have the final answer on the matter, and really, stuff like this is often only decided over time, but I’d like to at least get the ball bouncing around the rim on the discussion. Some opening suggestions:

1. The Broken Banker
Feel like you should have some sort of allusion to the fact that the play leading up to Parker’s jumper was a complete disaster, and “Broken Banker” basically gets at that, while succinctly describing the shot and throwing in a little alliteration to boot. It doesn’t cleanly describe the shot or play for someone who doesn’t already know about it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as opportunities to relive the play in all its gory detail should be treasured by all (assuming you weren’t rooting for the Heat for some reason).

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The presence of Memphis, San Antonio and Indiana — three mid-market (at best) teams without a ton of over-arcing basketball history — as three of the conference finalists in this year’s postseason meant that we probably weren’t going to get a historically sexy matchup in this year’s NBA Finals. Still, of the potential Finals ABC execs were looking at, you’d have to think that Spurs-Heat was easily their first choice. It’s the pairing with the most combined stars, the most combined championships, and as far as I can tell, the most combined story lines. It’s not Lakers-Celtics or even Thunder-Heat, but given that it could’ve been a totally sexless Grizzlies-Pacers matchup (uhh, Mike Conley went to high school in Indiana? Both cities have a racing park? A fist fight might break out?), it’ll do.

So yeah, those story lines. Let’s review for Game 1 tomorrow.

1. Those classic regular-season no-show games.
Spurs-Heat Pt. 1 was already one of the most memorable games of the season before it even tipped off, with Gregg Popovich electrifying the hoops world with his controversial announced decision to not only rest four of his best players for the Spurs’ nationally televised game against the Heat in Miami (at the end of a long San Antonio road trip), but to send them home in advance of the rest of the team. Of course, the Spurs made things doubly interesting by actually making a game out of it, leading in the fourth quarter and being in it down to the final Gary Neal-suffocated minute. Then, the Heat returned fire in March by resting their own starters in San Antonio, though they left Chris Bosh in the lineup, who ended up having an awesome game and hit a last-minute three-pointer to win the game and shock the Spurs.

Aside from demonstrating to us how no two teams in the league are schemier — in either the sinister plotting sense or in the Xs and Os sense — than these two teams, the impact of these two regular season showdowns on the Finals are mostly two-fold:

1. We still have absolutely no idea what it looks like when these two teams play each other at full-strength, and, moreover, neither do any of the teams’ respective coaches and scouts.
2. We are going to have to endure a whole lot of “Pop resting starters” jokes on Twitter for four to seven games. Likely with diminishing returns.

2. LeBron James’ shot at vengeance against the Spurs.
The Heat have never played the Spurs in the playoffs, but of course, LeBron has. Before his ultimate anointment, King James and his Cavaliers got blitzed in four games by the Spurs in ’07, one of the least-exciting and least-watched Finals in NBA history. LeBron’s already gotten his vengeance against a number of the teams who have stood in his way over the years, namely the Pistons and the Celtics, but the Spurs — still the only (and very possibly the last) team to ever sweep LeBron in the playoffs — are no doubt still on his To Do list. “This is gonna be your league in a little while,” Tim Duncan memorably told LeBron after the ’07 crushing. “But I appreciate you giving us this year.”

Does six years count as a little while? Is LeBron still in a giving mood? Also worth noting: Timmy and the Spurs have never lost in the Finals, going 4-0 in their quartet of visits. Despite having won far more recently, LeBron is still just 1-2  for his career in the NBA’s boss stage. But in the immediate future, I don’t think it’s LeBron that Tim is really competing against for rings, if anyone…

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Grant Hill announced his retirement on Saturday night during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, officially bringing to an end a career that spanned 19 years, four teams, and a lot more “What If?s” than were probably expected when he came out of college in 1994 amidst “Next Jordan”-type hype. You know the story — Hill languished for too long on a Pistons team that failed to build around him, left for greener pastures in Orlando but struggled to stay healthy, resurrected and reinvented his career in Phoenix, experiencing his greatest team success but falling just short of the Finals, then played out the string as a little-used reserve for the Clippers. Even with all the time and opportunity lost to injury and poor team construction, Hill’s numbers might still be Hall of Fame-worthy, and few would argue that he’s been one of the NBA’s great ambassadors over the last two decades.

But I don’t wanna talk about any of that. I wanna talk about “Grant Hill Drinks Sprite.”

The comparisons to Michael Jordan that Grant Hill received coming into the league were not just tied to his incredible college career and his seemingly limitless pro potential, but that like MJ, he was personable, well-liked, good-looking and imminently marketable off the court. However, there was one very big personality difference between the two: Grant Hill wasn’t all that cool. He went to Duke, his came from an upper-class background, and he just seemed like too nice a guy to be the kind of cold-blooded assassin-type that Jordan was. Even on the court, his game was more of an all-around kind (not even LeBron has matched the 20/9/7 that he posted in ’97) than a high-scoring, highlight-producing one. Only twice in his career did Hill finish in the top 10 in league scoring, and though he’s had his fair share of excellent dunks, he doesn’t have the iconic, instantly-recallable ones that MJ had, and he never competed in the Slam Dunk Contest.

That was all fine for Grant, though — he was a superstar, he just wasn’t that kind of superstar. And luckily for him, in Sprite, he found a company that understood that, and figured out a way to market him that was true to his character, making him look like a badass without taking him too seriously, and taking the piss out of the entire athlete-spokesperson advertising model in the process.

“Grant Hill Drinks Sprite” was borne out of Sprite’s successful “Obey Your Thirst” campaign of the mid-late ’90s, which made the surprising (for a TV ad campaign) declaration “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.” The ubiquitous commercials, which even non-sports fans who owned a television in the mid-late ’90s will undoubtedly remember, featured Hill as a running/jumping/dunking basketball demigod, seemingly deriving his power from his long gulps from his can of Sprite. Then a young, aspiring hoopster takes a swig from their own can, and tries to perform the same basketball feats, only to fail miserably and fall on their ass. “If you want to make it to the NBA … practice,” an announcer concludes at the end of the most famous ad. “If you want a refreshing drink, obey your thirst.”

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Basketball players make the best commercials. A combination of it being the most star-driven and personality-driven league, the fact that the best players tend to stay the best players for a long time and get to develop long-lasting associations with certain brands, maybe that basketball players make the best (or at least the most willing) actors, I dunno. But in my 100 percent objective and thoroughly researched stance on the matter, basketball just spawns more cool commercials than other pro sports, and the 2012-13 season of star-driven ads was no exception.

Of course, you’re sick of them all by now, and so am I. Patience gets thin for these spots as the season wears on, and the fact that channels like TNT and ABC make the practical but irritating choice to continue airing them even after many of the players who starred in them have long since gone fishing doesn’t help. However, with just single digits’ worth of games remaining in the NBA postseason, we’ll be saying goodbye to a lot of these commercials pretty soon (if we haven’t already), so as a basketball pop culture enthusiast, I wanted to make sure the best of the bunch got their due before an off-season of nothing but commercials of LeBron being feted by sponsors, fans and children not old enough to form their own religious beliefs was upon us. Here’s the top 10.

10. NBA TICKETS.COM, “NBA TICKET PICK” (RICKY RUBIO/AL HORFORD)

Not a perfect commercial, certainly. Some of the players digitally edited to appear like they’re lining up for the most star-studded pickup game draft in hoops history are a little choppy, and then of course there’s the practical concern that not even Hawks or Wolves fans really wanted to see a Hawks-Wolves matchup in 2012-13, much less someone with his pick of the NBA litter. But the details are there with the direction. I particularly love the respectful “sup, boss” Jrue Holiday gets, the way Rubio flips the ball behind his back after getting picked, and Horford’s parting “Don’t be mad! Somebody’s gotta get next!” Yeah, right, like any second game could possibly live up to Hawks-Wolves.

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Tracy McGrady has a basketball resume that would be the envy of about 99.5 percent of 21st century NBA players. He’s made six All-Star games and seven All-NBA teams (two first teams), he’s finished top 10 in MVP voting six times and he’s won the scoring title twice. He’s even posted a PER over 30 for a season, if you’re into that sort of thing, which is something only six other players have ever done, all present-or-future Hall of Famers whose names you know pretty well. He dragged Orlando to the playoffs three straight years when his primary support largely consisted of Mike Miller and Darrell Armstrong, and he was part of the Rockets team that won 22 straight regular season games back in ’08. For a minute there in the early ’00s, Kobe or T-Mac was an argument, arguably. He’s done some things in this league.

What he hasn’t done, obviously and infamously, is win in the playoffs. As numerous as Tracy McGrady’s incredible statistical accomplishments have been, the stat that has most defined him for his career is probably zero, the number of playoff series he’d won to date as an active player before this postseason. The excuses for T-Mac’s lack of playoff success are there, and they’re not negligible — his two primary running mates over the years (Grant Hill in Orlando, Yao Ming in Houston) were constantly injured, and Tracy was rarely the picture of health himself, especially toward the end of his career. Often times the supporting cast that T-Mac took the court with was one that had no business being in the playoffs in the first place, and not once during his six seasons making the playoffs in Orlando or Houston was he on the higher-seeded team in the first round.

As reasonable as these excuses may be, it still hasn’t absolved McGrady in the eyes of many, as players of the strata he occupied in the early to mid ’00s — the Kobes, Duncans, AIs and KGs — are expected, somewhat unfairly, to be able to win in the playoffs, almost regardless of how crappy the rest of their teams may be. The true greats find a way to win when the games matter most. But the fact that Tracy wasn’t even once able to do that is seen as a serious blemish on his basketball resume, which when combined with his relatively brief hoops peak and ugly falling out with a couple of his old teams, has even made his Hall of Fame case a controversial one, despite possibly being one of the 10 best regular season players so far this century.

That’s what’s made this postseason such a weird one for Tracy McGrady. After being out of the league for pretty much the entirety of the regular season, with his eventual return to the NBA far from a certainty, T-Mac was snatched up by Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in mid-April and stashed on their postseason roster, presumably taking the place of veteran forward Stephen Jackson, who was waived just a few days before the Spurs announced their signing of McGrady and deemed more of a detriment to the team than an asset after he’d started complaining about his lack of burn. Now, McGrady has not only crossed the “zero playoff wins” off his resume with San Antonio’s victories over the Lakers and Warriors, but with the Spurs’ sweep over the Grizzlies in the conference finals, he’s four wins away from adding a much more prestigious line item: NBA Champion.

Sounds great, but it doesn’t quite feel right. I had hoped — as had many other hoops fans, I’d think — that even though McGrady would obviously not be a centerpiece of the 2013 Spurs as he was on the playoff teams of his prime, that he’d at least have a role like Captain Jack had in the Spurs’ previous playoff run, playing 15-20 minutes a game as the team’s backup forward, stretching the floor, adding a secondary playmaker and matching up with certain wing players on defense. He wouldn’t be the most important player, or even the seventh-most, but he’d be a real contributor, and maybe he’d have one game where he hit three or four threes and played solid defense on Kevin Durant or Jamal Crawford. It’d be a nice story, certainly, almost regardless of its outcome.

But instead, Tracy has been used as a garbage-time reserve only, playing just 17 minutes all postseason thus far, with not a second of those 17 minutes coming during a game whose outcome had yet to already be decided. His play during that limited stretch has been sporadically inspired, but basically replacement-level — in fact, he’s yet to score a single point for the Spurs, going 0-4 from the field with two assists and two turnovers. He’s not Stephen Jackson for this team, he’s early-season Rasheed Wallace, a familiar face whose entrance makes the fans go crazy, not just because of all the fun hoops memories they have of him, but because his presence in the game means that things have probably been pretty well iced for the home team.

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