In this NBA, it’s brawn over brains and muscle that matters

Clippers' Blake Griffin, right, battles Memphis Grizzlies' Tony Allen for a rebound.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It is always easier to be critical when you don’t have a dog in the fight, so let’s go ahead.

The NBA playoffs are in full swing. If we think hard, we in Los Angeles can remember what that’s like. People flying purple flags out car windows. The Clippers going past the first round.

Close your eyes and savor. Then open them so we can take a hard look at the game and the league that has built such a ga-ga fan base.


As popular as it is, the NBA keeps edging closer to pro wrestling. The rough stuff has become way too rough and the phony rough stuff has become way too phony. It is getting increasingly difficult to tell one from the other.

The Clippers played the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and all the talk sounded like boxing hype, or an NFL coach’s halftime speech. Be tougher. Hit ‘em first. Intimidate before we are intimidated. Leave it all on the floor. No backing down. Bloody or be bloodied.

The Associated Press’ lead in Monday’s Times on the Pacers’ opening win over the Knicks: “Physicality beat finesse Sunday.”

Granted, it’s not ballet, but it is still supposed to be basketball.

Does the team with the best basketball players now win, or the one with the best thugs? It’s bad enough in the regular season, but the playoffs, in which so much more is at stake, gives us 30% less basketball and 30% more mayhem. Do NBA scouts now look less for shooters and passers and more for sharp elbows?

If these are the thoughts of a dinosaur, so be it. Maybe today’s younger generation, a huge part of the NBA fan base, craves muscle ball more than basketball. Maybe that’s why we actually have an organized sport, televised into our homes, in which people in bare feet and cages pummel each other into submission. Roman emperors would be proud.

The final Clippers game in Memphis was revealing in many ways.

The fans came equipped with towels that read: “We Don’t Bluff.” That sounded slightly like a Floyd Mayweather boxing slogan, and its source was exactly that — a fight. Or, at least a near fight.

In a late-season game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph and the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins started yelling at each other, were ejected and carried on the shouting near the locker room. Randolph was fined $25,000 for his mouthiness and said afterward there was lots of “bluffing” going on in the game, “And I don’t bluff.”

Memphis fans adopted it as a rallying cry for the Clippers series, bringing their towels en masse. Blake Griffin and Co., no angels themselves when it comes to physical play, took the court knowing they were going to a fight with the chance that a basketball game might break out. Sure enough, every rebound was a rugby scrum and most fouls left a bruise.

It isn’t that past eras didn’t have tough guys. If you think Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain were choirboys, think again. In those days, the Celtics even had a designated enforcer, the celebrated Jim Loscutoff. Now, every team seems to have six of them.

The kind of hostile atmosphere in the NBA playoffs now brings the kind of silliness shown in Chris Paul’s ejection in the final minutes against Memphis. He banged into Marc Gasol near the free-throw line. The game was long over. Paul weighs about as much as Gasol’s left thigh. Still, referee Joey Crawford ran him.

Apparently, even the refs have to show their bravado these days. And the point of that ejection was?

The game that once was passing and cutting and working the ball low is now a total point-guard game. If you don’t have a little guy who can make six moves and dart down the middle to the basket every time, with the ability to squirrel up shots while fending off 300-pound missiles jostling him, then you have no chance in this league. Think current Lakers.

To facilitate that, high screens are set on nearly every play. The centers and forwards aren’t centers and forwards anymore, they are downfield blockers. Give it a couple of years and the NBA and pro football will have a common draft.

Setting a screen is supposed to mean establishing position and keeping it. Now, it means being a pulling guard. The referees don’t call it because every game would take five hours. There is no longer such a thing as a set screen. This isn’t basketball, it is opening holes for scat backs.

This muscle mania doesn’t so much entertain the fans as incite them. Thus the “We Don’t Bluff” towels.

The skills of a Steve Nash, as much a perimeter passer and fastbreak field general as a muscle-to-the-basket guy, become obsolete. The Clippers “Lob City” is lost in WrestleMania, and with it all that magnificent athleticism.

So, welcome to Round 2 of the NBA playoffs, a.k.a. the NFL preseason.