This year’s NBA playoffs has been the most exciting and competitive tournament since I started following basketball in the mid-90s. Usually the NBA playoffs feel formulaic and predictable, with home teams winning, and higher seeds advancing, and players, coaches, owners, and fans alike suspected that David Stern wanted series to go as long as possible and get the best matchups possible for the purpose of TV revenue. Adam Silver has shown us that his NBA is different from the one he inherited in February. First by improving the officiating, and then by dropping the hammer on Donald Sterling, Silver has taken on two of the biggest criticisms of the National Basketball Association, and has come out the victor so far.
It took the San Antonio Spurs seven games to dispose of Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks. It took the Indiana Pacer seven games to knock off the pesky Atlanta Hawks, who had no business competing with a team like Indiana if you look at the rosters. Both #1 seeds made it out of the first round, but it was a lot harder than most years. In the case of San Antonio, they get the benefit of the doubt because the Western Conference is really good and the Mavericks won an NBA Title in 2011 with Dirk Nowizki and Rick Carlisle. That’s a team that’s not afraid of the Spurs, and not a stranger to big games this time of year. The Pacers, on the other hand, should have disposed of the Atlanta Hawks in five games, if not sooner. It took seven games for the Los Angeles Clippers to eliminate the Golden State Warriors, and managed to pull through despite the distraction of team owner Donald Sterling being horribly racist and earning a lifetime ban from the NBA. It took seven games for the aged Brooklyn Nets to get past the upstart Toronto Raptors, earning a chance to face the two time defending champion Miami Heat in the second round. It took seven games for newly crowned MVP Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to beat the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Grizz ma have won that series if Zach Randolph had not been suspended for the deciding seventh game. Perhaps the most dramatic finish was in a series clinching sixth game, where Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers drained a three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Blazers ahead, and end the season of the Houston Rockets. It’s been fun. I’m a bigger hockey fan than basketball fan, but this tournament has the feel of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only way it would be better is if the Celtics were involved and I had a horse in the race.
The second round has plenty of chances for upset as well. Brooklyn played well against Miami this season, and Paul Pierce has been the biggest nemesis standing in LeBron’s way since he came into the league, with the possible exception of Tim Duncan. Pierce and Kevin Garnett are wearing different laundry this time around, but they’re both still Celtics at heart. I would love to see them be the guys to knock off the heat once again. After their dramatic finish against Houston, Portland now has their hands full with the Spurs. Damian Lillard was the #6 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and the Rookie of the Year in 2013. Now in 2014, he’s lighting it up in the playoffs and giving Blazers fans a lot to be excited about for the future. Blazers owner Paul Allen, who co-founded a little company called Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, is one of the best owners in sports and won his first championship when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in February. Could he go two for two this year?
The Indiana Pacers can’t get out of their own way, and the Washington Wizards are not afraid. Washington knocked off the Chicago Bulls with relative east in the first round, and now John Wall is looking to make a name for himself against the very skilled, but underachieving Pacers. Roy Hibbert has been a complete non-factor so far in the playoffs, and Frank Vogel’s job might not be safe unless Indiana reaches the Finals considering how well they played in the first half of the season and the big game they talked. Washington isn’t afraid of the Pacers, and John Wall has been playing like the #1 overall pick he was a few years ago. If we end up with a Washington vs. Portland NBA Finals, it would be a true throwback to the pre-David Stern era in the NBA, when the Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics met in the Finals back-to-back years in the late 70s (1979 was the last time the road team won Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Talk about predictable.), and the Blazers won a Title of their own.
I still don’t know what to make of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. LA has the coaching advantage with Doc Rivers, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks is in a predicament similar to Frank Vogel if OKC’s season ends sooner than expected. There are a lot of good coaches without coaching jobs right now who would love to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and if Brooks can’t do the job, Lionel Hollins, Doug Collins, George Karl, or Lawrence Frank might be coaching in Oklahoma City this time next year. That being said, Durant had an awesome year, and I’d take him and Westbrook over Chris Paul and Blake Griffin most days of the week. It should be a tight series.
I’d love to see upsets, especially of Miami and OKC, and I’d really love to see Doc Rivers coaching against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the Finals, but either way, I have never been more interested in a playoff tournament that didn’t have a Boston team in it.