Fight to the Finish
The first round of the NBA playoffs has been nothing short of spectacular this year. With an unprecedented three game sevens to be played on one day and only two out of eight series going less than six games, the quality of the league’s playoff teams has been on full display. Through it all, fans have been witness to multiple overtime games, unbelievable feats of basketball wizardry by the likes of Kevin Durant and Vince Carter, and a young up and coming squad in the Washington Wizards taking flight.
The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder were considered favorites to reach the Western Conference Final, yet they found themselves staring down the possibility of going home early. For the Spurs, the big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker has been consistently productive throughout the series, yet the Rick Carlisle-led Dallas Mavericks and their stellar combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis proved to be a tough matchup. For Dallas, making San Antonio’s life difficult can be seen as a success for a franchise that refused to go with the now conventional tanking route to rebuilding, instead going out and signing the likes of Ellis and Jose Calderon in order to refuel their playoff hopes. As for the Spurs, it’s NBA Finals or bust once again, and after finishing the regular season with a league high 62 wins, a first round exit would have simply catastrophic. After Dallas forced an improbable game 7 against the Spurs, San Antonio came out ready to play Sunday, and blew out the Mavericks in the only game in the series that really looked like a one vs. eight match up.
As for the Thunder, this postseason started out as a slight disappointment, as the composition of their roster and the ability of Scott Brooks to lead them to another NBA Finals was been put into serious question early. They were presented with a seventh seed matchup that would have been a third seed in the Easter Conference: the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis played exactly as advertised; a gritty team that plays stifling defense while being capable offensively. Mike Conley continued to make his case as one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, while Tony Allen was a thorn in the Kevin Durant’s side for the majority of the series. After struggling to play together in the first 5 games of the series, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook came out strong in the last two games, posting a combined +45 to reclaim their place among the leagues best dynamic duos.
The Clippers also went the distance wIt their Pacific division rivals the Golden State Warriors, before finally coming out with the victory in game 7 at Staples Center. Then you have the Portland Trail Blazers, who have arguably been the most impressive team thus far in the playoffs. With back to back 40 point games from Lamarcus Aldridge, and brilliant play (and a game winner) from second year guard Damian Lillard, the Blazers were the only team in the West to only need six games to eliminate the Houston Rockets.
The Eastern Conference has been much less frantic than the West, with the Miami Heat executing a four game demolition derby of the Charlotte soon-to-be-Hornets, and the Washington Wizards putting an end to the Chicago Bulls’ offensively challenged season in just five games. While many experts had pegged the Indiana Pacers as favorites to come out of the East earlier in the season, they have been one of the most disappointing first seeds ever, getting taken to seven games by the lowly Atlanta Hawks, whose general manager said at one point in the season that it did not matter to him whether his team made the playoffs or not. Struggling against a team that finished with 38 wins has been an utter embarrassment for Indiana, leading Coach Frank Vogel to remove star big man Roy Hibbert from the starting lineup. For them to return to their dominant ways, they will need to see sustained offensive contributions from Paul George and Lance Stephenson, or really anyone wearing an Indiana jersey, their offense has looked atrocious at times against Atlanta.
The Brooklyn Nets ended up defeating the Toronto Raptors in seven games to earn a chance to go against the defending champion Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs. Considering that the Nets were the only team this past year to sweep Miami in the regular season, the second round looks to be as promising as the first. However, despite five game sevens in the first round, there were no upsets, and as the NBA playoffs have shown in recent history they’re likely will not be any in the second round either.
Miami and Washington now should be looked at as the undisputed favorites to reach the Eastern Finals, as the Heat have played up to their potential and the John Wall-led Wizards’ blend of efficiency and athleticism should put them over the top against any foe in the paltry East. Unless the Nets step up and Paul Pierce is able to find an answer for the monster that is LeBron James, the Heat should be expected to come out of the East, while the Thunder and the Spurs are most likely to battle it out in the West, with the Thunder likely winning out in seven.