I am not a professional. But I know anything written needs a good intro. And I'm trying. Honestly, I am. I'm trying to come up with something eloquent to say. I want to wittily summarize the last two rounds of the playoffs but all I can come up with is bits and pieces like "Sorry Blake, but you'll have to come up with more than dunking to be great" and "Are the Knicks seriously locking up Woodson after one playoff win?" or "Wow. I love watching LeBron play."
WHAT? I SAID IT! DO SOMETHIN'!
But seriously folks, I'm just excited. Super-duper, "Just found out I had $100 in an old pair of jeans", excited. I love basketball. And after a season of disjointed, oft-injured gahbage, the playoffs have returned the game to its proper high level.
In any sport, the playoffs are the true referendum for any player. Whether you're the third guy off the bench or the team's best player during the regular season, it's who you are in the postseason that cements your name in history. Players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James are driven by that fact. Or haunted by it. Teams like the Spurs and Celtics understand this concept well, because they've already established themselves in the record books. And those two teams are threatening to make King James and KD wait one more year to share their experience.
Honestly, no sports fan could ask for more. Whether it's the action on the court or the story lines behind the scenes, there's plenty to follow. Each team has a player capable of "WOW" moments. Beyond those players are a slew of others who are among the games most recognizable faces. Both matchups are classic battles of old verse new, the end of an era versus the beginning of one. And of course, there's the LeBron James Hate Train which you can always jump on if none of that interests you.
So let's start in the East. In recent memory or near future, you may not see two opposing teams more desperate to win a non-championship playoff series than the Celtics and the Heat. Many people are rolling their eyes as they read that sentence, but it's true. The Celtics can practically hear the clock ticking on the illustrious run they've taken over the last 5 years. To end that run with a championship would obviously be a dream come true. Conversely, for the Heat, they also know that their team may look remarkably different next season if they fail to win a championship. Riley has hinted that he'd seriously consider breaking up the Big 3 if they didn't win a title this season. Not to mention, the "When will they win one?" noise that constantly surrounds them will get exponentially louder. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, this weighs heaviest on LeBron. His only chance for putting his name amongst the all-time greats lies a round beyond this one. If he can't even make it back to the Finals, it will only give more ammunition to his critics.
And certainly there's no team the Heat want to lose to less than the Boston Celtics. The Heat's main reason for existence is to defeat the Celtics. Before they became the Hated Heat, Bosh, James & Wade were separately stopped from their pursuit of a championship by these same Celtics and decided to join forces the way Pierce, Allen and Garnett did. You saw the elation on their faces when they knocked them out of the playoffs last year. How much more do they want to defeat them now that they're one round away from returning the Finals? And how badly do the Celtics want to upset the Freight Train & Friends when they know that this team may never play together again after this year?
Sadly for Bostonians who have had plenty of sports heartbreak to go around this year, my bet is they'll have even more to swallow soon. If the Pacers, with all their size, couldn't break down a Heat team missing their best big man, the Celtics and their aging legs don't seem to have much hope of pushing this series much further than 6 games. But I will say this. If Rajon Rondo decides now is the time to prove to people that he's the best point guard in the NBA, watch out. In the closing game of their series against the Sixers, Rondo showed that when he's on, he's nearly untouchable. Chalmers has made great strides amongst Miami's Big 3, but he's not half the point guard Rondo is. And if either LeBron or Wade has to spend minutes covering him, that only means easier looks for Pierce and Allen. Add to that that Doc Rivers is a blatantly better coach than Erik Spoelstra and maybe the Celtics' hopes don't look quite so grim.
San Antonio is the one team that won't excite many people outside old school basketball fans and Houstonians. (Hous-tons? Houst… Screw it, who cares.) Since the time of the Admiral, the Spurs have been a clinic in team basketball on their way to winning four championships over eight seasons. But even with all their accomplishments, they'll probably go down as sports' most boring dynasty. I understand why stout defense, crisp passing, and high-percentage shots doesn't always translate to exciting TV, but I've never understood how this label has turned into a criticism. What started as "Well, Duncan is one of the best big men of all time, but he's just so dull in interviews" turned into "UGH! ANOTHER championship round with the Spurs. CLICK!" The Spurs aren't flashy enough for you? Fine. But show a little respect. Gregg Popovich is one of the best coaches in any sport of all time. What he's done with a core of players now pushing into their late 30's with nothing but waiver signings and late draft picks is remarkable. Tony Parker looks quicker and more fluid than he has in years. Ginobli still knows how to find all the nooks and crannies of a defense. And Duncan is certainly not flashy, but at 36, he's still the best power forward in these playoffs.
(What's that, Boston fans? Kevin Garnett? Did he lead his team back from a twenty two point deficit on the road, including spearheading a 24-0 run? Right. And how many rings does he have on his fingers? Right. Moving along.)
The Thunder don't have nearly the history that the Spurs do. Their history so far is wrapped up in their superstar, Kevin Durant. The team has only existed in the league one year fewer than he has. And in that time, both the player and the team have only gotten better. When the team moved to Oklahoma from Seattle, Durant was their only commodity. Since then, GM Sam Presti, who discovered Tony Parker when he worked for the Spurs, has been brilliant in building a team around his star. He's made smart trades, like Sefolosha & Perkins, and used his draft picks extremely well, most notably in picking up James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And coach Scotty Brooks has helped make them better every single season since signing on and has them closer than ever to cracking through the conference finals ceiling. But the biggest threat to their success could be in their own locker room.
Surely defeating the Thunder will take at least 6 games, and that's if they can defeat them, but the point is they know how to eliminate your best weapons. So it just comes down to whether or not their opponent can adjust.
Kevin Durant has proven that he can handle any defensive situation. He still has room for improvement as a distributor and defender, but the offensive side of his game is as close to flawless as you'll see these days. You needn't look further than his 3 straight scoring titles to know that's true. So whatever defense San Antonio has planned, he'll be able to make the necessary adjustments to be effective. But Westbrook has proven to be a powder keg emotionally at times. If agitated correctly, as he was last year by the equally experienced and savvy Dallas Mavericks, he might derail his team at this crucial juncture. But if he can resist this temptation, keep his cool, and remember to feed the ball to Durant when it counts, then the Thunder will be victorious. As I said, the Spurs have been amazing in their ability to remold their style to improve with age, but if it simply comes down to who stands a better chance of winning four games first, I'll take the Thunder. But this looks like it could be an incredible series. The Thunder and Spurs have barely seemed to sweat in the playoffs so far. They match up evenly at just about every position. Both teams are passionate and well coached. If this series goes 7 games, I may pass out from joy.
In the playoffs, momentum is always a fickle friend. Up 15 one minute. Down 15 ten later. Seeing a team get blown out on the road and then turn around return the favor on their home court has been a regular occurrence (except for the Spurs & Thunder, of course.) But if you made it this far, you have just as good a reason to believe you're the team of destiny as anyone else left standing (right, Devils?). Whether you cruised to this point or had to battle for every inch, the four best teams are here.
Let's do this.