It’s been a long haul this NBA regular season, but the playoffs are here!
We all know the favorites don’t waltz to the Finals, it only seems that way. Last year Golden State had to go six games with Memphis, trailing 2-1 then trailed 2-1 again in the Finals to Cleveland before winning three in a row.
Two years ago San Antonio had to go seven games with Dallas in the first round, then six with Oklahoma City. Three years ago Miami needed to go seven with up-and-coming Indiana to get there, then had to pull off a miracle in Game 6 to stun the Spurs.
Four years ago San Antonio was a No. 1 seed and up 2-0 on the young Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then, wham, Oklahoma City won five in a row to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Then, wham, Miami won four in a row to shell-shock wide-eyed OKC.
Even in college we saw a slew of upsets and surprises, with Michigan State, Texas A&M and Kentucky all going down the same weekend. Wichita State and Butler make any deep runs in recent years? Butler was a fifth seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011, advancing to the NCAA Championship game twice.
There’s another factor that stands out here, best summed up in a famous quote: “It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, and if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
That was not from a coach but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. The hard work he was describing about the man “In the Arena” could apply to any NBA star pulling on sneakers and battling for the right to advance to the championship over the next two months.
It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown as the Spurs exemplified those qualities two years ago on the way to winning the title. The West has won 11 of the last 16 NBA titles. This week, it’s the best of the East.
The Cavaliers started slow with new pieces all around, anchored by LeBron James. They struggled on defense, too, but as the calendar turned so did the Cavs, roaring down the stretch looking ready to make a run to the Eastern Conference championship.
The 31-year-old James (24.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.5 apg) has paced himself but still has had a monster season, tutoring 24-year-old Kyrie Irving. 27-year-old Kevin Love (15.6 ppg, 10 rpg) is still a force, which begs the question: How is the No. 1 seed in the East working on its second coach?
If there’s any weakness it might be defense – middle of the pack in field goal shooting allowed, along with a free throw percentage that is in the bottom 10. Still, they look like the team to beat in the East again.
Who wants to face this backcourt? 26-year-old DeMar DeRozan (23.8 ppg) and 29-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry (22 ppg) are a handful, in their prime. And 26-year-old center Bismack Biyomb has been a force down the stretch, including a 25-rebound effort against Indiana. This group is Top 11 in the NBA in points allowed, free throw shooting and field goal defense.
The Hawks lost key contributors from last year’s overachievers but have still had a terrific campaign. 31-year-old Paul Millsap and 29-year-old Al Horford are a handful up front while 27-year-old 6-foot-7 guard Jeff Teague (15 ppg, 6 apg) leads an unselfish offense. And what balance! The Hawks are Top 12 in points scored and allowed, as well as field goal shooting defense (behind only San Antonio).
The young Celtics are fun to watch, with an uptempo offense and a surprisingly good defense. They play hard for Coach Brad Stevens, Top 7 in the NBA in field goal shooting defense and at defending beyond the arc. They probably don’t have the interior muscle to go a long way in the playoffs and are woefully short on postseason experience.