You know, like the old “Simpsons” episode where Mr. Burns brought in all the ringers to win his annual softball game, only to see them succumb to all manner of tragedy until there was only Daryll Strawberry left? Well, that’s what happened in the NBA this year, as Lebron James was the only one left standing after his teams’ two biggest in-conference rivals lost their franchise players, as did his likely opponent in this years presumed NBA Final. All I wanted was dramatic, compelling playoff season. Hardly too much to ask for, and at least on the Western Conference side of the draw, it appeared to be a lock. After a season in which 5 teams in the West won 55 games or more (compared to just one in the East), it looked like any one of five squads could have reasonable hope that they’d be the ones battling Miami in June and as it turned out it was actually six, thanks in large part to Stephen Curry’s ascension to bonafide franchise player.
Until the injuries hit.
How much interest did the playoffs lose when (in chronological order) Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook were lost for the season? How legitimate are these playoffs without 4 of the top 10 or so players in the world competing in them or better yet, would this compromised version of the postseason be more suited to an “asterisk” proclamation than the strike shortened seasons of 1999 and 2012?
Does Memphis beat Oklahoma City with a healthy Westbrook? Do the Knicks beat Boston if Rondo is out there? And what about the Bulls? What does this impossibly shorthanded yet gritty as shit, die-with-their-boots on Bulls team look like if Rose was healthy enough to go? Normally I’m not turned on by hypotheticals and though I acknowledge that they are a fact of life in pro sports, I can’t for the life of me remember another postseason that was drained of this much firepower. As far as what it did to the Western conference draw, I suppose it could have been worse. There certainly are people out there who think OKC was ticketed for an easy run to the finals, but I’m not one of them. Of course, removing Westbrook from the equation rendered the argument moot. Still, Blake Griffin was slowed significantly in the first round loss to Memphis, and Denver played without Danillo Galinari and with a half-speed Kenneth Faried in their loss to the GSW’s. This year, the injuries have wreaked all kinds of havoc with the results.
Last year, the absence of Rose robbed the Heat of their main Eastern conference rival, so that instead of playing a #1 seeded Bulls team that had finished 2012 with a 5o-16 record in the conference finals, they drew an old bones Celtic bunch that went 39-27 and still needed 7 hard fought games to put them away. As much as the masses want there “LeBron finally came of age and won the big one” narrative tied up in a pretty red bow, it’s simply not that easy.
Now, having breezed through the first two rounds while dispatching a 38-44 “playoff” team (Milwaukee) and a Chicago squad that had 34 million dollars of their 75 million payroll on the bench in suits. Just to put this in context: The lowest payroll in the NBA this year was the Houston Rockets, at 52 million, or 11 million more than the players Chicago had available against the Heat. Even in the face of those facts, the general attitude is that this Miami team only has to show up to collect their rings. Me, I’m a little less sure of that.
I’ll admit, the fact that the Heat are getting a comically unchallenging road to the Finals is really annoying, especially in the context of all of this “greatest team ever???” hyperbolic shit storm. Jesus, If there has ever been a team in NBA playoff history that made the Finals without playing a single 50 win team in their conference draw, someone let me know. While I would never waste my time trying to diminish their winning streak or their fucking gaudy ass 45-3 record in the last 48 games, I would suggest that using said record as proof of why they are invincible is foolish and/or just plain lazy. In the real world, they still have to win 4 games against a rugged, physical Indiana team that gave them trouble last year and appears better this year. They are facing the prospect that Dwyane Wade may or may not be playing on one leg and have to deal with the suddenly frightening Lance Stephenson, who spent all of game 6 trucking the helpless knick guards in much the same manner as LeBron usually does his hapless foes by basically running them over, yet still getting free throws out of the deal.
Something like this.
Look, nobody is pretending that Stephenson is even in the same stratosphere as Wade is, but in this series, with Wade’s health being what it is, Stephenson’s athleticism, his physicality, his aggression, well they could all be problems for Wade, which basically leaves LeBron all alone to do the heavy listing against a team whose whole defensive gameplan will revolving around mitigating the damage he can cause.That are facing a team that will likely dominate them on the boards and will not back down. While none of this means they are doomed or anything close to it, it does mean that all of the regular season wins mean exactly squat in relation to these facts.
Still, Miami are the favorites in this series, and there are no real reasons why they shouldn’t be. The good news here is that as cushy as their road to the title has been thus far, we are at least assured that they will finally get a legitimate opponent for said title. Whether it ends up being the Spurs or the Grizzlies, both teams are real threats who pose unique problems for Miami, whether it be San Antonio’s precision or Memphis’ collective largesse. In a playoff season that could have been so much more compelling than it turned out to be, at least we’ll get that much.
If nobody else gets hurt, that is. Cross your fingers for that much.