The 2016 NBA playoffs have been a lot of things so far. Entertaining. Controversial. But mostly, they’ve been chaos.
Our biggest fear after the first round was boredom, since there was hardly a compelling series to be found. This postseason was well on its way to being chalk, with the top seeds marching unabated to the conference finals. If we were lucky, maybe the West would give us a compelling series before the NBA Finals, where the Golden State Warriors were slated to destroy LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers once again. Stephen Curry was going to do Stephen Curry things, we were going to laugh at Kevin Love trying to play defense and it was going to be great. You could have scheduled your entire May and June in advance, knowing exactly how things were going to play out.
Oops. We were all so very wrong — about so many things:
Article continues below ...
All season long, we heard about how much the Eastern Conference had improved over the past few seasons, especially in the middle of the pack. The East was better than the West! Parity was back in the NBA! Then the first couple of rounds of the playoffs made all of that talk seem like a joke.
The Boston Celtics? Pfffffffft.
The Atlanta Hawks? Oh, you mean that team that LeBron solved three seasons ago? Yawn.
The Toronto Raptors?! Seriously, you’re going to count on the Tor–oh. Well then.
Honestly, we thought the biggest impediment to LeBron making a sixth straight Finals was a potential matchup with old friend Dwyane Wade — and only because of the potential drama it might cause. Instead, the Raptors have put a big old smile on the faces of those who hate 3-pointers. They’re showing that if you just keep putting your head down and driving to the basket, you’ll eventually come away with a lot of layups and easy jumpers.
It’s not pretty. It’s not exactly compelling. But it’s been a lot more effective against the Cavs than anything we expected out of the Eastern Conference.
Looking back, it’s almost cute that we thought a team with a 473-year-old center and a decrepit starting point guard could make a run in the playoffs. Even if the Thunder hadn’t run the Spurs off the court — which, you know, they completely did — San Antonio was never going to be able to keep up with the Warriors in the next round. The Spurs were finally too slow and traditional.
Things might have been somewhat close because Curry is injured, but he’d still be twice as fast as Parker if you cut off the MVP’s leg and replaced it with a pogo-stick. Moreover, when you’re relying on LaMarcus Aldridge to lead your offense, you’re doomed. He’s a fine regular-season player who can help you get wins against the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks. Long turnaround 2s from the block aren’t going to cut it in the postseason, though, especially if you’re making zero effort to get to the rim.
Unless you’re Kobe Bryant. And the idea of Kobe in Spurs colors is making us physically ill, so let’s move on.
Steven Adams. Bismack Biyombo. Hassan Whiteside, before he was injured. Andre Roberson. DION WAITERS, whose name deserves to be in all capital letters from here on out.
All of these guys are making names for themselves in the postseason, because it’s their play that’s making the difference. We know what to expect from the superstars. When you can get All-Star-level performances from Adams and Waiters as well, then you’re on your way to a championship.
On the flipside, you have guys like Harrison Barnes. And Tristan Thompson. And Andrew Bogut, who we’re 95 percent sure is still a living human being and not a large intergalactic parasite wearing Bogut’s skin and sucking the lifeforce out of the Warriors in an attempt to jumpstart an alien invasion. If their teams were getting just a little bit of what they bring to the table, maybe they wouldn’t be in danger of miserably failing to live up to their expectations. But they’re not, so the world is on the brink of ending for Golden State and Cleveland. Potentially.
LeBron has to be so mad at Tristan, you guys. So very mad. And it’s all Biyombo’s fault.
More broadly, these playoffs are laying bare how little we know about in-game coaching in general. Guys like Gregg Popovich get credit for establishing cultures and building franchises that sustain success; in the NBA, that’s a big part of the job. But the pressures of the postseason show who has the chops to make the necessary adjustments to win the most important games.
In 2016, that’s the much-maligned Donovan, who’s adapted brilliantly on the fly. Some of that was doing things he desperately needed to do anyway, like staggering minutes for Durant and Westbrook. Give Dononvan credit, though, for adjusting to Golden State’s small-ball with a floor-spacing lineup of his own and trusting the aforementioned Waiters to operate as the second offensive option when either Westbrook or Durant sits.
Donovan might be the best coach remaining in the postseason (because who knows what Steve Kerr is doing with his rotations these days). And Waiters might be the best bench player. What. A. Time. To. Be. Alive.
Oh, and one more thing we were wrong about while we’re watching the NBA world burn …
Maybe it’s because he’s injured. Maybe it’s because he’s tired. Or maybe Curry’s personal brand of awesome is better suited for the regular season than the grind of a seven-game series.
Whatever the case, it’s becoming extraordinarily difficult to consider Curry the most powerful force in this year’s postseason. Forget league-wide; on Tuesday night against the Thunder, he might not have been the fourth best player on the court.
Up until the Cavs’ two losses to the Raptors, that title appeared to belong to LeBron once again. He looked like a damn Terminator, using his neural-net processor to stay seven steps ahead of everyone else and his metallic exoskeleton to shrug off would-be defenders.
But perhaps we were missing the true best player in the game all along. Kevin Durant is an absolute buzzsaw of a human being these days. The only thing that can stop him on offense is a cold shooting night, and he’s using his ridiculous length to show why he’s one of the top-five defenders in the game. The Warriors have no answer for Durant this series on either end of the floor. And if he keeps playing like this, he could very well lead the Thunder to the franchise’s first title.