The NBA Finals are their own separate creature, given the matchup of teams from opposite conferences, over a full week after the completion of the conference finals. We’ve reviewed the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs in stand-alone pieces. Now, let’s look at the top 10 stories to emerge from both conferences over the past six weeks of postseason play, not including larger-scale “state of the game” issues such as clear-path fouls, flagrant fouls, replay-review policies, and the like:
In round one, Brooklyn lost to Atlanta; Milwaukee lost to Chicago; and the Spurs, flat as a pancake, lost to the Clippers.
In round two, all four series involved a home-team loss in Game 6: The Clippers’ gack attack against Houston stood out the most, but Memphis got drilled by Golden State as well. In the East, Washington fell to Atlanta and the Bulls faded away against Cleveland.
This is not your father’s NBA or, for that matter, your mother’s NBA: Teams don’t have a sense of being at home in Game 6s.
9 – DON’T TRY WIZARDRY AT HOME
The above point about homecourt woes in the playoffs is magnified by the Washington Wizards. It’s true that Randy Wittman is 4-0 in series-opening games the past two playoff seasons, all on the road. However, the Wizards are now 1-5 at home in conference semifinal series over the past two seasons with their 1-2 mark against Atlanta this year. Washington went 0-3 at home in the 2014 East semis against Indiana.
8 – BULLS HIT … AND MISS
The Chicago Bulls hit a 35-foot bank shot (from Derrick Rose) to win Game 3 against Cleveland in the second round, but the rest of Chicago’s series against the Cavs featured one long scoring drought after another. The Bulls’ woes as jump shooters pervaded the Tom Thibodeau era, and played no small part in ending it. Chicago, up 11 late in the third quarter of Game 4, at home, with a 2-1 series lead, blew a big chance to beat a Cavs team without Kevin Love or a healthy Kyrie Irving. We’ll see what management does to give the new coach a better set of shooters … if anything.
7 – THE BEST EVER … COMPARATIVELY
The Atlanta Hawks did not play anything close to their best basketball in the 2015 playoffs. The free-flowing and extremely confident regular-season version of the Hawks was buried in January and early February. Nevertheless (and this is a testament to how weak the Eastern Conference was this season), Atlanta fought its way through doubts and lots of perimeter bricklaying to make the first East final in the state of Georgia. The Atlanta Hawks won two playoff series in the same year for the very first time; the St. Louis Hawks of 1958 were the last Hawks team to achieve the feat.
The Hawks didn’t leave behind the most gleaming or polished memories in the East finals against Cleveland, but they remain the most successful Atlanta (professional) basketball team ever. (2004 Georgia Tech is the most successful Atlanta basketball team of all time, college or pro.)
These Hawks succeeded. The fact that this is the most successful Atlanta NBA team ever is more a reflection on the franchise’s previous 40 years without substantial achievements.
6 – SPURS-CLIPPERS
This was the best of the 14 series we watched over the past six weeks, and it’s not even a close call. The Spurs and Clippers did look terrible at times — the Spurs in Game 6, the Clippers in Game 3 — but most of these games, especially in Staples Center, were thoroughly engrossing for the best of reasons. Tim Duncan’s age-defying excellence and Blake Griffin’s coming-of-age superstardom, punctuated by Chris Paul’s truly extraordinary Game 7 performance, created the rich basketball memories we all hope for when we watch the playoffs.
It is lamentable, however, that the Clippers diminished the magnitude of this series (it’s why it’s No. 6 on this list and not 2 or 3) by gacking away a 3-1 series lead, and an 89-70 lead in the third quarter of Game 6, in the following round against the Houston Rockets.
Speaking of Houston…
5 – ROCKETING IN ALL DIRECTIONS
The Houston Rockets could be neatly summarized as a team that didn’t play particularly hard or well until it was faced with extinction in these playoffs. The Rockets were as close to invisible as one could possibly imagine in the first four games of their series against the Los Angeles Clippers, and even late in Game 6, they looked absolutely cooked. Stick a fork, done, ready to serve.
Except they weren’t done.
The Rockets, with James Harden watching from the bench, uncorked a 31-7 run inside the final eight minutes to stun the Clippers. Game 7 could have witnessed a letdown, but the Rockets were comprehensively better than the team which had upended the Spurs a few weeks earlier. The Rockets and Dwight Howard fought well in the first two games of the West finals against Golden State, but sloppy ballhandling proved to be Houston’s undoing. The Rockets made Golden State sweat after falling behind 3-0 in the series, but their penchant for uneven play caught up with them in the end.
It’s hard to know what to emphasize with Houston this season: Kevin McHale did a superb job with this team, and a West finals appearance should be seen as overachievement. Yet, it is just as apparent that Houston should be a defensive terror with all its size and length… and the Rockets simply aren’t that imposing at the defensive end of the floor. They also lose control entirely too often. (Looking at you, Dwight.)
4 – GOLDEN GUIDANCE, GOLDEN PATH
Crossover Chronicles writer John Cannon has been impressed by Steve Kerr and his top-quality assistant coaches in these playoffs. His admiration for Kerr is not misplaced or disproportionate at all.
When Golden State fell behind the Memphis Grizzlies, 2-1, in its West semifinal series, Kerr encountered the first defining challenge of his coaching career. He and his staff passed that test with flying colors. This incarnation of the Warriors has not ventured deep into the playoffs, and with Steph Curry struggling in Game 5, all while Klay Thompson picked up a fifth foul just 2:18 into the third quarter, Golden State had to face the realistic possibility of a flight back to Houston for Game 6.
However, Kerr kept his team calm, and other players — Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli — delivered the kinds of homecourt role-player performances that carry teams to the next level, otherwise known as the NBA Finals.
Golden State received great guidance in the West playoffs. The Warriors also received a Golden (State) path free of the Spurs or Clippers, the two toughest opponents in the conference. The Dubs also received the benefit of playing a Mike Conley-free Memphis team in Game 1, and a Tony Allen-free Griz group in Game 5. Still, the Warriors made the most of their breaks.
3 – CLIPPER CATASTROPHE
The Clippers broke the NBA’s rules in the worst possible way.
Everything about the history of this league, especially since the beginning of the 1980s, told us that when the Los Angeles Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs — knocking out the defending champions in the first round — they were going to back it up. Everything about the past third of a century in the Association pointed to the idea that the Clips would dispose of the Houston Rockets and meet the Warriors on the mountaintop in a West finals that was going to be almost as good as the Spurs-Dubs clash most hoops purists were craving back in mid-April.
Then Game 6 happened, or more precisely, the final 14 minutes of it.
The Clippers could make improvements to their bench. They could get better. They might solve everything they need to solve next season. Yet, if they don’t, Game 6 is going to cast a very long shadow over this organization for a very long time.
This isn’t worse than Donald Sterling, but it’s hard to believe the Clippers could leave behind a memory this bitter after the 2015 season, a season which was supposed to be a cleansing one after the departure of one of the worst owners in the history of all sports across the globe.
We’re not even counting the dozens of players who were playing in these playoffs at well below full strength, such as Tony Parker.
Please don’t happen again next spring, okay?
1 – LEBRON DOES IT AGAIN
You can trash the Eastern Conference all you want, but LeBron James’s ability to make a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance — this one with a different team, a younger team, and with J.R. Smith being the key midseason piece in the puzzle — represents a massive accomplishment. LeBron didn’t have Dwyane Wade’s locker-room leadership or Chris Bosh’s all-around game to take some of the pressure off his back this time. Without Kevin Love or a healthy Kyrie Irving, LeBron had to do a lot more of the heavy lifting — on and off the court — with these Cavs. He’s done it, and moreover, he’s done it after staring into the barrel of a 20-20 record in the middle of January.
Don’t sell this achievement short. We’re still not giving LeBron James as much credit as we should. If Cleveland beats Golden State in the Finals, perhaps that regrettable reality will cease to exist.