The 1994 Seattle Supersonics. The 2012 Chicago Bulls. The 2007 Dallas Mavericks.
These and other “winter champions” are not remembered for the best of reasons. Greatness over 82 games and greatness in an American spring are two very different things. The playoffs define professional basketball legacies and reputations. Winning 11 straight Big 12 titles can buoy the reputation of Bill Self at Kansas, but NBA teams do not get the same benefit of the doubt by gaining top-two playoff seeds or winning division titles.
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The playoffs are what it’s about. What are the biggest stories to watch over the next two months?
10 – ROLE-PLAYER HEROES — WHO, WHEN, AND WHERE?
Shane Battier making seven threes in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals for the Miami Heat.
J.J. Barea starring in Game 5 of the 2011 Finals for the Dallas Mavericks.
Miami’s Norris Cole shutting down Lance Stephenson in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Danny Green shooting the lights out in the past two Finals for San Antonio.
Patty Mills last year.
A reinvented Vince Carter hitting a game-winning three for Dallas in last year’s first round (Game 3) against the Spurs.
Nate Robinson’s thermonuclear scoring spree against the Brooklyn Nets.
The NBA is a superstar league, but playoff games and series — sometimes, even championships — catapult role players into positions of prominence. Where will the key role-player contributions come from this postseason? We’re all waiting to find out.
9 – THE NEW COACHES
On one side of the NBA coaching divide, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau and Rick Carlisle hold court.
On the other side stand Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer, and David Blatt.
How will the new guys fare against the veterans? It’s a simple question, but an endlessly fascinating one.
Keep this in mind, though: Especially with Cleveland, the nature of the next two months will be defined more by the ability of the third- and fourth-best players to support the supreme stars. In other words, the performances of Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, and J.R. Smith will probably have more to do with the Cavs’ May and June fortunes than anything Blatt does.
Similarly, Dennis Schroeder and Kyle Korver will likely determine Atlanta’s fate more than any single Budenholzer tactic. Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes will either make Kerr look like a genius or a second-rate coach.
Still, let’s see if a coach does something smart — or not-so-smart — in the crucible of playoff competition.
8 – FAMILIAR EASTERN PATTERNS, PART ONE:
THE WIZARDS’ AND RAPTORS’ SITUATIONS
Like last year, the Washington Wizards are being doubted heading into the playoffs. Like last year, they’re the 5 seed. Like last year, they could advance to an East semifinal series against a top seed which can legitimately be questioned in terms of its staying power.
Like last year, the Toronto Raptors know that they’ll be an underdog in the second round of the East playoffs, provided that they escape the first round.
Like last year, the Raptors would just like to win a playoff series. Such an accomplishment would be the surest and most tangible sign that this franchise is moving forward and can experience even better times in the future.
7 – FAMILIAR EASTERN PATTERNS, PART TWO:
THE EAST SEMIFINALS SHOULD BE CONTENTIOUS
Last year, one East semifinal pitted the Brooklyn Nets against the Miami Heat. The Nets swept the four-game season series, but the Heat responded in the playoffs. This year, a possible Toronto-Atlanta East semifinal would involve a matchup in which the lower-seeded team won the season series (3-1, Toronto). The higher seed would have to prove it could prevail in the postseason. Atlanta, though, didn’t have the championship pedigree and hard-won confidence the Heat brought into that Brooklyn series. Could the Hawks buckle if they continue to face matchup problems against Toronto?
In the other possible East semifinal, LeBron James could face the Chicago Bulls. He had to go through them in 2011 and 2013, but in a larger context, LeBron had to go through Tom Thibodeau in 2010 when Thibs was still Doc Rivers’s assistant in Boston. Cleveland might beat Chicago, maybe even in just five games. Yet, even when LeBron has beaten Thibs or Chicago in the playoffs, it’s never been easy. The 2011 East Finals and the 2013 East semis were not what one would call “cakewalks” for LeBron’s teams.
6 – WILL DERRICK ROSE RISE … PROVIDED HE CAN STAY UPRIGHT
The story is simultaneously a simple one and yet a mysterious one. This is an easy-to-grasp story, but no one knows exactly how Derrick Rose’s body is going to respond to each and every collision near the basket, or each turn of the ankles and joints on a drive to the tin. If Rose does make it through these playoffs without an injury or a noticeable reduction in his physical capacities, what are the Chicago Bulls capable of?
5 – THE CLIPPERS’ MOMENT OF TRUTH ARRIVES EARLY
The Los Angeles Clippers have never made the Western Conference Finals. They had Oklahoma City dead to rights in Game 5 of last year’s West semifinals, but — there’s no other way to say it — choked.
This was supposed to be the year the Clippers broke through, but they received a nasty break when they drew the San Antonio Spurs in what is clearly the showcase series of the first round.
There’s only one bit of good news for the Clippers: If they can eliminate the defending champions, they should be favored in the West semis and could at last crack the NBA’s final four. If the Spurs lose, they’ve won the last two Western Conference titles and have still given their aging core another world championship. There’s a lot of pressure on San Antonio in this series … but there’s far more pressure on the Clippers. Can they shed a lot of baggage and outplay the most-admired team in pro hoops?
4 – CAN THE HAWKS FLY FREELY?
The St. Louis Hawks won an NBA title. The Atlanta Hawks made the NBA’s last four in each of their first two seasons (1969 and 1970), but since the league expanded to four divisions and a two-conference format in 1971, the Hawks have never reached the conference finals. That’s the immediate goal for this team over the next two months.
It would sting if the Hawks lost to Cleveland in the East Finals, but no one would be too upset. Reaching the East Finals would unquestionably make 2015 the greatest season in Atlanta’s professional basketball history. Falling short of THAT goal would make this season feel like a waste of effort.
Most people are probably expecting Cleveland and that LeBron fella to win the East and face the Spurs or Golden State in the NBA Finals. Atlanta could choose to play the next few months with a house-money mentality. Will the Hawks’ level of play reflect a liberated outlook, or will this team — like previous iterations of Atlanta Hawks over the decades — falter in the May spotlight?
3 – DO THE SPURS HAVE MORE MAGIC LEFT?
The Spurs don’t have anything left to prove to the outside world. They’re all seeing what they can prove to themselves. The one thing San Antonio has yet to achieve in this golden era — Pop Romana, if you want to call it that — is a repeat championship. If the Spurs can pull that off, their already-towering legacy will grow to an extent that’s hard to imagine.
First things first, though: The Spurs must deal with a white-hot bunch of Los Angeles Clippers, and they’ll almost surely have to go through the best team in the NBA, Golden State, in order to merely reach the Finals. LeBron and Spur-slaying Kyrie Irving could be waiting for them.
Can the Spurs do it? It’s hard to bet against them … but the stars have not aligned for them now that they’re a six seed instead of the two seed they could have become with a win at New Orleans on Wednesday night.
2 – HOW WILL KEVIN LOVE DEFINE HIS CAREER?
The drama of the Cleveland Cavaliers is a drama surrounding LeBron James. We know this. It is also, as mentioned above in point number nine, a drama in which David Blatt probably won’t play the most decisive role.
The story of the Cavs in these playoffs will feature LeBron as the lead author, and Irving — after torching San Antonio in the best game of the 2015 NBA regular season — has unquestionably positioned himself as the second main option for Cleveland at the offensive end of the floor.
The fate of the Cavs — whether or not they can first make the NBA Finals and then (if they do) bring a championship to Cleveland — could very well come down to how well Kevin Love plays.
Sure, the Mozgovs and J.R. Smiths will have their say, and their roles are not to be dismissed or minimized. That said, Love was supposed to be part of a three-man wrecking crew in much the same way that LeBron, Wade and Bosh formed the “Big Three” in Miami.
That hasn’t happened.
Love’s season has been shrouded in turmoil. Blatt memorably threw him under the buss in the early part of the season, and Love’s minutes were a recurring topic of discussion over the past 82 games.
Is Kevin Love a superstar? The current answer is clearly “no,” but Love gets a chance to write his own script in these playoffs. The answers Love gives to the questions posed by his critics will not only have a leading role in shaping the Cavaliers’ fortunes; they constitute as gripping an emotional drama as we’ll see in these playoffs. Few players are as under the gun as Love is.
LeBron can relate. His whole legacy as a player was squarely on the line in Game 6 of the 2012 East Finals against the Boston Celtics. King James provided the kind of performance which changes the way a professional athlete is remembered. Will Love encounter such a moment in these playoffs, and if so, how will he respond?
This is why we watch. This is why we care.
1 – WILL THE WARRIORS ASCEND TO THE THRONE?
The Golden State Warriors — owners of a plus-10 point differential over 82 games; winners of 67 contests; home-court rulers to the tune of a 39-2 record in Oakland — have been historically great this season.
A first-year head coach (at any level) has led them. They do not have a formidable low-post scorer (at least not one they can keep on the floor for extended minutes). Their roster is not a collection of trade acquisitions or scattered pieces from other organizations (aka, mercenaries, or what the Miami Heat mostly did to assemble their 2011-2014 core).
If Golden State does anything less than win the whole thing, many in the Bay Area are going to be disappointed. If the Warriors can’t at least get to the NBA Finals, they’re going to be miserable throughout the offseason.
Want to experience the joy of triumph? You have to do so knowing how bitter the cup of failure might taste. Golden State’s journey is freighted with extreme pressure, but it’s the pressure which flows from knowing that you’re the best … and must reassert that superiority when the moment matters most.