Everything about this past weekend was great—everything. It was warm. It was sunny. Danny Brown put on an awesome show. Spring will soon give way to summer, 90-degree days with 100 percent humidity. Most importantly, however, we are entering the nucleus of the best all-around season and two-month stretch of sports of the year: mid-April through mid-June. This period starts with the Masters and ends with the conclusion of the NBA and NHL seasons.
Because of the limited number of games each team plays in the NFL, there is almost no noticeable difference in intensity between the regular season and the post season. However, regular and post-season NBA and NHL are night and day. Something turns on; a switch is flipped for the players in pursuit of the Larry O’Brian Trophy (NBA) and Lord Stanley’s Cup (NHL) when the playoffs begin. It is a beautiful thing to behold, especially for the NBA’s legions of domestic and foreign fans for which the NBA playoffs are king of the sporting calendar.
The first weekend of NBA post season action set the bar high, with several games decided by fewer than ten points. The two closest games of the weekend came out of the western conference by way of the three-six seed matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, and the four-five seed matchup between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers. Second-year point guard for Portland Damian Lillard put on a stunning and poised performance in his first ever playoff game, showing he merited his status as an All-Star starter this year. Lillard was only a second line story, though, for his teammate and fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge scored a playoff franchise record 47 points before fouling out in overtime in what would end up being a thrilling 122-120 victory for Portland’s only professional sports team. Although an exciting game that was tied at 104 before the Warriors pulled away to win, the best moment from the Clippers 105-109 came when the Clips’ Blake Griffin (accidentally) spilled or threw his water on a Golden State fan lucky enough to be sitting courtside. But just because those two games had the slimmest margins of victory doesn’t necessarily make them the most interesting games that were played on Saturday and Sunday.
Perhaps the distinction of most interesting game goes to the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks. After a blistering start to the season that saw the Pacers take a commanding lead in the eastern conference over the defending champion Miami Heat, the Pacers appear to have fully and totally collapsed. This total collapse has seemed to carry over into the postseason, with the Pacers playing a listless brand of basketball. This is far different from their usual high energy style of play. Of the top four teams in the playoffs (the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat), the Pacers were the only team to lose their playoff opener. Not only did they lose on their home floor, they lost to a Hawks team that had a losing record during the regular season at a full six games below .500.
In a perfect, imaginary world where the NBA doesn’t have conference playoffs and the tournament includes the top 16 teams regardless of geographic location, the Hawks wouldn’t have even sniffed the playoffs. But they are in, and have improbably stolen home court advantage from a Pacers team that was unbeatable in Indianapolis during the first half of the regular season. Although they lost the first game, it is almost unfathomable that the Pacers would actually lose a best-of-seven series against the Hawks. Even so, the Pacers are on their heels.
If the Pacers do indeed lose—fingers crossed that they do—the Heat will inevitably make it back to the finals, which is, after all, what any self-respecting basketball fan should want. No team has made it to four consecutive NBA Finals since Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics did it in the mid 80s. No team has won three consecutive NBA championships since the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s. The Miami Heat have a chance to do both of those things this year, and that would be good for basketball, no matter how you slice it. The only thing better than the Heat being in the Finals is the Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder both being in the Finals. Back in 2012, LeBron James and the Heat won their first title against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant, who just had one of the best individual seasons in league history. This year, the Thunder seems like the only team that can beat the Heat, with Kevin Durant being seemingly unstoppable. It would be fitting if the Thunder finished what started with them: a dominant stretch of basketball including two titles from Miami.
James and Durant are unquestionably the two best players in the NBA right now. Everyone should want to see them do battle on the game’s biggest stage. If the Thunder beat the Memphis Grizzlies this Monday, they will lead the Griz two games to none and will be well on their way to the young franchise’s second championship berth. But as anyone who watched the NBA this season can tell you, no one is safe in the western conference, which has been stronger than any the eastern conference in recent memory. The Heat will sweep their opening-round series with the Charlotte Bobcats, but after that, they could run into trouble against the Brooklyn Nets or Chicago Bulls, both of whom gave the Heat good games this year. Nothing is certain, except that the playoffs are here and that drama will ensue.