“Basketball is like poetry in motion,” or so said NBA champion and shooter extraordinaire Ray Allen in 1998’s “He Got Game.” His simile has been proven true time and time again with each passing installment of the NBA. Every new year introduces to us new phenoms, births, bitter rivalries and concocts season-long storylines so captivating that it has become commonplace to genuinely believe the league is scripted. Or, maybe, it really is better to think of it as a poem where—if each line is a game—we are officially 1,230 entries deep. However, this pre-playoff prose remains just that: something unfinished, without conclusion, anticipating its resolution in due time. And we as NBA watchers, or perhaps readers, have diligently followed the sports world’s greatest yearly saga for seven months, understanding that we haven’t even come close to the climax yet. With the NBA Playoffs beginning this coming Saturday April 15, numerous questions are tantalizingly close to being answered: Will this season’s best bucket-getter finally achieve playoff success? Can one of the league’s most prolific scorers of all time cement his legacy?
A center has not won the scoring title since the turn of the century, a streak which will be coming to an end this season as the Philadelphia 76ers’ seven-foot superstar Joel Embiid’s 31-point-per-game average earns him the de-facto title as the league’s best bucket. A center has won the MVP award the past two years, a streak that Embiid may continue and one that I believe he likely will. However, while adding these two new pieces of silverware to the Kansas product’s accolades is very much deserved and a long time coming, there is still one more trophy painfully absent in his cabinet—the Larry O’Brien trophy, the one that comes with some jewelry, too. The 76ers have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, not including the current one, and have failed to win multiple series in any of them. From Kawhi Leonard’s legendary, quadruple-bounce game seven buzzer beater, to getting handled in six by Miami, each year ends in the same way—watching the finals from home.
However, this is the first year where the Sixers will have both the league’s points leader and assists leader on the same team. James Harden’s 10.7 assists is tops in the association, and while the former scoring title winner has seen his bucket-getting numbers drop, he can still pass better than almost anyone,pulling the strings behind the league’s third ranked offense. While Philadelphia did finish third in the East, behind the vaunted Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, Embiid’s historic 50-point performance against the the East’s second seed may have done more than potentially cement his case for MVP— it could serve as a warning shot to the whole league that this team is capable of dueling with the very best. The case for Embiid finally getting his ring? The Sixers are one of only three teams both top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, they can boast a strong supporting cast around their two lead men, and they have a guy on the team liable to drop 50 points on any given night and hold it down defensively with the best of them. They are going to finish below the No. 2 seed for the first time in three years, but perhaps this team has gone a little too under the radar this year, forming the perfect storm for a franchise cornerstone to finally get his elusive ring.
In other plotlines as the saga rages on, superstar Kevin Durant finds himself on a new team for the third time in his career. After a lackluster stint with the Brooklyn Nets for three seasons (garnering a grand total of one playoff series win), the forward has moved on to what are presumably brighter, drier pastures in the Arizona desert, teaming up with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns. Given the Nets traded him just this past trade deadline, and sustaining an injury soon after his arrival, perhaps one could question the Suns’ team chemistry prospects heading into this postseason. What cannot be denied is their dominance when Durant suits up. In their eight games with the new addition on the court, the Suns haven’t lost a single one of them, outscoring their opponents by an average of 10.75 points in that span.
The Suns come into this season having made the playoffs the past two, but remaining ringless as a franchise. Durant, on the other hand, has two championship wins under his belt, both of which he won with the Golden State Warriors. And while Durant won Finals MVP in both instances, serving as an integral contributor to the Dubs’ machine-like offensive efficiency, this was the team that, directly prior to his arrival, had the best regular season of all-time record-wise. Having two rings already places Durant in ultra-exclusive NBA company, but there are many that believe the seven-foot superstar needs another win to prove beyond a doubt that he is the greatest scorer of all time and to be consistently brought up in the same conversations with the likes of Lebron James and Michael Jordan. Durant told The Athletic in an interview recently, “I don’t care about legacy”—and nor should he feel the need to. But with the red-hot Suns entering the playoffs armed with one of the most low-key legends ever, maybe the star’s emphasis on simply putting the ball in the basket will provide the impetus for a legacy-fulfilling ring for franchise and player alike.
Embiid and Durant are just two of the figures whose fates remain undetermined. Beginning this Saturday, 16 teams and 208 players will begin the two-and-a-half month trek to the promised land, each with their own unique motivations and paths, as in any good work of fiction, prose or poetry. While the NBA’s oral tradition ensures that whatever comes to pass in the ensuing postseason will be discussed for decades, it feels all the more special to have a front-row seat to the two most intriguing words in sports—playoff basketball.