The NBA playoffs are a great thing. To some of us, they are the best of things. The first round, in particular, provides a daily smorgasbord of delicacies that overwhelm with pleasure.
By playing multiple games every night — and all-day quadruple headers on the weekend — the NBA gives fiends a sustained intravenous drip of basketball that can take dedicated watchers on an adventure that turns from gleeful to boring to aggravating to awe inspiring in the course of a single evening.
This year has been uniquely great so far.
There are the obvious reasons: Road teams have won 21 games (a first-round record) of the first 39 played, and eight games have gone to overtime (another first-round record). The Oklahoma City/Memphis series alone had four straight overtime games (which has never happened).
By all respects, this has been the least predictable, most-electrifying first round in NBA history — and six of the eight series have yet to be decided after five games.
The results have certainly added to the intrigue, but the core of the entertainment and the drama has been the same as it always it: the characters. They are the true beauty here. They, perhaps more than anything, is what makes the NBA playoffs the only must-see-TV left in my life.
The true greats in (or around) the prime of their career are the main course. Kevin Durant and LeBron James headline a cast that includes the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Tony Parker, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Dwyane Wade.
But we know what those guys can do. Their greatness impresses undoubtedly, but my true joy comes from watching the new and the old. And only in the playoffs do we get to fully revel in the rise of future household names like LaMarcus Aldridge and John Wall while at the same time appreciate the roars of former lions like Paul Pierce and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs/Mavericks series provides a beautiful canvas for the latter.
Last night, Vince Carter continued to pour in improbable jumpers while Ginobili flashed enough brilliance to make us think he would have another ring had he been able to replicate these feats in last year’s Finals. It is remarkable to see the transformation Carter has made from disavowed superstar to consummate professional. And the Argentine just continues to prove Gregg Popovich’s explanation for expecting him to succeed: “He’s Manu Ginobili.”
Then there are Dirk and Timmy. Two of the best to ever play, neither Nowitzki and Duncan is able to win a series singlehandedly anymore. But they still are themselves, and to those who have been watching since Dirk’s greatness was in the incubation stage, it is a treasure to see it resurface.
Take this shot he made in Game 2, for instance.
The roar of lions I mention is intended to be a metaphor, but when we see Dirk, with his golden mane, yell out “AND ONNNNE,” we are bordering on a literal interpretation.
On the other end of the spectrum is Aldridge.
Before our eyes in real time, we get to watch him, and his teammate Damian Lillard, carve out their places in the league, knowing they likely will be casting their shadow on it for another decade. Aldridge has shown the foundational rock that he can be, making 35-of-59 shots (59.3%) and scoring 89 points in his first two games as his Blazers won twice in Houston.
Lillard has added the other side of the star coin: the big-time shots and moment-defining plays late in games that have sealed his team’s victories. Never have I seen him so in control in crunch time as he was late in Game 4 when he rushed up the court and, with his eye and body language alone, told Wes Matthews to clear the block so that he could race by James Harden and score at the cup.
Though he has received plenty of praise before now and has already begun to reap the endorsement benefits of his talents, this first round has shown the world just how beautiful his approach to the game can be.
These are just the best examples. In the East we also each side represented by the likes of Paul Pierce and DeMar DeRozan.
In a Game 3 win, Pierce turned the fourth quarter into 2003. Down the stretch, he manipulated defenders as only he can, slowly blowing by confused defenders only to meander his way to the hoop or pull up without warning at the exact moment he knows his jumper is destined to tickle twine and silence the crowd. Fans of other Atlantic Division teams know the crime scene all too well, and here was an aged Pierce taking his playoff serial killing spree international.
Days later, DeRozan would ignite for a 17-point fourth quarter that showed how the first-time All-Star is just as able to throw a team on his back. That’s the playoffs: the young learning some lessons from the old then acing their test.
Yes, the media attention will continue to focus on the league’s “middle-aged” stars in the prime of their careers: Durant, James, Paul, Parker, Harden, Westbrook, and Howard. Those are the guys who will have the most influence on the championship.
They are the here and now.
That all well and good, but I prefer enjoying the nostalgia and the promise for the future. I love to look back while looking ahead. The old gunslingers and young challengers. They’re why I watch.
And the best part is that even though a few disappear each year, there are always more to take their place. The NBA just keeps reinventing itself every year. Not bad for what is already my favorite invention.