The Lowdown on the Letdown
Only a historically epic Finals match-up can save this belly-flop of a post-season.
By Miguel Robles, University of Colorado Denver
A few weeks ago, I stood on my soapbox and preached about how incredible the NBA playoffs were destined to be.
To me, the playoffs would be a spectacle, full of dramatic storylines, icons performing at their peak and epic, nail-biting moments. While also introducing new superstars, it would surely be the perfect platform to crown the winner of the heated MVP race.
Boy, was I wrong.
The highly-anticipated playoffs have been absolutely putrid. Most games have been over at halftime, the biggest stars have shrunk under pressure and pointless post-game feuds have highjacked the headlines. The slew of injuries has certainly been detrimental to the product on the floor, but at the same time, a few of the stars who avoided the injury bug didn’t live up to their big names under the bright lights.
Now, I’m not delusional. I know that, at the end of the day, these playoffs are a two-horse race between the Cavaliers and Warriors—a mere warmup for the third straight Cavs-Warriors Finals. The duo are head and shoulders above the competition in their respective conferences, but, while no other team had a realistic chance of reaching the championship, you’d expect more hustle.
Professional sports are a fickle thing. All too often, a team’s success hinges on the fragility of their best players, and any hopes of reaching the playoffs can be ripped to shreds with even the simplest of injuries. This season, stars were dropping like flies.
In the first round, the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz topped the list of intriguing match-ups, with the young Jazz superstars Rudy Gobert andGordon Hayward testing their worth against the veteran Clippers. Yet, what was sure to be a shoot-out series turned into a war of attrition, as the outcome was decided on who could stay fit.
At the beginning of the series, the momentum tipped in the Clippers’ favor, after young phenom Gobert went down with a gruesome injury in Game 1. It seemed like the end for the Jazz, but Gobert played through the pain and had an epic showdown with Clippers big DeAndre Jordan. It was the Clippers superstar forward Blake Griffin who would end up tipping the scales of the stalemate.
The oft-injured Griffin suffered another season-ending toe injury in the Game 3 win in Utah, potentially closing the Clippers’ rapidly vanishing championship window; the Jazz went on to win the series in seven games. Griffin’s toe became the first of numerous injuries to key contributors, many of which ended up dooming their respective teams.
The controversial Bulls point guard, Rajon Rondo, became one of the major factors in the Bulls’ two-nil upset bid over the number-one Celtics. Although Rondo had to fight for his starting spot throughout the year, at the moment he became invaluable for the Bulls, he broke his thumb—an anticlimax that describes Rondo’s rollercoaster career in a nutshell. Without him, the Bulls lost four straight games to the Celtics and were eliminated from the playoffs.
The season-ending thigh tear for Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario became a huge factor in the Rockets’ fall to the Spurs in the second round, as Spurs big men were able to dominate the Rockets’ backcourt in the two blowouts in Games 5 and 6 in Houston.
The Spurs themselves felt the cold touch of the injury bug in the Western Conference Finals. In the first half of Game 1, the Spurs were running the undefeated super-team Warriors off of their home court. But then, Warriors center Zaza Pachulia got caught under Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, resulting in a calamitous injury to Leonard that took him out of the playoffs. Without him, the Warriors were able to pull off an impressive rally in Game 1 and thrash the Spurs in Games 2-4, resulting in a sweep. It’s uncertain if the Spurs had a legitimate shot at the Warriors, even if Leonard was healthy, but without the dynamic forward, fans were deprived of what should have been a phenomenal series.
To exemplify how awful the playoff product has been, forty-two out of the seventy-three total playoff games (57 percent), have been decided by a margin of over ten points, and many of them were horrendous games. Thirteen have ended with a difference of over twenty points, three have been over thirty points and one has been over forty. The latter was a travesty: In Game 2, the Cavs won over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals 130-86.
The Celtics-Wizards Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series was full of drama, and gave the NBA fans a bit of playoff magic from two franchises on the rise, but at the same time, most of the games ended as blowouts. Except for Game 6, all ended with at least a ten-point difference. Also, while the blowouts weren’t restricted to one side, as the series flowed back and forth, a few of the games were over by halftime.
The Warriors have certainly left their fair share of blowouts in their wake. In their third straight run to the Finals, only two games have finished with a difference under ten points: Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs (113-111) and Game 3 of the first round against the Trail Blazers (119-113). The Warriors’ twelve-nil run through the playoffs is intimidating, yet their unprecedented dominance may spell bad news for the NBA. No one has even come close to making a challenge for the super-team.
The Awful Eastern Conference
While the Warriors’ unchallenged march back into the Finals shows the weaknesses throughout the Western Conference, the real worry comes from the Eastern Conference. In the last few years, there has been a clear gap between the depth of the Western Conference and the East. However, this season, the East has looked historically horrific.
Much has been written about how the Celtics were the worst number-one seed in history. To put it in perspective, the fifty-three-win Celtics would have landed in the number-seven spot had they played in the Western Conference just two years ago, in the 2014-15 season.
Despite being the one seed, the Celtics never were the team to beat in the East. That honor would go to the fifty-one-win Cavs team, whose blatant disinterest in the regular season and seeding landed them in the number-two spot. At the end of the day, no one in the East had a chance to give LeBron and company a run for their money. In fact, no team in the East, apart from the Cavs, resembles anything close to championship contenders.
Honestly, lowly teams like the Pacers and Bulls, bar their star leaders, had no right to be in the playoffs. Other teams, such as the Hawks and Raptors, dealt with the harsh reality of fading into mediocrity. The rest of the field (the Celtics, Wizards and Bucks) is made up of teams full of young studs leading exciting offenses, yet are one or two years away from posing a serious threat to the NBA elite. The potential of these teams is clear, but potential by itself isn’t going to win you playoff games.
The Star Letdowns
The worst element of the playoffs by far were the untimely letdowns from the NBA’s biggest stars. Almost every series was decided after the brightest faces in the league folded under the pressure.
In the first round, Russell Westbrook’s bubble was finally popped by the other MVP frontrunner, James Harden, and the Houston Rockets. Against the offensive wave of the Rockets, Westbrook’s incredible run showed its limitations. There was simply no way Russ could have carried the team on his back over the red-hot Rockets, much less to the Finals. While he did average an impressive 31.6 ppg, 10.4 apg and 10.7 rpg, the team paid for his inconsistencies and inefficiency time and time again. On a six-of-twenty-three shooting night in the first game of the series in Houston, Westbrook only had twenty-two points and an anemic plus/minus of -25, resulting in a blowout win for the Rockets.
Throughout the series, the inefficient play haunted the Thunder team. Russ, being the “man,” hindered anyone else on his team from having a significant impact. In Game 2, he dropped an impressive fifty-one points, but it was after he heaved up a stupid forty-three shots. Russ is great, that much is clear. Yet, his persistent lack of playoff success, especially when the pressure is firmly on his back, may forever be a stain on his career.
On the other hand, Harden had a tremendous playoff run. That being said, like Westbrook, Harden fell apart when it mattered the most. After being unstoppable for parts of the postseason, “The Beard” did the unthinkable in the last game of the Western Conference Semi-final show-down against the Spurs—he quit. In the win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Spurs, James Harden flat-out gave up on his team, with a pathetic effort. He only took eleven shots in the decisive game, looking lethargic and disinterested all the while.
This series served as a defining moment for Harden’s career. In the early games of the series, his play was dazzling. He was able to heighten his teammates’ game, while being able to provide his own scoring regiment. If Harden kept his foot on the gas pedal, there could have been a shoot-out Western Conference Finals with the Rockets-Warriors. Instead, Harden decided not to show up to the biggest game of his career, and, because of it, his legacy will be forever tarnished.