There will be a new NBA Champion this season.
The throne has been cleared. An efficient, ruthless performance by the Oklahoma City Thunder ensured a clean sweep of the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks in the very first round of the playoffs. The last team standing a year ago was the first ones to fall in this year’s Playoffs. Although the Mavericks had been looking doubtful all season to defend their championship, it took a young, aggressive, and extremely motivated Thunder team to make it official.
A year ago, the Mavericks had done the same thing to the then-reigning champion Lakers by sweeping them in the second round and then beating this very Thunder team in the Conference Finals en-route to their first-ever championship. Behind an excellent series by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, OKC got their revenge this year.
And now, with the champions dethroned, the NBA crown lies without a King, up for grabs for the best contenders amongst the rest. With injuries and fatigue plaguing squads across the league, it looks like the championship this year will fall into the hands of not necessarily who plays the toughest, but who survives the longest. The Thunder have made their aspirations clear early by brushing past the reigning champions. They will have to face tough competition in the West in the form of the Spurs and the Lakers if the young squad hopes to bring the NBA Finals to Oklahoma City for the first time.
Last year’s finalists Miami are looking the favourites out in the East, especially after the injury-ridden Bulls, supposed to be their toughest challenge in the conference, now find themselves in a 3-1 hole to the surging 76ers. But will another contender rise – perhaps Indiana or Boston – to extinguish the Heat?
Bulls (1) vs. 76ers (8) The last few minutes decided Games 3 and 4 in favour of the lower-seeded 76ers in the series: and a certain Derrick Rose – one of the best closers in basketball – could have certainly been a difference between the 3-1 series score favouring the higher-seeded Bulls instead. Credit to Philadelphia for making the most of a fortunate situation, as they aim to become just the fourth eighth-seeded team ever to upset a top seed. The 76ers have had contribution from various sources – from Lou Williams and Spencer Hawes to Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Meanwhile, with the questionable status of Joakim Noah, the rest of the Bulls have to step up to support Carlos Boozer and elongate this series.
Heat (2) vs. Knicks (7) After making the wrong kind of history with 13 consecutive playoff losses (going back 11 years), the Knicks finally survived a game behind epic performances by Carmelo Anthony (41 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (20 & 10) to avoid a sweep. Miami may not have had played at the top of their game since Game 1, but they still hold a 3-1 advantage going into Game 5 back home. It has been a brutal, defensive series, and it seems like only a matter of time before the Heat wrap it up to move into the second round.
Pacers (3) vs. Magic (6) After surprisingly dropping Game 1 at home, the Pacers have since regrouped and won the next three against the short-handed Magic. Another squad that relies on multiple contributors, the Pacers have seen efficient, improved play by Danny Granger, David West, and George Hill in taking the series lead. Indiana blew a massive lead in Game 4 before surviving for an overtime victory. Now up 3-1, they have to make sure not to blow this series lead and to move into Round 2.
Celtics (4) vs. Hawks (5) Down 1-0 on the road with their best player suspended, the Celtics found themselves in a quandary. That is when Paul Pierce dropped in arguably the most important performance of the playoffs so far with 36 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2 to will the Rondo-less Celtics to a road win. The Celtics returned to Boston with confidence and with Rondo, and the young point guard has made up for the mistake of his suspension since, dropping 17, 14, and 12 in the overtime Game 3 battle and 20 and 16 in Game 4 to help the Celtics win both games. The Hawks have played the last couple of games without their own game-changer, Josh Smith, and now down 3-1, they desperately need some inspiration to bounce back.
Spurs (1) vs. Jazz (8) Quietly, and with the least bit of fuss, the Spurs continue to win out West. Up 3-0 in the series at time of writing, the Spurs are one win away from a sweep of the Jazz. Tony Parker continues to have arguably his best season in San Antonio, while a rejuvenated Tim Duncan is stepping up to deal with Utah’s big men combo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Thunder (2) vs. Mavericks (7) By defeating the reigning champions and clearing the throne, the Thunder have sent out a loud and clear message: we aren’t the young pups anymore. In Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, the Thunder have three players who led the team in scoring in the four games. Their comeback from 13 points down showed their resolve in winning tough on the road. Now, they rest and await their challengers in Round 2.
Lakers (3) vs. Nuggets (6) The Nuggets know the secret on how to beat the Lakers – outrunning them in the transition game. Unfortunately, consistently putting the theory to work for 48 minutes a game, game after game, is far easier said than done. After losing the first two games on the road, the Nuggets put up a tough fight back home to split the two games 1-1. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers have far too many weapons – Kobe, Bynum, Gasol, Sessions, and for Game 4, Steve Blake – for Denver to counter all together. Kobe and co return home with a 3-1 lead and will look to close this series.
Grizzlies (4) vs. Clippers (5) In easily the closest and most exciting series of the playoffs so far, the Clippers hold a 2-1 lead at time of writing going into Game 4 at home. With Chris Paul as their leader, LA’s ‘other’ team have shown a new tough and resilient identity. The Grizzlies may have greater depth, but in Paul, the Clippers have a player who will make them fight till the very end. The Clippers’ woeful performance from the free-throw line nearly allowed a dramatic Memphis comeback: they will have to tighten up their screws in Game 4, while Memphis needs big contributions from their deep bench to bounce back in this series.
The O’Brien Files: A little taste of Playoff history - April 29, 2001, which is 11 years and a week ago, was when the New York Knicks won their last playoff game. That was a first round Game 3 victory over the Raptors. Since then, the Knicks lost 13 consecutive games, a streak that now stands as the worst in NBA history. The Knicks were finally able to end their drought with a hard-fought victory over the Heat on May 6, 2012. But now New York faces a different kind of history: no NBA team has come back from 3-0 down to win a playoff series. The Heat will try and ensure that the Knicks don’t make history again.