Blame tough luck, blame injuries, blame end-of-game jitters or blame other outside distractions. But at the end of the day, the four teams left standing in contention for an NBA championship – Celtics, Heat, Spurs, and Thunder – are the four teams who deserve to be standing last. Fortune favours the brave: and the four remaining squads, for their different reasons, have been the bravest squads in the postseason.
The Spurs deserve to be here because they finished the season with a 10-game winning streak and then swept the next two series, before taking Game 1 versus the Thunder to take their overall winning streak up to an incredible 19 in a row. The Thunder are here because they fought off – and defeated – the last two reigning NBA champions in back to back series, the Mavericks, and the Lakers. The Heat are here because they feature two of the top five NBA players – Dwyane Wade and LeBron James – in their starting lineup, two players who are capable of turning entire series on their own individual brilliance. And the Celtics deserve to be here because they have proven time and again to be one of the most resilient teams in the NBA, one that keeps bouncing back to survive and keeps finding ways to extend their recent golden age.
Two of these four teams will move on to the NBA Finals in a few weeks, and only one of them will stand alone as the NBA Champion about a month from now. There is a lot of exciting, dramatic basketball that lays ahead, but before we get into the Conference Finals, let’s take a brief look back over the past week and see how the Second Round of the Playoffs was closed off.
Heat vs. Pacers: As my colleague Akshay Manwani already delved on in his column on Thursday, the previous week belonged to one man alone: Dwyane Wade. After being showered by brickbats following his awful Game 3 performance, Wade bounced back in style, and along with LeBron James’ brilliance, helped carry the Heat to three consecutive wins over a scrappy Indiana side to win the series. Through Game 4-6, LeBron (32.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.0 apg) and Wade (33.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg) were devastatingly good, sending out a message to the rest of the league of their potential together, with or without Chris Bosh.
Celtics vs. 76ers: Maybe not the prettiest series for the offensive-minded beholder, but both Boston and Philadelphia represented teams with the courage to battle till the very end. After Philadelphia picked up two ugly wins in Game 5 and 6, that ‘very end’ came in the final Game 7 in Boston’s home court. A strangely subdued Rajon Rondo found the spring in his step again to finish with a crucial triple-double, including 11 points in a clutch fourth quarter. Boston move on to the Conference Finals carrying the load of their collective ages and gimpy knees, but carrying the right momentum that is sure to trouble any future challenges. And as long as Kevin Garnett continues to turn back the clock to his glory years, this team will be hard to count out.
Spurs vs. Clippers: The Spurs had too much depth, too much experience, too many options, and too much intelligent coaching for the Clippers, and it showed in another easy series win for San Antonio. The Clippers were swept 4-0 and will return back to the drawing board. No doubt an ailing Chris Paul will help this team bounce back. The Spurs, meanwhile, move on to the next round in perfect fashion, as their veteran players – Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili – start hitting their stride at just the right time.
Thunder vs. Lakers: Years ago, when they were collecting championship hardware on a regular basis, the Lakers had a distinct advantage over their challengers: they had the ability to survive in games where they didn’t play their best basketball, and the ability to close out close games in successful fashion. The tables have now turned, and the talents for late-game survival and savvy to figure out a way to get any kind of victory have been bestowed upon the young pups from Oklahoma City. The Thunder showed experience and calm beyond their years to defeat the Lakers, 4-1. L.A. had no answer for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant throughout the series. OKC will have to be at their best – physically and mentally – to now outplay the Spurs if they wish to bid for a spot in the NBA Finals.
The O’Brien Files: A little taste of Playoff history - 19 – The Spurs tied the NBA’s all-time record for the longest winning streak kept alive in the playoffs with their 19th straight victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder. Going back to March 12th, this was their 33rd win in 36 contests!