2021 NBA Playoffs

Next generation of stars step into the spotlight in conference finals

Postseason experience is limited among the final four playoff teams as a batch of new blood looks to begin writing its legacy.

Devin Booker and the young Suns have played with poise throughout the playoffs.

The downside of so much fresh blood in the NBA playoffs with just four teams and two rounds left is, well, sure, the absence of so much stale blood. Which might sound fine until you realize how many household names no longer are participating – LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler and even newer familiar faces such as Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Jayson Tatum.

It’s not so much the loss of those guys’ highlights that might be missed between now and the end of The Finals next month. Fresh young stars have stepped up to create their own unforgettable playoff moments, from Trae Young, Devin Booker, Kevin Huerter and Deandre Ayton, to even Giannis Antetokounmpo (still a spelling and pronunciation challenge to many fans two MVP awards in).

What isn’t so easily replaced is the level of experience the stale blood had, particularly at these playoff heights. It’s not an easy thing to reach the conference finals, never mind The Finals. It’s even more difficult with certain stars and their teams squatting on them like prime parking spaces. This is the first “Final Four” since 2010, for instance, that doesn’t include James or Curry or both.

Of the players who appeared in the recently completed conference semifinals, 36 had at least limited experience in a previous conference championship series. And 10 had appeared in three or more of them.

But with Brooklyn, Denver, Utah and Philadelphia out, that latter list shortens to just Kawhi Leonard (6 trips to a conference finals, including this year) and Rajon Rondo (5) of the Los Angeles Clippers. Injured teammate Serge Ibaka would qualify with six, too, if he weren’t done for this postseason after back surgery.

Leonard and Rondo (and Ibaka) also are the only players left who own championship rings. Ironically, having won them elsewhere, they now play for a franchise that never reached the conference finals before this year.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach three Finals and win one from 2016 to 2018, believes experience shows itself at pivotal times in games or series. Maybe less so in locker room bluster or between-game leadership.

“I think [it shows] in key moments,” Lue said Sunday, “like you saw in Games 5 and 6 against Utah. Best player [Leonard] goes down, other guys step up and make big plays for the team.”

Milwaukee reached the East finals just two years ago, grabbing a 2-0 lead over Toronto before dropping four straight to the eventual champion Raptors. But only Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton, among the Bucks’ active players now, remain.

Giannis Antetokounmpo erupted for 40 points in Milwaukee's Game 7 win over Brooklyn.

Backup guard Jeff Teague got to the 2015 East finals with Atlanta – and coach Mike Budenholzer – while defensive ace P.J. Tucker got that far out West in 2018 with Houston. Three-point specialist Bryn Forbes made it to the West finals in 2017 with San Antonio, when the Spurs still had Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as links to their Tim Duncan-led dynasty.

“You’re playing for a championship berth. That’s a different level,” Forbes recently told reporters of the conference finals. “That’s always going to be a little more. The playoffs are already intense and everybody’s ready to go, but that’s a different level.”

Compared to the Clippers and the Bucks, the Hawks and the Suns have hardly any deep-playoff experience. Atlanta’s Clint Capela went with Houston in 2015 and again with Tucker in 2018. Solomon Hill made cameo appearances in East finals for Indiana (2014) and Miami (2020), then the 2020 Finals.

Trae Young joined Inside the NBA after Atlanta's Game 7 win in Philadelphia.

For the Suns, veteran forward Jae Crowder was a starter for the 2020 Heat right through the Orlando-bubble Finals. Torrey Craig got as far as the West finals last year. E’Twaun Moore played seven minutes in the 2012 East finals as a rookie with Boston.

And while Chris Paul has appeared in 119 postseason games, he and his teams went as far as the conference finals only once, on that 2018 Rockets team. Paul tops all players still standing for the most playoff games without reaching The Finals.

Craig said near the end of the regular season that their club tried to generate a playoff feel, in hopes of being ready. “We’ve been talking about it in the huddles of games,” he said, “like, ‘Hey, this is what the playoffs are like. Hey, we need a stop right here.’ ‘Momentum change, we need to find a way to respond from their run.’ … It’s not quite the same, but it’s as close as you’ll possibly get to the playoffs.”

Replicating or imparting wisdom from the side doesn’t seem to be as effective as instinctively reacting on the fly. As savvy as Utah guard Mike Conley is, for instance, and with the 2013 West finals on his resume, he missed the first five games against the Clippers in the conference semifinals with a hamstring tear. When he played in the finale, Conley’s experience couldn’t stop the Jazz from blowing a 25-point lead.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was non-committal about the need for playoff experience. This year’s Heat had more under their belt than last year’s, after all, with a much quicker exit.

“Each experience is different,” Spoelstra said last month. “You want to be present as much as possible for the challenge that’s right there in front of you. … I think for experienced veteran players, I think it does matter, being in these kind of playoff atmospheres time and time again. Our young guys … they don’t know what they don’t know, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Devin Booker and Phoenix made a statement with their Game 1 win.

Monty Williams, Phoenix’s Coach of the Year runner-up, isn’t trying to run from the Suns’ limited exposure to the conference finals and whatever might lie beyond.

“We’re probably in last place [in that category],” he said before Game 1 Sunday against the Clippers. “I can’t lie about that, that’s just the way it is. We’re just young. So we don’t talk about it. We go out and hoop, and everybody else talks about it.

“It’s just life. You can’t make a team grow any faster. They’re going to grow at the rate they want to grow. We’ll get experience as we go along. That’s just been our M.O. throughout the season.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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