Miami was the team that was supposed to be so vulnerable entering this NBA postseason, if memory serves. The Heat was coming off an erratic regular season and seemed content, coming off back-to-back championships, to hear the foreboding of critics and consensus of doubt. The team was old, small, couldn’t rebound and had lost its three-point shot. Add Dwyane Wade’s health and the Heat just wasn’t as good.
Hmm. Well, looky here!
It is Miami, healthy, resting and watching, enjoying the spoils of splendid boredom — which is to say a four-game sweep in the only one of eight playoff series that was without drama or doubt.
It is the Heat, waiting, maybe getting a nice massage, while the rest of the league beats itself up in what has been, aside from Miami’s perfunctory advance, the most competitive, unpredictable, exciting basketball postseason in a long time. Maybe ever.
We saw it again Thursday night. Desperation, everywhere.
We saw Indiana coach Frank Vogel and the No. 1 East seed Pacers, in Atlanta, trying to avoid one of the biggest collapses in sports history. Vogel may as well have been courtside blindfolded and asking for a cigarette.
We saw Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City, in Memphis, trying to stave off unexpected elimination in a series that featured a record four overtime games. The Grizzlies defense was hounding Durant to a degree The Daily Oklahoman detailed his struggles under the headline, “Mr. Unreliability.”
And we saw the Los Angeles Clippers, at Golden State, trying to survive the feisty underdog Warriors as impressively as they had toughed through a nightmare week courtesy of Donald Sterling.
So, thanks again, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, for moving so swiftly and resolutely to yank pathetic old Sterling off the national stage after he so rudely had distracted us with his racist nonsense. Less bigotry, please, more basketball.
Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life; now let the league’s owners vote to force him to sell the Clippers so the game might be sanitized from his foul prejudice for good.
First, though, back to a postseason in which compelling story lines don’t let up with Friday’s schedule — a postseason that represents the NBA so proudly, such the opposite of Sterling.
We already have seen the upstart Washington Wizards advance past the Chicago Bulls.
On Friday, we will see Brooklyn, at home, trying to stay alive against Toronto — seeded higher but the betting underdog — in the series whose winner gets the rested Heat.
We’ll see Portland, at home, trying to complete a series upset of Houston in a duel that already has produced three overtime games and a Rockets hero’s turn by a player who two weeks earlier had been down in the D-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Oh, and we’ll see No. 1 West seed San Antonio, in Dallas, try to avoid being pushed to a Game 7.
This postseason gives me new hope, arrows in the quiver, in my ongoing argument that a seven-game series, when it’s good, is better than the one-and-done drama of the NCAA Tournament. Here, the framework changes with every result as tension undulates and builds, still water reaching a simmer, then a full boil. Here, there are no flukes, no luck. Beat somebody else in a first-to-four-wins format and you have either proved your superiority or found your opponent’s weakness. Either way, you have proved.
The college game has the trademark on March Madness but the NBA’s April-into-May has been madder, crazier.
The NCAA’s recent 32-game first round for the men (excluding play-in games) featured eight upsets by seeding and five overtime games.
The NBA’s 39 first-round games entering Thursday night featured 19 upsets by seeding and eight overtime games.
University of Wisconsin player Frank Kaminsky this week explained his decision to forgo the draft and return to the Badgers by saying the NBA couldn’t match the excitement of the college game.
Um, has he been watching these playoffs?
This is the 12th year there have been seven-game series in the first round. There have never been more than two go the full seven games any one year, but there was the possibility this year of six entering Thursday’s games. There also was the possibility this year might break the record for most total first-round games — 49 in 2003.
The eight overtime games entering Thursday already was a first-round record. And five of the eight series seemed headed for upsets based on betting odds entering the postseason.
As much as Sterling shamed himself and embarrassed the NBA, the competitiveness and excitement of this postseason has served the league and sport so well — the ultimate advertisement for the game and the players who make it run.
Meantime, while the other teams still alive spend energy and trade punches in a first round they won’t so much win as simply survive, the one team that has earned the most rest watches and waits.
It happens to be the two-time defending champions.
Be careful who you doubt, America.