Sixteen magnificent gladiators entered the NBA playoff arena. Eight of these big bad brutes stepped forward – some bruised, some slightly battered – to continue to do battle. Eight bodies lay lifeless on the ground, bludgeoned to death before a boisterous crowd thirsty for blood. Once again, it is time for mortal combat, as 4 more titans are slated for martyrdom in the altar of the cage gods.
It is win and move on to the next round, or lose and get fed to the dogs. Such is the sad reality as our weary survivors – bloodied but unbowed – catch their breath to prepare for more epic battles against even bigger, badder foes. The trumpets of war blare on. Until only one remains standing. This week, we move to the Conference Finals, where 4 more heroic fighters will be dragged out, while the 4 remaining warriors gear up for more ferocious action.
In the east, the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks have been unceremoniously eliminated. Unmasked for being too Giannis-centric, the Bucks fell to a Miami Heat defense that was willing to double – or even triple team – the Greek Freak and dare the rest to try to beat them. The Heat had a phalanx of big bods in Jae Crowder, Andre Igoudala, Kelly Olynyk, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo taking turns to wear down the Freak. Without a clear second and third option, and with Giannis succumbing to an ankle injury, the hapless Bucks found themselves being administered a coup-de-grace by a Heat team that clearly prepared for the playoff wars. Coach Eric Spoelstra should be given credit for building up the team with a mix of dogged defense and balanced offense. With veteran Goran Dragic orchestrating, and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro providing added firepower, the Heat are a complete team.
But the biggest credit will have to go to Jimmy Butler, he with the ‘bad boy’ reputation. The team has embraced Jimmy’s tough-as-nails persona on the defense, making them a totally different animal from the Heat teams of the past seasons. Jimmy’s presence for the Heat this year has been game-changing, to say the least. Jimmy has shown that he can lift an ordinary team to greater heights, and that he didn’t deserve a third option treatment to a Karl Anthony Towns- Andrew Wiggins or a Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons tandem.
The Boston Celtics, on the other hand, showed clear grit and guile in outlasting the defending champs, Toronto Raptors 4-3. The Raptors showed the heart of a champion, refusing to die without a fight. Despite losing last year’s Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, in the off season, the team dug deep and surprised everyone by remaining competitive in the regular season. Paskal Siakam’s elevation to all-star status; plus OG Anonoby’s continued improvement; coupled with the steady presence of Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet and Mark Gasol; and the unorthodox ways of coach Nick Nurse have made the team overachieve this year.
Until they were finally stopped by the equally wily and equally well-coached Celtics squad in an epic 7-game series that could have gone either way.
This year’s theme for the Celtics is clearly: Make more with less. Despite the massive revamp which saw the departure of all-stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, plus other notables such as Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, coach Brad Stevens has whipped the Celtics into a cohesive, unselfish bunch that knows how to optimize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. With Kemba Walker taking over the lead role, there has been more ball touches for budding stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. This has led to a better locker room environment. No big stars? No problem. Better teamwork and better chemistry are the key for the Celts!
Over in the west, the Clippers almost closed out a surprising and vastly-improved Denver Nuggets team last Friday. Complacency seems to be the problem for this superteam. Still leading 3-2, they own a bench deeper than the deepest sea. With top playoff MVP contender Kawhi Leonard and his partner, Paul George, leading the pack, the Clippers are healthy and hungry to win the crown. Not only do they have a deep bench capable of morphing in different ways for both offense and defense, they are all fit and raring to fight.
The Clippers are trying to wear down the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray combo by throwing in wave after wave of defenders, while maintaining a lethal offense. The Nugget gunners will need to provide support fire as they did in Game 5 with Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr, otherwise it will be all over for the team. The Clippers have an answer for most everything. Aside from Kawhi and George, the defense counts on Pat Beverley, Marcus Morris Sr, Ivica Zubac. To provide instant offense, they can call in Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell. This team has the big bods and the firepower to match just about everyone else in the playoffs.
Finally, Lebron James and the showtime LA Lakers. As of this writing, the LA Lakers are just 1 win away from disposing the Houston Rockets. Led by James Harden, the Rockets have briefly been the darlings of the Bubble by taking an early 1-0 lead against the benevolent Lakers in their series. Using an even smaller-than-small micro-ball philosophy, the audacious Rockets stunned the cage world by outhustling and outshooting the Lakers in Game 1. Were it not for Russell Westbrook’s errant play and atrocious shooting in Game 2 and 3, the Rockets would have been better positioned. Facing a 1-3 card against a souped-up Laker team however, it looks like another long summer for Harden and the Rockets.
The Lakers have stood out as the top team in the West before the pandemic. It continues to lord it over the opposition with Lebron James producing MVP numbers, Anthony Davis providing outstanding Scottie-Pippen type secondary support, and Rajon Rondo showing what playoff Rondo is all about. This team has size (AD, Javale McGee, Dwight Howard, Markief Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Lebron), and speed (Lebron, Rajon, Alex Caruso). A slight weakness will be their outside shooting which has been quite anemic at times. But they make up for that by plugging the defensive end.
It is inevitable, it was destined to be. This was how it was meant to be, with the 2 cage juggernauts from yonder town of El-Ay pitting brute force and tremendous talent against each other. The whole cage world will be waiting and praying for the Lakers and the Clippers to meet each other for the Western Conference crown. Lebron vs Kawhi. AD vs George. Rajon vs Pat or Lou. Javale McGee and Dwight Howard vs Ivica and Montrezl. The Morris twins, Marcus Sr and Markief, against each other. To many cage fanatics, this will be the real NBA championship.
While in the east, the pairing has been finalized. It’s the new-look Miami Heat vs the lesser-but better Boston Celtics. It will be the more physical Heat vs the more cerebral Celtics. It will pit the more balanced offense from the Heat against the more defense-oriented Celtics. This will be an interesting match-up, with both coaches providing veteran savvy from the bench.
For now, it is time to rethink strategies. It is time to study the enemy’s varying weaponry. I said it before, I will say it again: there are 3 important factors that will matter in this unique, fast-paced playoffs. First is health. Second is bench depth. And third is team chemistry. The team that can best address the 3 concerns will be in the thick of the fight for a slot in the finals. (Read: The Road to the NBA Playoffs 2020.)
Once they get there, it is guile, above all, that will spell the difference between winning and losing; between precious life, and death and damnation. Watch out for the NBA Conference Finals. Lebron’s Lakers vs Kawhi’s Clippers. Jimmy’s Heat vs Jayson’s Celtics. Who you got?
For a better look, just click on the pics. Cover photo: The Spoliarium by Filipino artist Juan Luna (1884) from Moonlit Blogger. “Spoliarium” is a Latin word referring to the basement of the Colosseum where the dead and dying gladiators are thrown and stripped of their possessions. Other photos courtesy of: NJ.com, CBS Sports, Hot Hot Hoops, Heat Nation, Sports Chat, Draftkings nation, NBA.com, The Sports Rush, Essentially Sprts, Toronto Sun, Texarcana, Sporting News.