It was just a matter of time. There had been clear signs of the coming of a new era, as perennial playoff teams were bundled out slowly but agonizingly surely. Former heavyweights such as the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets were disrespected, all unceremoniously kicked out even before the playoff spotlights were turned on. Following them to the exits – after only the first round – were other more traditional heavies: LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Portland Trailblazers.
Imagine this. The last 6 title-holders, namely: the LA Lakers (2020), the Toronto Raptors (2019), the Golden State Warriors (2017-18, 2015), the Cleveland Cavaliers (2016), the San Antonio Spurs (2014), and the Miami Heat (2012-13) have all bowed out. The closest former champ still in the race for the crown would be the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. The next former champ would be – hold your breath now – the Philadelphia 76ers, which last held the prestigious crown way back in 1983! If the Mavs get kicked out of the playoffs in their crucial Game 7 do-or-die match with the Clippers, we will have the weirdest 2nd round playoff line-up yet assembled!
The 9 surviving teams (yes, the Dallas Mavericks and the LA Clippers are still tied 3-3 as of press time) have a total of only 5 championship rings to their collective credit. Only 4 of the 9 have tasted championship champagne, namely: the Dallas Mavs (in 2011), the Phila Sixers (2, with the last in 1983), the Milwaukee Bucks (1971) and the St Louis Hawks (1958, before they even transferred the franchise to Atlanta). Five of our 9 remaining gladiators have zero titles to boast of, namely: the Utah Jazz, the Phoenix Suns, the Denver Nuggets, the LA Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets. This should be a golden opportunity for one of them to catch that elusive crown.
All these tell us that the cage winds are now blowing in a different direction. It is as if the cage gods have suddenly grown tired of feasting over the same old ball dishes. “We need to see new faces, new tricks, new combinations”. Thus spake the gods. Hence, expect to witness more changes in the hardwood storyboard. For it is so written, and so decreed by our Lords of the Rings.
Over in the West, an obviously-slowing King Lebron and his Laker entourage were ambushed by that gunslinger Devin Booker and the first-time-in-years playoff invitee, Phoenix Suns 4-2. Lebron’s teams have never exited the playoffs in the very first round. Until now. It was Lebron’s first time to have been ignominiously blown away right in the very first round of the playoffs. Of course, it must be stated that the team lost its number 2 man, Anthony Davis, to injuries. Had AD been available for the hardcourt skirmishes, the Lakers would have certainly been a strong candidate to reach the Finals once again.
Other big names who now must rethink their team’s chances with the onslought of younger, stronger, bigger, better-trained players include Dame Lillard – whose Blazers got bushwhacked by an equally determined, and younger Nuggets team; Jimmy Butler – whose storied Heat run last year inspired dreams of an even hotter Heat season this year; and Russell Westbrook, whose determined Wizards just couldn’t match the Sixers depth in talent.
Soon, only 8 majestic teams will be left in the arena.
In the east, the Sixers, topdogs during the regular season, will be up against the Hawks. With the Sixers’ main man Joel Embiid reported to be less than 100% fit, Trae Young and the Hawks may stand a good chance. With Joel in fighting shape however, there will be massive match-up problems for the Hawks. My take: Sixers in 6.
But it will be the other match-up that will draw greater interest, as Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokuonmpo – 2 of the more famous heirs-apparent to Lebron as NBA’s biggest star – clash for the big one. It will be Durant and his star-studded Nets offense, vs Giannis and his vaunted Bucks defense. My guess is that whosoever wins this match will move on to represent the east in the Finals. Nets in 6.
In the west, the Suns – renowned slayers of the defending champs Lakers – will be up against a surprisingly-resilient Nuggets team. Chris Paul brought in his genius cage IQ to elevate the Suns’ level of play, in the same way he did an exquisite job with the Rockets and the Thunder in the last 2 seasons. Facing them will be a Nikola Jokic-led youth squad that apparently did not skip a beat despite the loss of its top guard, Jamal Murray. This is a team whose heroic 1-3 fightbacks last year have added to their proud pedigree as resilient, tough-as-nails hardcourt heroes. This time though, the lack of a great PG like Paul will do the Nuggets in. Suns in 6.
Finally, the Jazz offensive depth will be tested against either a Doncic-centered Mavs offense, or a Kawhi-led Jekyll-and-Hyde team. Luka’s impressive numbers will be the key to its series if the Mavs move up. Can he maintain his sizzling averages of 35 pts, 8 rebounds, 9.4 assists? Will the sustained pressure from the Jazz, particularly with defense specialist Rudy Gobert looming in the middle, stymie the wily Luka?
The Clippers, on the other hand, is an on-again-off-again team that could be lights-out good or erratic as hell. You never know which team will turn up. Man for man, they are a team that commands awe, except that they haven’t attained that craved for consistency.
With the Jazz having a well-balanced, and deep line-up led by Donovan Mitchell, Gobert, plus 6th Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson, the Jazz should move up against either team.
No one would have imagined how this season – and these playoff games – would go. In a big way, injuries have influenced how the match-ups would shape up to be. Lebron, Dame, Westbrook and Steph Curry, all future Hall of Famers, are gone. Still in the running among the grizzled vets are the Nets’ Kevin, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, Giannis, Paul and Kawhi.
But it is the young guys who have been in the league barely 6 years and under who are making their presence felt. Top candidates for this year’s MVP – Jokic, Embiid and Doncic – all fall under this group. And then there’s Young, Mitchell, Booker, Michael Porter Jr, and Ben Simmons. Not to mention the likes of Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. The assault on the elder citizens in the hardcourt is unfolding right before our eyes. The NBA is getting younger, stronger, more athletic and more fundamentally-sound. The sport itself is evolving. Indeed, the changing of the guards is now at hand.
Hear ye, hear ye! The King is dead! Long Live the king! Question is: who do you think will be this heralded new king?
Cover photo courtesy of Silver Screen and Roll. Other pics courtesy of: cbssports.com, sportsbetting.legal, sportskeeda, nypost.com, USA Today, Yahoo.com, and NBA.com.