Following an externally hollow pre-season, the best teams tried to find ways to disguise the conservation of energy to win, and the worst teams tried to find ways to simulate the excursion of energy and lost in an 82 game marathon.
Two rounds of 'best-of-seven' playoff games. Here we are.
Welcome to the NBA. Only the conference finals and the finals remain.
The leagues commissioner Adam Silver couldn’t be happier despite the death threats. Both on and off the court the tabloid-style pop culture drama has played out perfectly once again. Story after story. The good. The bad. And the ugly. So many stories that the (sports) media’s twenty-four-seven thirst was almost quenched. Almost. (The remaining playoff games followed by the impending free agent chess-like movements should do it though (at least for a brief moment).
Whilst basketball isn’t America’s national sport it sits pretty against its competitors as a mashup of sport, culture and fashion underscored by celebrity played out against a hip-hop soundtrack ensuring a globally captivated audience. A unique mixture indeed.
This recipe makes for big business. A quick check of team values highlights this fact to the tune of billions of dollars which should spike again thanks to the new gambling legislation championed by basketball and baseball executives. Beyond the bookies lay focused social media devotees, shrewd marketers and gratuitous advertisers who love basketball - and basketball loves them back. Basketball sells.
The four teams left standing are no exception. Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Golden State showcase the best of everything the NBA has to offer both on and off the court.
So what should you look out for during the conference finals and finals?
At this point we could fall into a rabbit hole of analytics (the NBA seemingly has a number for everything and anything - much of the time they are accurate) but I’d prefer to avoid such a cold take. I genuinely believe that relationships, communication and how both play out against the individual, the team and timing will determine the 2018 NBA champion and legacies.
Let’s look at the key relationship and communication suspects in no particular order.
As at the time of writing this piece Golden States Draymond Green had already played the tough guy card with Houston’s James Harden. Draymonds internal monologue needs to share focus not heroics. In fact the entire Warriors team must find a way to subvert personal objectives and tow the party line if they are to win again (and again and again) as was the master plan. This will be challenging as each member must feel an element of ‘team’ fatigue.
Meanwhile Harden has to remain committed to his abilities particularly when the going gets rough late in the series. (Hardens outputs tend to dive the longer a series plays out) And new team-mate Chris Paul has to believe the star pairing can work late in games where someone’s ego needs to step aside (see Warriors and Steph Curry)
The storied Boston Celtics who have overcome ‘everything’ to be here are the poster child for a team that buys into the sum of its parts. This positive mantra must continue. Owners of possibly the best executive (Danny Ainge) and coach (Brad Stevens) the Celtics can’t afford to believe Cleveland’s LeBron James will be too much for them in the conference finals. The Celtics just have to believe full stop.
Speaking of James - his legacy is on the line. The Cavs and their best player are an interesting marriage. James overpowers the team to unexpected successes despite chemistry born of adversity and miscommunication. The Cavs are Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Gilligan and Gheppetto (James) rolled into one.
Drama has wept from this teams pores all year.
This conference finals series represents LeBrons best chance to leapfrog Michael Jordan whilst quashing talk of the Celtics Marcus Morris being a ‘James-stopper’. Morris might prove to be the most valuable person on the court for the Cavs as anyone familiar with the narrative knows that great players search endlessly for reasons to be greater. The Morris threat provides just that. This series gift wraps a storyline for LeBron to which he has to be aware. Can his team-mates happily play along?
There are of course other storylines to follow.
Just how small will team lineups go? Can Golden States coach Steve Kerr continue to find new ways to sell the same message? And will the team keep listening? Will Houston’s Clint Capella stay on the court? Can Golden States bench (Young, Livingston) contribute meaningful points? Does Cleveland’s Rodney Hood show up? Can Boston’s rookie sensation Jason Tatum keep playing beyond his years? If the Cavs make the final dance could they luck out and meet a hobbled foe? Will Houston’s offence isolate themselves to death? How many times will we hear ‘what if’ with respect to Boston’s health?
And for us Aussies - Will big bodied Aaron Baynes who recently decided he can shoot three-pointers with the best of them continue to have a hot hand? The numbers would suggest not. But should Aaron continue to believe in himself internally, feel love (and a green light to shoot) from his coach and peers externally - then the numbers might not matter.
But then again.