Before vibing out on the conference finals, some last rites for the dearly departed:
RIP to the 2013-2014 New Jersey Nets of Brooklyn, who somehow managed to be both hugely disappointing—compared to pre-season championship expectations that probably died with Brook Lopez’s season-ending injury in December, compared to that obscene payroll + luxury tax—yet also, thanks to a mid-season reinvention behind a resurrected Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce’s never-let-go-of-the-rope leadership, an unexpectedly compelling surprise.
And the Nets got to the second round of the playoffs, and legit made Miami work to get to the conference finals, which is kind of all anyone could have realistically hoped for under the circumstances. That said, we fucking straight up blew it down the stretch in the very winnable games 4 and 5, and it made a frankly brutal week for your loyal correspondent that much more painful to have been so close to going back to Barclays up 3-2 instead of ‘going fishing’.
Anyway, give Jason Kidd credit, and give Mikhail Prohokov credit for sticking with him after an agonizing first two months of the season—Season 2 in Brooklyn was, if nothing else, more interesting and more entertaining than Season 1, despite a worse regular-season record. It’s unfortunate that Brooklyn’s ‘non-traditional’ approach to team ‘development’ will yet again result in about half the roster turning over this off-season—sadly, likely including the indispensable Livingston—but I’ll always wonder what could’ve been with this group if Lopez had stayed healthy long enough for the team to gel around him.
RIP also to the 2013-2014 San Diego Clippers of Los Angeles, the Nets’ transplanted-and-underrespected West Coast kindred spirits. On one hand, for basketball reasons, it’s a bummer to watch this woebegotten franchise take such big strides towards legit contention only to get screwed over by the refs (and their own shitty execution down the stretch in Games 5 and 6, Nets-style). On the other hand, for purely non-basketball reasons, it’s a relief to be able to relegate the grotesque Donald Sterling saga to a sideshow instead of the main stage—and it’ll be nice to be able to go watch games at the Gorbals’ promising new sports bar annex downtown, Bar Mitzvah, without worrying about game traffic! (Is hockey still going on?? Are the Kings??)
And RIP to the Wizards, who, along with the Raptors, made serious noise this post-season and will demand to be taken seriously as contenders in the awful Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. And of course RIP to the plucky Blazers and their awesome fans, who I hope enjoyed a ridiculously entertaining and validating first round triumph over the Rockets before their inevitable dismantling at the hands of the remorseless Spurs.
Now, let us concern ourselves with those still among us—which, yes, are exactly the four teams that anyone that knows anything about basketball would have predicted for the Conference Finals back in October.
MIAMI V INDIANA
Much hay was made of Indiana’s “inconsistency” going into this but really, they were pretty consistently good, then consistently bad. Given how the Pacers closed out the Wizards—and considering their obsession for the past year over the prospect of this series against the Heat, with home court advantage—and considering Andrew Bynum is no longer infesting Roy Hibbert’s soul—was it any surprise that the Good Indy came to play in Game 1?
Especially considering Miami’s series against Brooklyn, which was muuuuch closer than the (cough) 4-1 margin would suggest. Like the Brooklyn series, last night’s Game 2 was a reminder that you can still win games with just BronBron and Darth Wade—who together either scored or assisted on Miami’s final *33* points, but I’m skeptical. Desperately, baselessly skeptical.
Because not only do I hate the Heat, but, in a now-annual tradition, I’m belatedly realizing that I really, really like some of these Indiana guys—specifically, David West (total badass AND a New Jersey native), Roy Hibbert (“big guy with a Muppet voice” sung to the tune of “fat guy in a little coat”), and Lance Stephenson (***FURY***). And seeing Miami not-threepeat would be… awesome. So I’m biased, as usual.
Indiana’s trajectory over the past few months doesn’t inspire confidence, but it does inspire, and this is the one series where you shouldn’t have to worry about where their heads are at… And Cleveland’s jaw-droppingly improbable lottery win tonight seems like some kind of sign, right? (Though, of what?? I was too distracted by Mallory Edens Twitter to figure it out.)
The series is gonna be close, but maaaybe not quite as close you’d expect. Ironically, given all the importance placed on home-court since last year’s conference finals, I foresee, nay demand, sad Miami fans – PACERS IN SIX.
OKC V SAN ANTONIO
Series-altering injuries had been suspiciously absent from the playoffs this year (other than Andrew Bogut’s still-lamented fractured rib at the end of the regular season), but seriously, who would have guessed that this year would see another playoff-ending injury to one of the Thunder's ultra-athletic young players? It’s almost like they're… cursed:
Reconfiguring OKC’s Ibaka-less identity on the fly under the pressurecooker of the conference finals would be a formidable-enough task for Scott Brooks and his shitty glasses under any circumstance, but it promises to be a total mindfuck when matched up against the mad professor Gregg Popovich and his horde of interchangeable, international hoops-monks.
And indeed, while Game 1 was occasionally closer than the final score would indicate, it was also… never that close. The Thunder’s offense is like a balky Ferrari, breathtaking when Durant and/or Westbrook are hitting on all cylinders but too-often sputtering out for minutes at a time; the Spurs’ engine hums along smoothly, powerfully, and relentlessly. Every time OKC started to get close, inevitably on the backs of heroic efforts by its superstar duo, they’d miss a shot or two, blink, and the lead would be back to double digits thanks to, I don’t know, Patty Mills or Aron Baynes again I guess, why not??
Or, uhhh, Kawhi Leonard, who in typical boring Spursian fashion has grown into exactly the legit two-way game-changer that everyone predicted last year. Still, this:
I would’ve picked San Antonio to take this even with Ibaka, but without him I don’t think it’s gonna be close. SAN ANTONIO IN 5