If the first round of the NBA playoffs was any indication, basketball fans everywhere are in for a real treat.
In what was the best first playoff round I’ve ever watched in the NBA or otherwise, five different series went to seven games, while a sixth ended on a buzzer beater in Game 6 by one of the game’s brightest stars, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard.
In total, teams combined to play 168 minutes of clutch time, or parts of the last five minutes of games in which the score was within five points.
None of this should come as a surprise. In the Western Conference, every team to make the playoffs had at least 49 wins, and the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are absolutely not without their flaws.
In the Eastern Conference, other than the Miami Heat, there is no standout. Although the Washington Wizards have looked good thus far, all the teams were fairly evenly matched.
Deciding on the favorite in the East is as easy as it’s been in each of the past four seasons. Considering the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert-sized struggles in the second half of the season and in the first round of the playoffs, LeBron James and the Heat should have no problem manhandling the Brooklyn Nets and the winner of the Pacers — Wizards’ series en route to a fourth consecutive Finals appearance.
The West is another story. Heading into the playoffs, I’d have said that the Thunder were the favorite to make it to the finals, but given their struggles against the Memphis Grizzlies, I’m less sure. Couple that with the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard are playing some of the best basketball of their careers right now, and the Blazers are absolutely in the mix to head to the Finals. That said, Kevin Durant is still the best scorer on the planet and the Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers don’t have a Tony Allen-level defender capable of slowing Durant down for seven games. A Clippers road win in Game 1 showed the treading won’t be easy, though.
As great as the first round of the Western Conference playoffs were, the second round has the potential to be just as good. The Thunder–Clippers series, featuring Durant and Russell Westbrook versus Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, has as much star power as any playoff series in recent memory, and the Spurs–Blazers series features an up-and-coming Portland squad against a Spurs team that has been a perennial contender since the dawn of the Greg Popovich era in 1996.
The East, however, doesn’t offer quite the same appeal. Washington won just 44 games this season and faces a Pacers squad that has been increasingly difficult to watch as the season has gone on. With regard to the Heat–Nets series, the question is when, not if, the Heat will prevail.
This contrast in talent between the West and the East could be an issue for the NBA going forward. Despite finishing the regular season with 48 wins — a total that would have been good enough for third best in the East — the Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs this year. Given that the conferences are location-based, however, a realignment to even them out isn’t a possibility. A stacked NBA Draft could give teams in the East some more firepower, but that’s unlikely to pay off for at least a couple of years.
Regardless of the unevenness of the two conferences, this season is going to end with a bang. All four teams remaining in the West are worthy opponents for the Heat, and with Dwyane Wade at full health, the Heat look poised for a three-peat. All we can hope for now is that the rest of the playoffs feature as much clutch time as the first round. I think they will.