(originally published elsewhere)
The first round of the playoffs features eight matchups, and you can usually write off four of them. The very nature of the regular season and playoffs usually separates the eight playoff seeds in each conference wildly disparate group, the top half infinitely better equipped than the bottom. Those eighth seeded teams play 82 games to fight for the honour and privilege of getting annihilated in four more. It is an odd situation, yet we all play along.
However, this season looks different. We are only part way through the first round, but it is proving to be quite the round.
Thus far, only one team enjoys a 2-0 homecourt advantage. That team is the Miami Heat, and the 2-0 scoreline does not mean they have had it easier. Facing the upstart and extremely well coached Bobcats, Miami have been closely fought the whole way by a Charlotte team with great heart, tenacity and resolve, possibly the best and certainly most rootforable team in franchise history. Elsewhere, every other home team has lost at least once, if not worse. Chicago and Houston are both 2-0 down to Washington and Portland respectively, both throwing away their home court advantages in close, dramatic games. And every other series is a 1-1 split, with only one blowout win (the Clippers’s 138-98 win over the Warriors in game two) and one lopsided quarter (Indiana outscoring Atlanta 31-13 in the third quarter of their game two) to counterweight this evenness.
Quite the round, then. Indeed, it should extend to be quite the playoffs in general. No one can say who will win the title this year. There are a few candidates who might – Miami from the East; the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Blazers and perhaps others from the west; possibly Indiana if they somehow undo the last few months and play like it is December again – yet there are no clear-cut favourites. We are not sitting here just waiting for the long-anointed champions to start playing like it. It is, honestly, all to play for. And this is not as common as it should be.
The picture is particularly unclear in the West, where all eight playoff teams are of distinct quality. Portland are rising again, playing to the standard they began the season with, yet they are up against other juggernauts in the similarly ascending Clippers, the Duranted Thunder, and the ever-present Spurs. The Mavericks and Rockets have high powered offenses that, some inconsistency notwithstanding, are capable of upsetting anybody, and should not be counted out yet. Memphis are not quite where they were last year, yet they demonstrated in their game two overtime win over the Thunder the strength of character is still there.
The West is as stacked as we knew it to be, yet even the supposedly lopsided East is proving to be much more even than anticipated. Miami, the two time defending champions, may well have that extra gear to rise again, but they are also noticeably weaker than in previous years and have yet to demonstrate that gear for an extended period of time. Indiana, plagued by infighting, have tapered off drastically, and only that one explosive quarter has assuaged it any. The much improved Raptors and Nets are mired in a competitive, impossible to call series, and while Chicago are in trouble at 2-0 headed back to Washington, the games have been supremely close.
Compare it all to last year’s first round. Eighth seed Milwaukee need not have bothered turning up (and arguably didn’t) in their 4-0 drubbing by the Heat. Indiana had four comfortable wins over Atlanta with a brief brain fart in the middle. New York and Boston averaged about 46 points per game in their uneventful battle. San Antonio rolled over a lacklustre, Kobe-less Lakers team 4-0. The Grizzlies took two games to acquaint themselves with the Clippers, then changed gears and shut it down. The best series were the reasonably competitive and very high scoring Warriors/Nuggets six gamer, the fairly even Rockets/Thunder matchup, and the Brooklyn/Chicago seven game thriller. We are well on pace to comprehensively best this.
It is still early, of course, but it has been a good week.
At times, we may lament the NBA’s idealisation of parity, and the way it is forced upon us by the CBA. We may fault the draft, the rookie scale, free agency, and the more punitive luxury tax measures, all of which are designed and implemented with the intent of creating competitive and financial parity and all of which can be faulted at that to some degree. Yet if the first two games of the playoffs have taught us anything – and it is fun to pretend they can – it is that we might have it. Save for the bizarre lack of parity between the two conferences, we are in the midst of an NBA season in which there are no clear favourites, a playoffs in which anybody can beat anybody, and in which every game (save for one true blowout) is a legitimate struggle.
Reluctantly, then, this model kinds of worked. At least this week.