Welcome to the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs, or, as 98.3 percent of the country calls it, the Big Letdown.
People in the ancient colonial cities of Boston and Philadelphia, a pair of municipalities awash in both political and sports history, may care about what’s going on with the Celtics and 76ers, but the rest of the nation is engulfed in terminal ennui.
The Celtics may be clinging to a shaky national following, but the Sixers? There may be some transplanted Philadelphians scattered here and about, but whatever extended following they may have had faded away when Dr. J retired. That, I hate to tell you, was in 1987.
Excuse me. There may actually be a few Allen Iverson worshippers still carrying a Philly torch. That’s a possibility.
The other Eastern series? The Indiana Pacers against the Miami Heat, with or without Chris Bosh, doesn’t exactly get the juices flowing.
Most of the fun and anticipation in the East disappeared when Derrick Rose went down. Any remaining interest evaporated when Joakim Noah sprained his ankle.
All year long, the talk was of Miami vs. Chicago in the Eastern finals. Everything else was filler. This was going to be a ballet of hoop heavyweights that would be true appointment TV. They were clearly the two best teams in the East. There was no debate.
Absent Rose and Noah, the Bulls couldn’t even handle Philadelphia, a team that entered the final two weeks of the regular season in great jeopardy of missing the playoffs.
With Chicago gone, the Heat had a clear, police-escorted, express-lane path to the NBA Finals. But now Bosh is out of the current series with a severe abdominal strain, and the Heat are suddenly vulnerable. Whoa. Could they actually lose to the Pacers? Meanwhile, could the Celtics, with injury issues of their own, actually lose to the 76ers?
Is anyone ready for an Indiana-Philadelphia Eastern Conference final?
That is not likely to happen, but no one can say with certainty that it won’t happen. And it’s not exactly what any of us had in mind.
Whichever team emerged from that pairing would be the most asterisk-laden finalist in NBA history. The ledges outside the offices of TNT and ESPN executives would be very crowded.
Say we wind up with a Bosh-less Miami against a Celtics team with Paul Pierce playing at 50? 75? 80 percent capacity. The winner would get the spoils, but there always would be that what-if cloud hovering over the proceedings. You wouldn’t have an Eastern Conference champion as much as you would have an Eastern Conference survivor.
Fortunately, we still have the West.
The West is form. The West is chalk. The West is money.
The West is getting it done for us. San Antonio and Oklahoma City had established themselves as Teams 1 and 1A out there during the course of the regular season, and right now everything points to their eventual collision. For that to happen, they must get by the Clippers, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (admittedly not close to 100 percent, but still capable of a highlight dunk or two), and the Lakers, respectively.
It’s always fun to have the Lakers involved. Kobe Bryant is the sport’s most mesmerizing figure. No true sports fan is neutral on the subject of the Lakers. Many hearts were made merry when the Thunder put the wood to them Monday night. Polarizing teams make for great TV. The Celtics should know.
Historically, the Spurs have not been a big national draw. Tim Duncan is one of the great players in NBA history, but what makes him so efficient are attributes that don’t transfer well to “SportsCenter’’ highlights. It’s hard to market someone to the masses whose nickname is “The Big Fundamental.’’
So we who still love this game can only hope that the word is out concerning the Spurs. These are not the methodical Spurs of yore. They won those four titles based on defense and precision half-court offense.
Now, I’m not suggesting they have morphed into some kind of a Paul Westhead fantasy, but they are younger and more mobile and far more offensively oriented than they’ve ever been.
General manager Sam Presti has found a way to blend the youth of Kawhi Leonard , Danny Green, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter with the vaunted Big Three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and point guard Tony Parker, who is at the absolute peak of his game. They have the mid-career experience of New Hampshire’s own Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw. As a kicker, Presti brought in the ever-exciting Stephen Jackson to provide bench fireworks.
Presiding over all this is Gregg Popovich, the consensus best coach in the game.
Oklahoma City has become the chic team of America’s younger basketball fans. What’s not to like? Kevin Durant is unstoppable. Russell Westbrook is a dynamic point guard. Serge Ibaka is shot-blocking monster who seems to improve daily. James Harden is merely the Sixth Man of the Year. And there’s our old friend, the menacing, scowling, industrious Kendrick Perkins. This is a team that always makes sure you get your money’s worth.
That’s what the West has to look forward to.
But we do have business to attend to. The rules clearly state that the East must provide a representative in the Finals. They’ve blocked the TV time, and all.
What can we say about the Miami Heat that you don’t already know? Either you have made peace with LeBron James and The Decision or you haven’t. You’ve had enough time to make up your mind. He is certainly starting off the playoffs performing at an extremely high level. My guess is that his individual virtuosity, at both ends of the floor, will enable the Heat to squeeze by Indiana, even without Bosh.
A word about the Pacers: They’re a nice team. They were 42-24 during the regular season, beating out Atlanta for the conference’s third-best record by two games. They aren’t flashy, and there aren’t seven people outside the Indianapolis city limits who know that the coach’s name is Frank Vogel.
They remind me somewhat of Don Nelson’s mid ’80s Milwaukee Bucks (Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, etc.), who drank their milk to the bottom of the glass, looked both ways before crossing, studied very hard, and still could only get a B. They were able to defeat either Boston or Philly in the playoffs in a given year, but never both.
Similarly, the Pacers might hang with the impaired Heat, but they never would have beaten a healthy Chicago.
As for the Celtics, there is no need to panic about losing an early game at home. The Celtics have lost one of the first two games at home 25 times in a best-of-seven 2-2-1-1-1 series in their history (you’d be surprised how many 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 series they used to play). They won 14 of those series and lost 11. Does that make you feel any better?
Whatever happens here in the East, we all have to face facts. Whoever comes out of the East will have a tainted prize, with plenty of people saying, “Yeah, but . . .’’