I want to give you a comprehensive overview of every struggle, every triumph of the Eastern Conference in the vein of this companion piece, but I’m afraid I lack the experiential evidence necessary to provide fresh insight. During the heightened feast of playoff season, particularly the earlier rounds, there are so many games, of so many varieties, on at every hour of every day; to watch them all, or even attempt to, is to try to find reason in a constant, senseless barrage of swift blows to the head. As I selfishly chose to retain a modicum of mental and general hygiene, I can’t lay claim to seeing every game in the East, or anywhere close to it. I did, however, watch highlights and further my numerous and extensive personal biases with hearsay, misquotes, and the occasional semi-truth.
Enough editorial excuses. Let’s get the misfires out of the way so we can break into the meat of it.
Without any heavily marketed superstars or media hyped dramatic angles, the first round series between Brooklyn and Chicago competed with Indiana and Atlanta’s bout for the least observed event of the playoffs. Rumbles came from Chicago of a Rose return, which piqued interest and, appropriately, never materialized, his absence all but guaranteeing the blandest seven game slugfest possible. The Bulls won, of course, because the Nets are a mess of terrible contracts and aimless almost stars.
Our only word from Indiana-Atlanta was the spark of Georgian pride when it looked like the Hawks might steal it. As it was the playoffs and we are still on this Earth, they did not.
Over in Hype City, New York and Boston played what would have been the best series yet had we held the game four years ago. Where we once saw ageless strength in Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler, eternal fire in Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, and the certainty of a few insane quarters from Jason Terry and J.R. Smith, in 2013, we can no longer count on such performances. Carmelo is the only star on either side whose talent curve skews closer to maturation than decay. The only real theatrics came from the Celtics’ last gasp of an attempted comeback, the slow death rattle of a near dynasty; though they survived longer than any pundit would dare prognosticate, the Big Three Era in Boston has officially come to a close.
And our villains, the Miami Monstars? They made quick work of the Bucks, sweeping Milwaukee despite Brandon Jennings’ protestations of a six game victory. We all knew it was only talk and Lebron James made sure of it.
The next sacrificial lambs lured to American Airlines Arena were the Bulls, improbably led by plucky Nate Robinson. For one magical, unbelievable night, Robinson fueled an insane fourth quarter comeback and made us all imagine the impossible, that these wounded rebels could dethrone the King. Once we slept off the thrill and booze, remembered we were putting our faith in a man who compared himself to an Eddie Murphy voiced cartoon donkey, an on court presence that can be charitably described as dangerously erratic, we shook aside all notions of an upset. Over the next four games, King James took care of business and banished the Bad News Bears of this year’s playoffs to the offseason.
Meanwhile, the Pacers and Knicks played another series I mostly ignored. I’d grown tired of the Broadway caliber dramatics in the New York locker room and had yet to discover the merits of Indiana, still seeing them as defensive drones more than explosive offenders. The story of the series was not Indiana’s power, it was the Knicks’ collapse- the Pacers built a brick wall and Carmelo and crew crashed headfirst.
All of this proved mere preamble to the finest back and forth series we’ve seen so far, the seven game shootout between the Heat and Pacers. From the get go, it was evident this would be one for the ages. In Game 1, Paul George and Lebron James went toe-to-toe in George’s official coming out party, dueling over fourth quarter possessions, Lebron’s clutch dominance counteracted by George’s crazed, contested three at the buzzer, an off balanced jumper split through two leaping defenders, a shot that I never thought would sink, that beautifully and brilliantly did. Sending it to overtime, the two continued their dance, setting up a final step: a Miami inbound, down one, with two seconds on the clock. Ball found Lebron, George rushed the perimeter, expecting a shot like any reasonable person, and Lebron blew by, crossed the paint in a step, and laid in his own buzzer beater. You can’t script a more dramatic ending.
The rest of the series became a ping pong rally in the same vein as the stunning finish, each team riding waves of momentum and dips of deterioration. Every game, another roleplayer stepped up and dominated the spotlight: David West’s fits of hard D and fast jacked jumpers; Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s bizarro Roy Hibbert routine, all flashy blocks and dunks instead of measured movements and hooks; Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough’s unexplainable ability to drive his opponents crazy, despite his lack of significant contributions; Mario Chalmers’s increasingly Dwyane Wade like game, full of flops and whines; Lance Stepehnson’s redemption; every game, a new storyline, another compelling angle in a series stocked full of them. Despite this cornucopia of individual play, one figured loomed above all others- Lebron.
Roy Hibbert’s fantastic defense fueled strong quarters, a George Hill-Paul George joint scoring barrage granted the Pacers a lead, but at any given moment, there was the sense, the dread, that Lebron could choose to bulldoze everyone in his path and dominate the game entirely. His ever present threat to takeover, his ability to ice the game at any time, proved the deciding factor. Lebron still needs assistance, he requires contributions from Wade, Chris Bosh, and the rest of his band of mercenaries, but the machinery doesn’t get rolling without his steady, guiding hand at the helm.
For the first six games, the Pacers kept up with the defending champions, inspiring the hope, the dream that they could end the Heat’s season early. Going into the deciding Game 7, we expected another classic contest, one more round between two worthy opponents, the outcome still up in the air.
Lebron had a different idea. Distributing the ball early, shaking Wade and Bosh out of their physical and emotional injury driven slumps, locking down the paint on both ends of the floor, and harassing George into his worst performance of the playoffs, he did everything short of ref the game. Long before the close of the fourth quarter, we knew who would be facing the Spurs, and the primary, absurdly dominant reason why.
Lebron’s strength of will and versatility of play have taken the Heat to the Finals, but he now faces a truly cohesive, well practiced, and time tested squad engineered to exploit Miami’s holes. As seen in Game 1, Lebron alone cannot win this series, not against competition this stiff. He cycled through his split basketball personalities, mimicking Magic Johnson’s inventive playmaking one quarter and Michael Jordan’s single minded scoring the next, doing his best to shore up the inside against San Antonio’s size before rotating down to Tony Parker for the last few possessions. Though it looked like his insane stat sheet would be enough to seize the day, you can never count out the breezy ball movement and defensive solidarity of a well built and established team; the Heat lost one game, and will lose the series, if the rest of the roster does not rise to the challenge.
At the height of his powers, Lebron needs help more than ever. If it comes, and on time, will be the deciding factor of whether or not the King gets another ring.