Friday, June 21 2024

Moving day is usually reserved for those quiet Saturdays in Augusta, Georgia, but the NBA turned its own back nine into a huge roar Sunday, with scoreboard watching, ducking and dodging, and, finally, a clear playoff picture. Well, clear-ish, considering there’s still the matter of a compelling play-in tournament featuring stars galore.

The rest of the league can take a collective breath before ramping back up next weekend. It’s an earned one considering how wild it’s been since after the All-Star break — the usual malaise and situational tanking being replaced by scenarios and tiebreakers. Hardly anyone could truly cruise to the finish line, except for the Boston Celtics.

Never in the league’s rich history was there a day like Sunday, where the Western Conference’s top seed could’ve gone to one of three teams on the season’s last day, and the bottom of the bracket was just as intriguing and, at times, puzzling.

Who could’ve expected the youthful Oklahoma City Thunder to watch as the defending champion Denver Nuggets tumbled and the surprising Minnesota Timberwolves stumbled to the finish line? If anything, it’s supposed to be the youth that wilts under the specter of playoff pressure.

Desperation was on display, in the case of the Phoenix Suns, who wanted to avoid the chance of the play-in. And when the Timberwolves didn’t look as if they wanted to take advantage of winning the conference, a showdown was set up, a potential rivalry having seeds sown.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) sheers as the clock winds down in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) sheers as the clock winds down in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

OKC, the second-youngest team in the NBA, is the No. 1 seed in the West. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

So, it’s the Thunder who appear to have the poise of a veteran team, and even though it’ll be very easy to evoke the memories of the now gray-beard Kevin Durant and Co. in OKC, this version feels more like Magic — as in that Orlando Magic team that rode the wave of a smooth guard named Penny (and that Shaq fella) to the NBA Finals in 1995.

If you squint, you’ll see some similarities between Penny Hardaway and OKC’s MVP candidate, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who shouldn’t be easily written off in the individual awards race or the race to get to June.

Speaking of the Magic, Orlando entered Sunday a series of results away from either finishing fifth or falling all the way to eighth, in the play-in and starting on the road. They’ll play a Cavs team that had an invincible stretch sandwiched around inconsistency, a team that could’ve finished second but sits fourth in a series that many will label as an afterthought but shouldn’t be.

It feels like the New York Knicks aren’t being rewarded here. Playing 82 playoff games under Tom Thibodeau, bodies dropping left and right yet somehow standing tall as a unit, then having to possibly face the league’s biggest skyscraper in Joel Embiid if Philadelphia beats Miami in the 7-8 play-in, doesn’t quite feel like justice as they finally dismissed the pesky Chicago Bulls — in a game that, had they lost, they would’ve earned the “easier” draw.

But these are the breaks of the playoffs — and it’s Thibs, who’d sell his soul and your mother’s for a win, so let’s be honest here. And being deserving of a break doesn’t apply when it comes to high-stakes competition. It means if they emerge from this circumstance, their validity won’t be questioned.

The last champion to emerge from the East was the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021. Sure, they caught a break in the conference finals by playing the novice Atlanta Hawks, but they went through the feared Miami Heat in the first round, sweeping them, before going against the team everyone thought would walk to the Finals — the Durant-led Brooklyn Nets.

Feels so long ago, doesn’t it? Especially for the Bucks, who would love to muster some of that mettle, and a lot of good fortune every champion seems to catch. They’re in the third spot and facing a matchup with the Indiana Pacers because they haven’t figured out how to work as a unit — and that’s with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor or not, as he’s missed the last three games with that gasp-worthy calf injury.

His Achilles is intact, but the psyche is weary. Where’s the confidence coming from? Sure, their losing ways mean they’ve avoided the Philadelphia-Miami gauntlet, but their play hasn’t been inspiring.

Luckily, there are question marks all around the East. That makes for fun circumstances, and in some cases, consequences. The next two months will be the ultimate mirror for the Celtics, who barnstormed through the NBA like New Edition, and they have all the nerdy numbers to back up the gaudy wins.

All it means is so much is at stake for them, and if Philadelphia or Miami winds up at the eighth spot, there’d better not be any whining coming out of any corner. Everybody made their bed here.

Some made theirs early, others waited till it was a little too late to get their work done but here we all stand.

Having LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid in the play-in represents star power, certainly, but it also speaks to the depth of the league as a whole. The raw numbers say James and Curry are not far away from their primes, if not peaks, but the eyes say something different. There are moments and flashes of greatness, Saturday nights where the skies are lit up in ways only those truly prepared for the moment can meet it. But it’s the mundane Tuesday nights that paved the way for the Lakers and Warriors to find themselves in desperate situations, looking up at teams and stars no longer awed by their massive shadows, but inspired by the opportunity to knock off the old kings to make space for the new ones.

What lies ahead is clear: Either we’ll watch a changing of the guard, a snatching of the torch from the NBA’s standard bearers or those old guys pulling one final trick on weary legs — exuberance replaced by guile and know-how.

Here’s to watching it all and waking up to Charmed or NCIS or Smallville for the next two and a half months — it’s a high-speed race and slogging marathon at the same time.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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