Benjamin Hochman: NBA is in the midst of a bizarre (but fascinating) postseason
The Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals, hoping to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since … they played in St. Louis.
Their opponent is the Bucks, who haven’t played for the NBA title in 47 years.
Matched up in the other conference finals, the Suns haven’t been to the NBA Finals since 1993; and the Clippers’ next trip to the NBA Finals will be their first.
The storylines are fresh and fun, but also reverberating and revealing. Because who’s not in the conference finals? No. 1 seeds. And the No. 2-seeded team that had Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. And this season’s MVP. And big-market teams from the East Coast. And the Lakers. And thus LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
And if you thought the conference finals wattage already was dimmed, consider that the Suns are without perennial All-Star Chris Paul and the Clippers are without perennial All-Star Kawhi Leonard.
This is the weirdest postseason since, well, last season, when it was played after a four-month hiatus in a bubble during a pandemic. And that postseason led us to here. With an ominously quick turnaround into this season, injuries have ravaged the league, altered rosters and twisted storylines. Destiny is on the IL.
The 2021 postseason will be one NBA executives will try to forget. Of course, they want your eyeballs now. They need your eyeballs now. But in time, once the league gets back to its natural calendar and rhythm, future postseasons will feature fights between proven heavyweights, not contenders fighting contenders.
So maybe we should just enjoy this one because of its rareness?
The Hawks are the rare bird of this random remaining quartet.
Atlanta is the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and didn’t even make the playoffs in the previous three seasons. Now the Hawks are one of two teams still standing in the conference.
So often we see a team’s new nucleus crack the playoffs one year, lose but learn lessons and only then return for a run. The Hawks skipped some steps. Or maybe the 76ers’ Joel Embiid’s injured knee knocked a couple steps off the stairway? Either way, the Hawks are here, led by Trae Young, who is young and shoots the trey. He is 22 and averages 29 points per game this postseason. And he was second in the NBA in assists.
Atlanta has names that are unremarkable to the casual fan — Kevin Huerter? John Collins? — but names that are indispensable in Nate McMillan’s scheme. Incidentally, the interim Hawks coach is 56 years old and the Hawks have not been in the NBA Finals in his lifetime. McMillan took over when they were 14-20 — he went 27-11. Per ESPN, Atlanta is just the third team since the current playoff format (beginning in 1984) to go from under-.500 at the All-Star break to the conference finals.
Beginning Tuesday in Milwaukee, the Hawks will take on the Bucks, the No. 3 seed. The Bucks have a mid-2000s Cardinals thing going on. In the past two postseasons, they were the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference — and had the MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 2004 and 2005 Cardinals were bolstered by the legendary Albert Pujols, but didn’t win it all. Then in 2006, they made the playoffs with 83 wins … and, of course, won the World Series.
So maybe with less pressure and a couple new parts, the Bucks finally will pull it off this year? Hard to think they’ll lose four games to the Hawks.
Oh, and Milwaukee’s coach? It’s Mike Budenholzer … the only coach to lead the Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals (in 2015). And while Antetokounmpo is the star, PJ Tucker might be the most-entertaining player on Milwaukee to watch. He plays intense and physical defense with players taller, bigger and better — and talks trash to them with disproportionate confidence.
In the West, Game 1 had a feeling of a NFL playoff contest featuring backup quarterbacks. Leonard (knee) and Paul (NBA health and safety protocol) are the engines of their teams. But Phoenix rose in Game 1 thanks to its other All-Star, Devin Booker — son of Mizzou’s Melvin Booker, the 1994 Big Eight Conference player of the year.
Neither the Suns nor the Clippers have won an NBA championship, so one will at least get a shot. But without their quarterbacks, it’s hard to imagine either team beating the Bucks.
Of course, for the Bucks to get to the conference finals, they had to knock off the Nets. Durant, arguably the best player in basketball, played literally every minute in Games 6 and 7, shooting long 3s that could’ve counted as 4s. But Harden played with an injury. And Irving was out because of an injury. Nine NBA All-Stars have missed games this postseason, possibly because their bodies didn’t properly rest after last postseason.
But as it happens, new names will get a chance to emerge as champs on the biggest stage. Possibly Young or Antetokounmpo or Booker … if they can remain healthy for a fortnight or so in the NBA’s “Final Four.”