Between having a full-time job with one heck of a commute between the city and the suburbs, living on the West Coast, and having had my evenings occupied with getting my new apartment set up the way I like it, I have generally been too busy to watch many games this past week.
But checking in with ESPN and Basketball Reference and committing that cardinal sin of the writer of letting the box score do the job of actually watching the games, I can’t help but think I haven’t missed anything important.
Sure, Minnesota’s giving Memphis all they wanted in a surprisingly competitive first-round series, but other than that, the Nets are imploding against the Celtics, the up-and-coming Bulls are giving Milwaukee a contest, Toronto’s not quite ready for prime time as their young guns get playoff experience, and Donovan Mitchell is once again shooting the Jazz out of a playoff series (39.6 FG%, 23.5 3PT%, but he’s taken 101 shots while nobody else on the team has attempted more than 57.)
It’s all a bit ho-hum.
Sure, the games themselves have on occasion been competitive, with plenty of squeakers, especially in the past couple of days (Game 3 in the Celtics-Nets series, Game 4 in the Mavs-Jazz tilt, Game 3 in New Orleans as the Suns wrested home court back in that series from the Pelicans.)
But for the most part, the first round feels like first rounds have in most years in recent NBA history, a prelude to when the playoffs actually get interesting in the conference semis.
We knew Brooklyn was going to implode. It’s happened to every team Kyrie Irving has been on since he forgot he was better as LeBron James‘ sidekick. The Nets have had chemistry problems all year, and with a hobbled Kevin Durant and two of the league’s biggest head cases in Irving and Ben Simmons, what did you expect?
We knew the play-in tournament wasn’t going to amount to much, as the Hawks may have come barreling out of 10th place to make the playoffs, but they’re not getting past Miami. Over in the West, it’s not like 7 seeds—legit 7 seeds, as in “the seventh-best record in the regular season”—haven’t given 2 seeds all they wanted before.
That goes double when you consider that Memphis is a team full of young guns who are just now emerging as a legit playoff team and need to get some actual experience from a playoff run under their belt before they can take the next step in the evolution of Ja Morant.
Golden State is Golden State. Their veteran leadership, as they still have plenty of guys from that five-straight-Finals squad of a few years back, gets to guide their young guys in a way that the Grizzlies can’t.
Along the same lines, Milwaukee is Milwaukee. They responded to losing home court in Game 2 by going into Chicago and pounding the Bulls like cheap steak (pun intended) in winning Game 3 by 30 points, 111-81.
Miami went to the Finals in 2020. They’re no stranger to this rodeo, and no amount of miraculous floaters from Trey Young can change the fact that the Heat are the better team and will probably win that series in 5.
Indeed, that Miami-Atlanta story goes double because Nate McMillan may have been able to beat the only two coaches of good teams who are worse than he is—Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers—to make the 2021 East finals, but Erik Spoelstra is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league for a reason. Spoelstra has been coaching in Miami since 2009 and in that time, he’s stewarded the Heat through four distinct phases of franchise history and always had them competitive in May and June (or, in the case of 2020, October, but that’s a story for another day.)
When the college tournament goes chalk—and in most years, the Cinderellas are done by, at best, the Sweet 16, so that’s plenty enough often—you don’t have to watch a seven-game series to get it there. It’s the span of a week between the first round and that Sweet 16.
The NBA, on the other hand, takes two weeks before the playoffs genuinely get interesting, and other than in a lockout year like 1999, those first-round miracle teams don’t make deep runs. Even in an utterly bananas 2020, where COVID-19 left everyone playing in a bubble, the East sent its 5 seed and the West its 1 seed to the Finals.
Even the exceptions are exceptions when it comes to deep playoff runs. The 1995 Rockets were the 6 seed, but they were also the defending champions. The 2018 Cavs were a 4 seed that only won 50 regular-season games, not exactly a set-the-world-on-fire team, but they had LeBron. Likewise, the 2010 Celtics only won 50 games in the regular season, but they won the 2008 title and got healthy enough for a playoff run that nearly got them a ring.
There aren’t any teams like that this year. The top four seeds in the East are the 2020 conference champions, a team that has gone to three conference finals in their five previous seasons, the 2021 league champions, and a perpetual second-round out poised to become…a second-round out.
The top four seeds in the West are last year’s runners-up, a young team making a leap, an older team reloaded with a ton of playoff experience, and a squad powered by arguably the best young player in the league in Luka Doncic.
Put all this together and what you’re left with is a stronger sense than usual this year that the playoffs won’t really start until the second round. We’re just waiting around for the formalities at this point. Yeah, Memphis might get upset, but does anyone seriously believe the Timberwolves won’t just get smoked by the Warriors barring some catastrophic injury to Stephen Curry? The Jazz might beat the Mavericks, but it’s not like either of those teams are going to do anything against Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and friends in Phoenix. The Suns won seven more games than any other team in the league this year for a reason.
I don’t know how—or even if—you fix this, other than getting rid of the stupid play-in tournament that’s a complete waste of time. You could cut the playoff field to 12 teams, six per conference, like the NFL used to, and you wouldn’t lose anyone important, but sure, the league wants the revenue, fine.
All I know is that I can completely lose track of the NBA, come back to it in order to write about it, and not miss a thing. That’s a problem.