The Best Storylines to Watch in the 2014 NBA Playoffs
The marathon that is the NBA's 82-game season is over. Sixteen teams are now 16 steps away from championship bliss.
It's fun to imagine that, isn't it? A mythical test of wills where 16 teams enter and all have potential to exit on top?
But we can't imagine that, can we? We know better.
The playoff pageantry doesn't feel the same across all 16 markets holding a postseason ticket. For some, this is the end of a journey. For others, this is only the beginning.
As good as the on-court action has been, is and will continue to be, it's the off-court narratives keeping hoop heads dialed in from day one. It's the pursuit of history, the realization of a dream, the determination to slow down a ticking clock. It's building on an overstocked jewelry collection or planning that first championship parade.
The 2014 playoff field is littered with compelling storylines: some new, some recycled, all packed with potential.
When will Father Time catch up to the San Antonio Spurs? Is Kevin Durant ready to snatch the baton away from LeBron James? Does Doc Rivers have the Los Angeles Clippers ready to face the rigors of a title run?
The answers will reveal themselves in time. Our intrigue will make sure we're around when they do.
Shaun Livingston's Long Road to Redemption
It would be a non-story at this point if it wasn't so remarkable.
Brooklyn Nets combo guard Shaun Livingston shouldn't be playing basketball right now. He shredded his left knee in 2007, an injury so severe the word "amputation" came up during his hospital visit, he told B/R's Jared Zwerling.
He went nearly 20 months before stepping back out on the NBA hardwood. He donned seven different jerseys over the next five seasons.
Long and lean, the former preps-to-pros star had punched his NBA ticket with yo-yo handles and pinpoint passing skills. As he bounced from one bench to the next, the opportunity was never there to showcase how much, if any, of that talent remained.
He's found a home in Brooklyn, though. And the Nets have found a player even better than that old top prospect.
"When you look at the entire picture, Shaun is a better player now than when he hurt his knee in ’07,” his father, Reggie Livingston, told Dave D'Alessandro of The Star-Ledger. "I don’t know if his handle is as good, but he’s a more complete player than he was pre-injury. Defense, post-up, mid-range. He just understands the game better."
He'll always be the player who survived one of the worst injuries you'll ever see, but somehow that's just his backstory now. Now, we're talking about his disruptive length, his feel for the low block, his importance to Brooklyn's present and future.
We won't forget about his past, but that's not the focus anymore. That in itself is a fantastic story.
The expectations were all different.
The Charlotte Bobcats just needed to crawl out of the cellar and show a sliver of defensive competence. The Toronto Raptors opened the year with playoff goals, but those were shelved indefinitely when the Rudy Gay experiment obviously soured. The Washington Wizards openly pursued a postseason spot, but figured to be gunning for one of the last available.
Logic can't really explain what happened next.
Scoring center Al Jefferson and first-year coach Steve Clifford sparked a defensive renaissance in Charlotte (sixth in defensive efficiency, 30th in each of the last two seasons). The Raptors got flotsam for Gay (a career 18-point scorer), and their offense soared without him (and Terrence Ross joined the 50-point club). John Wall made his expected leap (19.3 points, 8.8 assists), and 28-year-old Trevor Ariza somehow leaped as well (14.4 points, .456/.407 shooting).
Their playoff paths ranged from demanding to impossible, yet all of them arrived at this point. The challenge is to use this as a launching pad and not a final destination.
They all drew experienced opponents (Charlotte got the Miami Heat, Toronto drew the Brooklyn Nets and Washington has the Chicago Bulls), but they're all here for a reason. They all have talent.
It's important to play that way.
Los Angeles Clippers' Maturation
The Los Angeles Clippers are on the cusp of doing something. Just what that is, exactly, remains a source of debate.
The Clippers look like legitimate title contenders.
Their net rating (plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions) is the second best in the business. Blake Griffin has a compelling MVP case (24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists), and Chris Paul would (19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 2.5 steals) if he hadn't lost five weeks to a separated shoulder. DeAndre Jordan (13.6 rebounds, 10.4 points, 2.5 blocks) should have a hat in the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player Award races.
"They have all the makings of a team ready to open eyes, at least among those of us who haven't opened them already," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote.
So, why hasn't everyone crowned them as legit contenders?
Well, some still question their toughness. Injuries have been an issue all season (Danny Granger is the only one on the injury report, but Griffin, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford have battled various ailments of late.). Their defense has improved, but there's room left to grow.
"You can feel us starting to believe in our defense and being in the rights spots," coach Doc Rivers said, via Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles.
The process has started, but there's no time left for preparation. Either Rivers' words will carry this club to the championship stage, or it's back to the drawing board over the summer.
Indiana Pacers Finding a Fight
The Indiana Pacers needed the No. 1 seed out East.
Not because they'd been overly transparent about their intentions of claiming the top spot, but rather for what the playoff position brings with it: a first-round date with the Atlanta Hawks, a team that's been without its top player (Al Horford, torn pectoral) since late December.
Character concerns have threatened to end the Circle City's postseason stay prematurely, but on-court worries are just as critical. This defense has looked human since the All-Star break (102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, seventh), a major issue considering just how lethargic Indy has been at the opposite end (100.2 points per 100 possessions, 29th).
The Pacers need a confidence builder, particularly if the locker room is as healthy as the players say it is.
"It hasn't necessarily showed up in our play but we feel like we've turned the corner in terms of dealing with those issues," David West said, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "...We've got good character guys here. It felt like whatever is going on, we could handle it."
If the Pacers feel they can accomplish something and have the experience of sending the Hawks home early, maybe then they'll rediscover what made them a top-shelf force early on.
When this team is clicking, it's as good as any in the league. We just need to see it fight to get back to that point.
Tim Duncan's Drive for Five
This just in: Tim Duncan is old. He doesn't post box scores anymore, he rewrites history.
He doesn't play old. Take his numbers on a per-36-minute scale, and this is almost the same exact Tim Duncan we've always known: 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks this season; 20.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for his career.
"Tim looks like he could play three or four more years," Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. "It's crazy."
Gregg Popovich has carefully maintained his big man's minutes, but a lot of credit has to go toward the transcendent star for completely succumbing to the system. San Antonio's laser-like focus resulted in both the NBA's top net rating (plus-8.1) and its best winning percentage (.756).
Not that any of that matters to the Spurs. Their only goal is finding a ring, which would put Duncan in some exclusive company.
Then again, there's no promise he'd even notice the notable names.
"I don't want him to sound disrespectful," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said at the 2013 NBA Finals, via Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel. "He has great respect for those that have come before him, and he loves the game. But as far as personal accolades or legacy, it doesn't even enter his mind."
His legacy is ours to debate, something we all should do more than we should. If Duncan fills an entire hand with championship bling, we'll have no other choice.
Kevin Durant's Climb to No. 1
From the forgotten story to the manufactured one.
As much as we—media, diehards, casual observers, all of us—would like this postseason to be about Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James, it just isn't. Durant has said so himself.
He's right, too. This is bigger than one world-class talent going to toe-to-toe with another. This is the evolution of a scoring savant into a two-way force, an exciting player into a dominant one.
Durant's growth ended the MVP race sometime in February. He was masterful in holding OKC together through Russell Westbrook's knee problems and simply spectacular throughout the season.
His body of work was historically significant. He joined Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor as the only players in league history to average at least 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists (h/t Daily Thunder's Royce Young).
KD is the type of player where it's a matter of when, not if he'll start racking up titles. His Thunder enter the second season on a very short list of championship favorites.
LeBron James, Miami Heat: Not One, Not Two...
This season has had a different feel for the Miami Heat.
Maybe it's that cloud of uncertainty hanging over South Beach. Maybe it was the constant shuffling of rotation pieces, or Dwyane Wade's laundry list of injuries. Maybe this whole three-peat thing is as hard as everyone says.
Or perhaps this was the closest we've seen to Miami having an 82-game run of going through the motions.
"They didn't care about this regular season, not seriously, not sufficiently, not consistently," Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick wrote. "...Whether it's been Dwyane Wade's 28 absences, or absent-minded play from others, something's been missing."
That something should be here now.
LeBron James has the Heat on history's doorstep. They're 16 wins from becoming the fourth franchise to capture three straight NBA titles, and their path to the podium fittingly starts with Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats.
The four-time MVP all but conceded that individual race. His eyes are on a bigger prize.
Everything stops for these next two months. Questions about his future are silenced. Concerns about Wade's health are either realized fears or forgotten backstories.
This doesn't happen often, but James can live in the present for a little while. One more successful run to the NBA Finals and his historical hold on the hoops world will grow even tighter.