The NBA has reinvented must-see television.
There is no drama on TV right now that's anywhere near as compelling as the just-concluded first round of the NBA playoffs. Is it possible that Round 2 could be even better?
The matchups for Round 2 are exciting, but the conference semifinals will have to follow an exceptionally crazy script to be more interesting than the two weeks of basketball we just witnessed. None of us can write that well.
Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad…think of your favorite show from this past season and imagine binge-watching 50 episodes, with each action-packed thriller more dramatic and exciting than the last.
Could you handle all the intensity, all the excitement, all the tension?
Only none of them—not the best writers in Hollywood—could have scripted the first round of the NBA playoffs. A period piece about a meth-cooking zombie dragon who works on Madison Avenue would be more plausible than what we just watched.
Fifty out a possible 56 games were played in the first round of the playoffs, the most of any round ever.
The NBA expanded the first round to best-of-seven back in 2003, and this year is the first since its inception to reach 50 combined games. The 2014 playoffs mark the first time since 2003 that a round has featured more than 45 games, and the first time an opening round has had more than two series reach a Game 7.
This year, we had five.
Not only did five of the eight series go to a full seven games, but it was nearly six, with one of the great buzzer-beaters in playoff history ending the Portland-Houston series in six.
There were also three seed-based upsets in the first round—with Portland, Washington and Brooklyn all advancing to the second round despite being the poorer seed in their respective matchups— tied for the most of any first round since the playoffs expanded.
And it wasn't just the series that were close in Round 1, but many of the games were close, too. There were eight overtime games in the first round, the most of any year since the league expanded the first round to seven games.
This wasn't merely a good first round. This may have been the best first round in NBA playoff history.
This is a lifetime-achievement-award first round. This is a "spend 10 minutes during an already busy award show to remember just how good it was" first round.
Can the next round really live up to all of that?
Can the second round possibly live up to the turmoil of Indiana's late-season implosion, wondering every day if Pacers head coach Frank Vogel will survive the series, let alone make it to next season? If you like The Walking Dead, you had to be glued to the set to watch Roy Hibbert in Round 1, up to and including his shocking resurrection in Game 7, a dramatic twist no one could have seen coming.
Fancy yourself more of a Mad Men fan? Sheesh, take your pick between the in-state rivalry of the Spurs and Mavericks that inexplicably went seven games, or the hard-fought set between Oklahoma City and Memphis that got so heated in Game 6 that Zach Randolph got himself suspended for the final contest. And let's not forget about the reported scuffle between the Clippers and Warriors after Game 7. Mad Men? Yeah, there were a lot of them in Round 1.
And all the while—from the coming-of-age backcourt in Washington to the one-last-run veterans in San Antonio to the buzzer-beaters in Dallas and OKC and Portland to the block heard round the league that silenced a full house in Toronto—there is a king, one that nobody likes but everyone seems to fear, sitting back on his throne and preparing to defend his crown against all comers.
And I'm still not sure what to compare the situation with the Clippers during the first round of the playoffs to other than to suggest that finally, while his soon-to-be-former team advanced amid incredible pressure, Donald Sterling learned that time—as an NBA owner, at least—is not a flat circle.
Drama? There is no shortage in the NBA playoffs.
(I promise I'll stop eliciting comparisons to popular television dramas before I find a way to link the Nets starting five to the cast of Downton Abbey. Though Dowager Pierce does have a certain ring to it…)
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It wasn't just the cumulative series that were close in the first round, it was a lot of the games as well. Seven of the eight series had an average margin of victory of fewer than 10 points.
The only series decided by more than 10 per game was the Clippers' series win over the Warriors, which was decided by 11.9 points per game, despite four of the seven games in that series being decided by five points or fewer. A 40-point blowout in Game 2 of that series skewed the average margin over the seven games, but it was certainly the exception to this first round, not the rule.
Of the 50 games played, 26 came down to a difference of six points or fewer, meaning more than half the games in the first round were decided by no more than two possessions.
While far less indicative of who might win or lose a series, it's worth noting that the average points per game in each series was remarkably close as well, with seven of the eight series finishing with an aggregate difference that averaged less than 5.5 points per game.
Four of the series finished with teams separated by by an average of two or fewer points per game, including the Rockets and Blazers, which ended with Houston actually averaging more per game (112.0-111.7) than Portland, despite losing four of the six games, none of which were decided by more than 10 points.
Can it possibly get any better than that?
In a few ways, it can.
Through all the carnage of the first round, every title contender made it out intact. Both top seeds had to go to seven games to escape No. 8 seeds, but now both the Spurs and Pacers bring a battle-tested feel to the second round, facing Portland and Washington, respectively.
The Blazers and Wizards are seemingly a lot alike in this second round, going up against veteran squads that have to be slightly rethinking their championship aspirations after struggling to put away lesser opponents. And while no one would mistake either Portland or Washington for a bona fide title contender this season, both teams have formidable frontcourt players—LaMarcus Aldridge, especially, has been one of the big stars of the playoffs in Portland—and dynamic young guards that could take over a game or a series.
While Houston certainly had more established star power than Portland, Damian Lillard has turned himself into a household name. Surely there would have been a ton of excitement with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs facing Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Rockets, but it's Portland who might create tougher matchups for the top seed in the West.
On the East side of the top line, the Pacers' recent woes may have turned the upstart Wizards, led by guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, into the favorites. Which Roy Hibbert will show up? The one who has dominated Washington in the past? Or the one who all but disappeared against the undersized Atlanta Hawks in Round 1? And can Paul George continue to prove he's a leading man worthy of greater recognition?
The Wizards and Bulls were remarkably short on drama, and while there were many captivating storylines surrounding the Pacers both on and off the court, the actual basketball was, at times, worthy of cancellation in that series. Things can only get better.
As for the two teams on the second line in each conference—the teams, and players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant, that many people expected (if not hoped) would face off in the NBA Finals—they took far different paths to the second round, yet each has a difficult task ahead.
First, the Thunder face the most perplexing team left in the playoffs in the Clippers. On paper, this would have been the best second-round matchup of the entire playoffs, but add to that the pressure of Durant to deliver this year—the Mr. Unreliable story is going to hang with this playoff season no matter how far OKC goes—with the insurmountable weight of the situation involving the Clippers, and that series is a powder keg of emotion, tension and drama that would make Frankie Muniz's old TV dad sweat. (Side note: I hope the rumor of Muniz buying the Clippers is true, just to see the never-ending stream of Bryan Cranston as Heisenberg head-coach Photoshops.)
If there is a prediction to be made in this second round, it's that the Thunder and Clippers will put on a series that rivals the Bulls-Celtics series from 2009. Similar to what the Thunder just went through in Round 1, that epic series featured seven overtimes spread across three games, with another contest decided at the buzzer. Clippers coach Doc Rivers should remember that series well, as he coached the Celtics to victory in that series before losing in seven games in the next round. This season's opening round has been the first since then to have the same kind of drama, but this year was spread across the entire bracket.
Some of those old Celtics players should still remember that series too, despite, like Rivers, having moved on. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are now trying to bring a title to Brooklyn, not Boston, and the chance for drama in their second round set with the Heat should be nothing if not electric.
The Heat are still the clear favorites to get out of the East, especially with the recent struggles by the Pacers, but if there is one team that might be able to thwart the reigning champs in the East, it has to be the Nets.
Brooklyn swept the season series against the Heat. They know how to beat the team that, so far in the playoffs, is the only team that looks unbeatable. If Brooklyn can steal an early game in the series, the pressure on Miami will ratchet up. The drama will surely follow.
There's always some drama around the champs—it's just a matter of time.
In a lot of ways, as great as the first round was, it may just be a preview of things to come. The deeper teams go in the playoffs, the more the games seem to matter. The more each play seems to matter.
We have already seen 50 games play out the way none of us could have written. Think of how amazing another 25 might be. It's the best script on TV right now, and the reality is, it still might get better.