I would say it''s no longer speculatory: it's officially the end of an era.
Joining the Spurs in the "early exit" category are the Lakers and Celtics. Those three teams account for 10 of the last 12 NBA championships...and this year none of them made it out of the second round. And without even playing each other. The Celtics got bounced by the new-look Heat, who lead the charge for the new generation of players. The Spurs lost to the 8th seed Grizzlies, and the Lakers got swept in embarrassing fashion by the Mavericks.
What this sets up is a pair of really good Conference Finals matchups, and a potentially epic championship series.
- Eastern Conference
(1)Chicago Bulls v. (2)Miami Heat
I mean, this is exactly what you'd want as a basketball fan, right? The best two teams in the conference going head to head.
The Heat (and LeBron in particular) finally rose to the challenege of besting the Boston Celtics for good. It seemed like the C's inconsistent offense and shaky psyche finally caught up with them. They can say what they want about Shaq's health or needing to think about the future: they dealt away their best...and maybe only...shot at winning a ring this year when Kendrick Perkins went to Oklahoma (and apparently took Rajon Rondo's confidence with him)
And the Bulls....well, they slugged it out in a brutally ugly series with the Hawks. As predicted.
The wrench in the works here is that these teams have already played game 1 of their series against each other, and more or less blew up all the logical predictions anyone would have made. Given how things have gone the last two months, one would have thought LeBron and Wade would be fired up, the Bulls would be overly-reliant on Rose, Chris Bosh would be a complete non-factor and might even play so poorly that Carlos Boozer would be relevant again.
Instead, game one was a total team effort by the Bulls, dominating on defense and getting two sick posters from Taj Gibson. Meanwhile LeBron and Wade looked totally listless, and Chris Bosh had a stellar solo performance. Wha ha happen???
I still feel that the Heat are the better team, and that the only chance Chicago has is for Boozer to dominate the painted area. He's capable of it....and Bosh isn't very capable of stopping it....but Boozer's been in a playoff-long funk he can't seem to break out of. If the Bulls can't win the paint battle, they're going to have a really hard time winning the series, because one would certainly think Wade + James is going to outplay Rose + Deng.
Then again, Chicago swept the season series with Miami, and they're coached by one of only two guys on the planet who have successfully shut down LBJ when it matters. Maybe the Bulls just have the Heat's number. It's an odd thing to bank on, but it's more than just superstition.
I'm going to say Heat. That's what the logical prognosis would say. But I would be surprised at all if the Bulls take the series based on coach Thib's defense and psychological momentum.
- Western Conference
(3)Dallas Mavericks v. (4)Oklahoma City Thunder
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Take Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley for example. Between lying about not moving the team from Vancouver, to failing to sell the team in 2007, to blowing up a good roster just to save money, to seemingly random draft picks and contract extensions, to trading for a known headcase who's contract was just as expensive as the one they practically gave away for free, to lowballing his rookies on their contract negotiations, to failing to complete trades at the deadline, to crippling injuries, the Grizz have every reason to be a really really really bad team.
Yet somehow, all of that nonsense works out in Memphis' favor. Dealing Pau Gasol ultimately led to acquiring Zach Randolph. Rudy Gay's injury forced Zach to step up as the team's leader. Failing to trade OJ Mayo left the team with an outside shooter it badly needed with Gay out, and those rookies that almost didn't sign with the team end up making miracle shots in the playoffs.
Heisley is everything David Kahn wants to be. A know-nothing who repeatedly screws his own team over, only to have his mistakes ultimately work out for the best. It's unbelievable.
You do have to credit the Grizz for their 7 game stand against the Thunder. They did out the #1 seed in the first round, but San Antonio is kind of old and matches up very poorly with Memphis. But the Thunder are a better team across the board, and there was reason to think they might have just laid waste to the Grizz. But through a combination of defense, Zach Randolph's dominant post play, and sheer guts, Memphis pushed the Thunder to the brink....7 games, including 5 overtime sessions.
Even with how statistically poorly Memphis played (ugly shooting percentages...), had the Thunder not acquired Perkins, I'm not sure they would have escaped this one.
And the Mavericks....well, they actually did lay waste to their opponent. The world champion Lakers. That cliff that Timmy Duncan went off, that Kobe was standing on the edge of? He went skydiving early. And midway through the season, I said I felt the Lakers had some critical weaknesses that would get exploited at some point, and the Mavs got them all. Poor pick-and-roll defense. Lack of depth. Lack of mental toughness. LA is going to have to do some major revisions to stay in contention, starting with an acceptance of Kobe's limitations, and the fact that if Derek Fisher is out of playoff magic, he's basically useless. And Dallas? Well, they sure look like the best team left in the postseason, don't they?
So......Thunder and Mavs. This series is kind of an ironic one, actually. The teams are very very similar in almost every way save one: a generation gap. Nowitzki or Durant? Kidd or Westbrook? Ibaka or Chandler?
More than anything, this series figures to be a chess match. The Mavs are pretty well off having Shawn Marion to chase Durant around, but the Thunder will find Ibaka is not a good matchup against Dirk. Kidd is well past the days when he could lockdown a guy like Westbrook, but what does OKC do when Jason Terry is in? Do you try to exploit a size or speed mismatch between Chandler and Perkins? Do you go super-small with Terry and Barea? Do you move Durant to the 4 and hope he can win a shootout with Dirk?
Ultimately I like the Mavs in this series. I think the Thunder make a real fight out of it, but just think the Mavs have too much depth, better chemistry, a critical experience edge, and a ton of psychological momentum. The Thunder are wary after their trench warfare with a #8 seed. The Mavs swept the world champs and made it look easy. Dirk is the most unguardable player out there right now, and the Mavs have a ton of swagger.
How ironic would it be to have another Heat/Mavericks finals?