The NBA playoffs should be fun, as they always are.
Don’t rely on basketball as good as usual.
Not after a truncated season in which injuries were too frequent, practice time too scarce, to allow teams to peak for the playoffs.
“It was much more devastating for the culture and for sure to create momentum, for all of us,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. âAnd I really think that. I hate to say it, but it’s the truth: there’s no way it’s going to be the best basketball for all teams.
LeBron James was a spectator the night the Lakers hoisted the banner of the championship they won last year, as he has been for most of the second half of the season due to an injury to ankle. The Brooklyn Nets assembled an explosive Big Three consisting of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, then spent three months in between to play them for the seventh and eighth time.
The Utah Jazz won the Western Conference, but will have played for over a month without All-Star Donovan Mitchell by the time he returns from an ankle injury.
Rusty or not, at least these contenders have their All-Stars. Denver will play this playoff series without Jamal Murray, who was sensational in the bubble last year as he led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals. The Celtics made it into the Eastern Finals, but it might be difficult to move from play-in to the playoffs after season-ending wrist surgery for All-Star Jaylen Brown.
More than ever, these playoffs could be more about health than being great. The teams that still play have survived this historically demanding NBA season, but no one has really thrived.
“So will the level of play be the same in these playoffs?” I don’t know, but you know what, there are opportunities for teams, âChicago coach Billy Donovan said.
Championship contenders like to use the regular season to build a ready-to-roll squad once it’s over. The Golden State Warriors have turned into a postseason powerhouse that placed 16-1 in 2017, Durant’s first season.
He doesn’t know if anyone can find this type of form now.
âI don’t know, but that stuff plays a part, a long regular season,â said Durant, who along with Harden has had long absences due to hamstring injuries.
âIt was just a different year for everyone, getting used to the COVID year, traveling the road through COVID, just everything, the protocols. But I feel like a lot of teams are thrilled to have made it this season and a lot of teams are thrilled to be heading into the playoffs in good health, so we’ll see.
The condensed 72-game schedule has left many teams limiting or simply canceling practices so players can recover from games. Coronavirus protocols kept them from bonding off the pitch, let alone hampering them when players became unavailable after testing positive or coming into contact with someone who had.
All of this helped destroy a Celtics team that had championship expectations but finished .500. But coach Brad Stevens is predicting a quality playoff around the league, with players running out of time to play and coaches able to focus on scouting reports rather than injury reports.
âWhen we were in the bubble I thought it was the highest level I’ve ever seen, just like the intensity, the effort, the teams playing at a ridiculous level again,â Stevens said. . âAnd I just think the playoffs bring that out of people every year, so I predict the playoffs will be great.
Popovich is not so sure.
He’s spent a quarter of a century building his teams to peak for the playoffs, winning five NBA championships. But this team has to win the play-in tournament twice just to not miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
San Antonio postponed four games due to coronavirus reasons during its annual rodeo road trip in February, when so many previous Spurs teams began to hit their stride. Rescheduling them later in the season changed normal travel routines and roster considerations, and league rules during the pandemic prevented team dinners as long as the training gym.
He sees all that has been lost and doesn’t believe the impact ended when the regular season did.
âYou need the full season, or as much as you can,â Popovich said. âIt can’t be squashed like it should and with all the COVID restrictions and things that have happened to this team and this team and the other team, it just changes the dynamic for everyone. So, it’s very difficult, because of the COVID and the injuries, to imagine that the basketball could be as good as it used to be.
The Lakers must fight their way to a No.7 seed, but no one will rule it out with James and Anthony Davis now in good health.
Or maybe Popovich is right, and even talented teams need time.
âI wish it wasn’t true,â Popovich said, âbut I think it is.â