I could have entitled this post “How wrong I was about the Milwaukee Bucks.”
I could have also labeled this post “How I lost $50 and an expensive steak dinner betting on the Nets.”
Similarly, I could have called this post “Why I’m not an NBA general manager.”
All these pseudonyms refer to a post I wrote months ago suggesting the Bucks should consider trading Khris Middleton for James Harden. The guy I thought would be a better fit in Milwaukee and the better player this post-season, was not… or at least, was not healthy.
Suffice to say I was dead wrong for insinuating the Milwaukee Bucks, as currently constructed, did not have enough to make it to the Finals. They are currently four wins away from proving me wrong.
This is why I hate making predictions. No one wants to go down as the rock critic who first wrote that Stairway to Heaven was a crappy song and be discredited for life.
After seven grueling games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, which I correctly predicted would be the best series of the post-season (at least I got that one right), the Milwaukee Bucks proved to be the better team.
Sure, the Brooklyn Nets suffered injuries from which they could not overcome. Kyrie Irving went down with a sprained ankle in Game Four, James Harden never fully healed from the hamstring injury he suffered in the regular season and poor Kevin Durant was left to put the entire Brooklyn Nets team on his back, which he almost did. Even Durant’s un-guardable play (34.7 ppg) was not enough.
But this is a no excuse league. The Milwaukee Bucks are in the Eastern Conference Finals. They beat the Nets fair and square and to be perfectly honest, were the more well-rounded team.
That brings us to the Conference Finals.
No team left standing is without flaw. We haven’t seen a truly great team since the Warriors ran off three titles in four years. These final four teams, while talented, are a far cry away from that sort of dynasty. But we are evidently witnessing a changing of the guard. Out with the old, in with the new.
I could make a convincing argument for each of these teams, the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks, winning a title. I could just as easily tell you why they won’t. Without boring you with the minutiae you can find elsewhere, we should take a moment to celebrate the fact that not only have these four franchises made it this far but that we are about to crown a brand, new champion. Neither the Suns nor the Clippers have won a title in their history. The Bucks haven’t won since Kareen Adbul-Jabbar (1971) and the Hawks haven’t won a title since they played in St. Louis (1958). That’s a fairly healthy drought.
For those of you who enjoy dynasties, you’re fresh out of luck for the NBA is about to witness something it hasn’t since the ‘70s. In the 1980s, the NBA was dominated by the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons and Sixers. No other team won a title the entire decade. In the ‘90s, you had the Bulls, Rockets and the beginnings of a Spurs’ runs. In the 2000s, only five different teams won a title with the Pistons, Heat and Celtics each winning one and the Spurs and Lakers winning all the others. And while you had a number of different teams winning titles in the 2010s, it was a rarity that a LeBron-led team wasn’t in the mix.
In the 1970s, however, you had a veritable who’s who of trophy-raisers. The Knicks, Bucks, Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, Trailblazers, Bullets and Supersonics all won titles. With current veterans aging right before our very eyes and so much new talent interspersed throughout the league, the 2020s could bring us back to the seventies, so break out the polyester and your bell bottom slacks.
Unexpectedly, for anyone outside Atlanta at least, Trae Young and company have led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only did they oust the top-seeded 76ers in seven games but they won three games in Philadelphia to do so. Behind “interim” head coach Nate McMillan, Young has become one of the deadliest young shooters in the league. And while the task that lay ahead of them, i.e., beating Milwaukee, will not be easy, it’s not insurmountable. After all, not too many people gave them a shot to beat Philadelphia either.
As I mentioned earlier, Milwaukee may be the most battle-tested and well-rounded team left in the playoffs. Any discussion of how to rebuild this team was clearly premature. Besting Brooklyn might be all this team needed to finally get over the hump. Just when we thought the two-time MVP didn’t have what it takes to lead his team, he scored 40 in a Game Seven, matching Kevin Durant in an overtime game for the ages. Giannis can taste it. MVP awards are great but he wants more than individual accolades. He might just get it.
Out west, you have one team built through free agency and the other that landed only one, pretty key free agent to get them where they are now.
It was kind of a big deal when both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard agreed to return home to California and play for that other L.A. team. While Lakers fans might cringe at the thought of sharing rafter space with their less-adored brother, that is now eight wins away from happening. The only thing stopping it is Kawhi Leonard’s knee. The Claw has been nursing an ACL sprain while Paul George and company have come to their rescue. They’re going to need a healthy Kawhi to get past the determined, Chris Paul-led Suns, especially with Devin Booker doing pretty much as he pleases.
Speaking of missing time, the allegedly-vaccinated Chris Paul is in quarantine protocol with no word on when he’ll be back. He missed Game One, in which the Suns didn’t altogether need him (Devin Booker scored another 40) but they’d most certainly rather have him that not.
Chris Paul, 36, playing against bott his former team and father time is a great story line. The Clips are the only thing standing in his way for the first ever Finals appearance that has so far eluded him. On the other sideline, Paul George is also looking for his first. In fact, Kawhi Leonard is the only veteran of note still playing and chasing another ring. Otherwise, it’s all new meat, which has to be refreshing for all the LeBron-haters out there.
I honestly have no idea which team will be the last one standing. I’ve been wrong so far so I’m just going to sit back, prediction-less, and enjoy the action. I highly recommend you do the same.
Happy playoffs everyone!
(And yes, readers, don’t worry. A special playoff hockey post is forthcoming.)