The 2014 NBA playoffs began with a first round for the ages – eight overtime games, five Game 7s (including three in one day) and a record 24 wins by visiting teams, all while the Donald Sterling saga swirled – then, almost as a courtesy, raced through a perfunctory round two highlighed by exactly one memorable series (our condolences to the Clippers).
It's been a jolting ride; breakneck one moment, sleepy and serene the next. And after all that, we've come to the Conference Finals, a foregone conclusion if ever there was one.
That's not a comment on the quality of basketball we've seen over the past month, or undoubtedly will see during the next two weeks (each series seems destined to last a fortnight), but rather, the inevitability of the NBA's 2013-14 season. The four teams left standing – the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder – were seemingly destined to get here, preordained in the preseason and reinforced by dominant regular-season runs.
Some combination of the four ranked in the top 10 in scoring, shooting and team defense, and all four held opponents below 100 points per game (Indiana was second in the league at a touch over 92 PPG). The Heat are the two-time defending NBA champs. The Thunder's Kevin Durant is the reigning MVP. The Spurs have four NBA titles and the league's best record. And the Pacers, relative newcomers to the fray, have won 105 games over the past two seasons.
In short, this outcome was inevitable. As is the case with any NBA season, you can play the "what if?" game – "What if the Bulls hadn't lost Derrick Rose?" "What if the Warriors had Andrew Bogut clogging the interior during the playoffs?" – but you cannot question the qualifications of the four teams remaining. They were the frontrunners from the very beginning, the pedigree of the Association. And here they are.
Tellingly, this marks the first time in nearly a decade that the top two seeds in each conference will face off in their respective finals, and the first time since 2005-06 postseason that one of them, Heat/Pacers, will be a rematch. In fact, if not for the Memphis Grizzlies imposing their will over a depleted Thunder team last year, they'd both be (in that case, the 2014 Western Conference Final would actually be the third-straight battle between the Spurs and OKC). These were not only the league's four best teams this year, but last year, too.
And as such, these Conference Finals are rife with storylines: Do the Heat have enough left in the tank, or will the Pacers prove that youth is always be served? Can Durant continue his storybook season, or will Tim Duncan and the Spurs fight off Father Time once again? It will make for great theater, two weeks of dramatics and do-or-die, followed by the denouement: the NBA Finals.
Say what you will about parity, but more often than not, it pales in comparison to reality. This is the outcome we've all hoped for, secretly or not, and now it's upon us. These playoffs could not have come to any other crescendo; it was written in the stars. Or on the stat sheet. Are we witnessing the beginning of the next great era of NBA rivalries, or is this just a fleeting moment in time? About the only thing we don't know is who will win ... but that's the fun, isn't it?
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