The NBA Playoffs have finally gotten interesting, with all four second-round series tied at a game apiece, LeBron James bringing back the headband and Draymond Green becoming the most-hated man in Memphis.
The past few nights of on-court action have given basketball obsessives everywhere an excuse to thrust their lighters aloft in approval, which is totally something people used to do before everyone had an iPhone – not to mention a rather convenient way to segue into part two of our classic rock guide to the 2015 playoffs. Yesterday, we got Dark Side deep on the teams remaining in the Western Conference, but what about the East? I mean, sure, generally speaking the Eastern Conference is the Monkees or Dave Clark Five to the West’s Beatles, but any given series in the playoffs can be its own self-contained Monsters of Rock show, as evidenced by battles currently being waged between the Bulls and Cavaliers and the Hawks and Wizards. And now that the opening acts have moved off the stage, let’s take a look at the headliners.
Cleveland Cavaliers = Blind Faith
This couldn’t be more straightforward: Eric Clapton – well on his way to deification (not a god, but the God) – left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966 to form a potent Big Three with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream. But despite massive success, Cream was not what Clapton ultimately wanted. So he joined up with Traffic’s Steve Winwood to form Blind Faith, a conscious move away from Cream’s commercial success and toward something more wide-ranging.
The LeBron-led Miami Heat weren’t done in by clashing egos, but when James sensed the gas was running low in his massively popular power trio, he yearned for a different kind of challenge. When he announced his return to the Cavaliers, he did so with a caveat: “We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process.”
But by the end of the summer, top draft pick and promising building block Andrew Wiggins had been shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the disgruntled Kevin Love, who wanted quite badly to get to the playoffs. When the Cavaliers hit some rocky patches (including a season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao), they moved quickly to overhaul the roster, sending out the disappointing (but young) Dion Waiters and bringing in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Clapton’s desire to get away from Cream likewise led him straight back into supergroup territory. He quickly grew disinterested in the loose jams and rehashed Cream and Traffic songs that formed the bulk of Blind Faith’s live repertoire and instead started hanging out with their opening band, Delaney & Bonnie (and their many friends). The members of that band would go on to form the more genuinely anonymous Derek and the Dominos.
Don’t bet on LeBron taking the same path. The timeline for success might have gotten shorter for James, but there’s no way he’s bolting Cleveland again anytime soon. Not after he went to such pains to find his way home.
Atlanta Hawks = Genesis
Consider the Atlanta Hawks of just a few years ago: Built around the dual lodestone contracts of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, the Hawks consistently made the postseason, but consistently lost in the semis for a few years – then took a step back and consistently lost in the first round for a few more. But somehow they unloaded the unloadable, trading Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets in 2012 and letting Smith go to the Detroit Pistons in 2013. Surely the loss of two key players would set the franchise back, right?
People probably said the same thing about Genesis when Peter Gabriel left the band in 1975. At the time, Genesis had just released what’s now widely regarded as a prog classic, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. How would Genesis recapture the grandeur of Gabriel’s theatrical stage presence with someone different?
Well, they didn’t even try. Rather than adding a new lead singer, they simply brought Phil Collins out from behind the drumkit to supply lead vocals. Gone were the costumes and plot points, replaced by Collins’ more straightforward approach, even if the songs retained their twists, turns and odd time signatures. By the 1980s, Genesis had made a full-fledged transformation into pop geniuses with a string of hits like “Invisible Touch” and “Land of Confusion”. It was hard to believe this was largely the same band that had made Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Likewise, the seeds of this current Hawks lineup were nascent within the old team: Jeff Teague and Al Horford were both there for the last Larry Drew coached team. Coach Mike Budenholzer brought along a snappier, up-tempo system less reliant on individual virtuoso performances and founded in solid craft and fundamentals – ball movement, defensive rotation, selflessness. Like a good pop tune, the Hawks’ system barely looks like a system when it’s humming.
When it breaks – as it did against the Wizards in Game 1 – it can be a clunker, but Genesis had a few stinkers, too. Game 2 was an entirely different affair, reestablishing Atlanta’s reputation as bona fide hitmakers.
Chicago Bulls = Fleetwood Mac
You may or may not know that the Mac did not begin their existence as the breezy California group that cut the masterpiece Rumours. Founded in England in 1967, the original Fleetwood Mac was started by guitarist Peter Green in the mold of the band he got his start with, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And my God they were amazing. Compared to contemporaries like Cream and Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac were tight and lean, rarely letting songs stretch past a handful of minutes and featuring Green’s slashing lead playing in compact, controlled bursts. This is the Chicago Bulls circa 2011-12, with Derrick Rose in the role of Green, a staggering talent surrounded by able complements like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.
But shit got raw for Fleetwood Mac in the early ’70s. One by one, the band lost Green to mental illness and guitarists Jeremy Spencer (who went out for a magazine one day and joined a cult) and Danny Kirwan (who wrestled with alcoholism and was fired after smashing his guitar and refusing to go onstage). But through lineup changes and other struggles, Fleetwood Mac stuck it out, encountering less success than the Bulls without Rose, who stayed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
But now the Bulls may actually be getting Rose back in a real way – a savvier Rose who plays within himself – and they’ve also cultivated the rise of Jimmy Butler and finally brought Nikola Mirotic over. They’ve already stolen a game off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. Is it possible the Bulls may be ready to experience a Rumours-esque run that dwarfs their previous accomplishments? Of course, Rumours was also the direct product of simmering romantic tensions within the band and the Bulls have their own question marks about how long the marriage between coach Tom Thibodeau and the organization will last, but it’s just possible they squeeze one last epic performance out of the lineup as is.
Washington Wizards = Aerosmith w/ Run DMC
Aerosmith have had a long journey, as have the Washington Wizards (if we’re being kind). But the Wizards of the moment, coached by the doggedly old-school Randy Wittman and spearheaded by the old-man game of Paul Pierce and the young-gun potential of John Wall, line up nicely with Aerosmith at a very specific point in time: the moment they collaborated with Run DMC on a new version of “Walk This Way”.
In 1986, it had been more than 13 years since the release of the band’s self-titled debut album. For Aerosmith to have rocketed back into relevance at that point is roughly equivalent to Hoobastank reclaiming their past glory in 2015 by collaborating with Kendrick Lamar.
This season, it also seemed like Paul Pierce’s best years were behind him (and also in Boston). His high-water mark as an NBA champion in 2008 was seven years in the past and his running mates from that Celtics team ended the season languishing with an injury at the bottom of the Western Conference (Kevin Garnett), preparing to completely ruin the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff run (Rajon Rondo) or completely out of the NBA (Ray Allen).
But then Pierce came on in all his cantankerous glory, saying that the Toronto Raptors (who wound up as the Wizards’ first-round opponent) didn’t “have the ‘It’ that makes you feel worried.” He was booed in Toronto but then he backed it up, shoving a knife directly into the Raptors’ heart with a dagger 3-pointer in the third game of a four-game sweep.
If Pierce and Wittman bring the AOR flavor, Wall and Bradley Beal are the youth movement represented by Run DMC. Wall has, of course, fought his own battles against perceptions of his legitimacy as a player, much as early rap acts had to prove themselves as artists.
It’s unlikely that Pierce has a career renaissance as fruitful as Aerosmith’s following “Walk This Way”. The band, after all, went on to score hit-after-hit in the MTV era with compelling videos, whereas Pierce is playing a professional sport at the age of 37. The future lies with Wall and Co., but it’s fun to watch the old and the new both clash and work together.