The NBA’s War of Attrition

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You want to see a war of attrition in sports, how about the NBA playoffs? Now into its penultimate round, there are some intriguing factors with the not-so-unusual matchups that will lead to the NBA Finals.

Historically, the NBA post season, which starts in mid-April and can end in late June, is filled with dramatic games featuring astonishing comebacks and all you could want in the sport. The only problem seems to be when the dust clears, there are really no surprises when the final two or even four teams are left standing.

This year is no exception. This column was originally written without the result of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7 between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards. Each team had won its three home games and the Celtics were home for the deciding game. Boston had the best record in the East, the defending world champion Cleveland Cavaliers had the second best. (The outcome was the Boston Celtics winning at home for the deciding game).

Same story in the Western Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors, tops in the West, won the first two games of the conference finals on Sunday and Tuesday over the San Antonio Spurs, who were second best in the West.

It really would have been surprising if those two teams hadn’t met, but here’s where that war of attrition comes in. The Spurs lost their veteran point guard Tony Parker to injury. Parker has been a perennially brilliant performer for the Spurs, who have won five championships under head coach Gregg Popovich. Despite the absence of Parker toward the end of the previous series with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Spurs marched on.  However, not having Parker would be a critical problem against the Warriors.

Things have gotten worse for San Antonio. Their best player Kawhi Leonard re-injured his leg in game one against the Warriors, and Golden State staged an incredible comeback, overcoming a 25-point deficit at one point, and trailed by 20 at the half before coming back to win.

The Warriors had yet to lose in the playoffs as they headed into Tuesday’s second game, and all the questions this week will surround the availability of Leonard.

How can the Spurs win this series without Leonard and Parker?

I can’t see it, even though you can never count out San Antonio. Still, let’s be reasonable.

I recall the 1989 NBA Finals which featured a rematch between the Lakers and the Pistons. The Lakers had outlasted the Bad Boys in ’88, and the back-to-back confrontation had people licking their chops.

But the Lakers lost their starting backcourt, Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, and the Pistons swept LA in four straight.

We could be seeing the same thing here, as we know how good Golden State can play.

Besides the players, add debilitating back problems which have kept Warriors head coach Steve Kerr on the sidelines. Kerr had surgery recently and has appeared at practice but has not been ready to return to the bench.

Sports is filled with irony. How about this one?  Guiding the team in Kerr’s absence is Mike Brown who was recommended to Kerr to be a Warriors assistant coach.

Kerr, who played for Gregg Popovich wanted an able head man in case the back issues came up again which they did. Brown was an assistant to Popovich and the two are great friends.

Brown, you remember, was the coach of the Cavaliers before he was fired by that team. Lebron James might have had a role in that ultimate decision.

Can you imagine Mike Brown leading Golden State over Popovich, his good pal and colleague, and then possibly beating Lebron and the Cavs in the Finals?

It can get crazy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Speaking about attrition, the Cavs themselves have been decimated to the extent that they have lost four big men from their roster. It’s gotten so bad that they are avoiding conducting scrimmages during an unprecedented nine-day layoff. Head coach Tyronn Lue is at wit’s end trying to find mental games for his team to engage in to pass the time.

So, in the final analysis, if the Celtics survive, the teams with the best two regular season records in both conferences will advance to the final four of the NBA playoffs.

Sort of, what else is new?

What’s new and different are the injuries which have affected players and coaches trying to win a title. More than what we’ve seen in recent seasons.

In the NBA, the best-of-seven series format erases the sheer excitement we see in the one-and-done NCAA college championship as far as upsets go.

But the questions that arise in health, durability, and ability to endure the wear and tear of the playoffs provide the intrigue and drama in the pro game.

 

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