The NBA playoffs should be entertaining, as they always are.
Just don’t count on the basketball being as good as usual.
Not after a truncated season during which the injuries were too frequent, the practice time too scarce, to allow teams to peak for the postseason.
“It’s been much more devastating to culture and to establishing momentum for sure, for all of us,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And I definitely think that, I hate to say it but it’s the truth: There’s no way it can be the best basketball for all the teams.”
LeBron James was a spectator the night the Lakers raised the banner for the championship they won last year, as he was for most of the second half of the season because of an ankle injury. The Brooklyn Nets assembled an explosive Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, then went three months in between getting to play them for the seventh and eighth time.
The Utah Jazz won the Western Conference, but will have played for more than a month without All-Star Donovan Mitchell by the time he returns from ankle injury.
Rusty or not, at least those contenders have their All-Stars. Denver will play this postseason without Jamal Murray, who was sensational in the bubble last year while leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. The Celtics made the East finals, but now just getting from the play-in to the playoffs might be difficult after the season-ending wrist surgery for All-Star Jaylen Brown.
More than ever, this postseason might be more about being healthy than being great. The teams still playing survived this historically demanding NBA season, but nobody really thrived.
“So, is the level of play going to be the same in these playoffs? I don’t know, but you know what, there is opportunity out there for teams,” Chicago coach Billy Donovan said.
Championship contenders like to use the regular season to build a team ready to roll once it’s over. The Golden State Warriors worked themselves into a postseason powerhouse that went 16-1 in 2017, Durant’s first season.
He's unsure if anybody can find that type of form now.
“I don’t know, but that stuff does play a factor, a long regular season,” said Durant, who along with Harden had lengthy absences because of hamstring injuries.
“It was just a different year for everybody, getting used to the COVID year, the traveling on the road throughout COVID, just everything, the protocols. But I feel like a lot of teams are excited that they got through this season and a lot of teams are excited that they head into the playoffs healthy, so we’ll see.”
The condensed 72-game schedule left many teams limiting or simply canceling practices so players could recover from games. Coronavirus protocols kept them from bonding off the court, not to mention hampered them on it when players became unavailable after testing positive or coming into contact with someone who had.
It all contributed to wrecking a Celtics team that had championship expectations but finished .500. But coach Brad Stevens predicts a quality postseason around the league, with players who missed time available to play and coaches able to focus on scouting reports instead of injury reports.
“When we were in the bubble, I thought it was the highest level I’d ever seen, just as far as like intensity, effort, teams again playing at just a ridiculous level,” Stevens said. “And I just think the playoffs brings that out of people every year, and so I anticipate the playoffs will be great.”
Popovich isn’t so sure.
He has spent a quarter of a century developing his teams to peak for the playoffs, winning five NBA championships. But this team must win twice in the play-in tournament just to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year.
San Antonio had four games postponed for coronavirus reasons during its annual rodeo road trip in February, when so many previous Spurs teams began hitting their stride. Rescheduling them later in the season changed normal travel routines and lineup considerations, and league rules during the pandemic prevented team dinners that long were as much a part of Popovich’s team building as the practice gym.
He sees all that was lost and doesn’t believe the impact ended when the regular season did.
“You need the full season, or as much of it as you can,” Popovich said. “It can’t be squished the way they’ve had to squish it and with all the COVID restrictions and things that have happened to this team and that team and the other team, it just changes the dynamics for everybody. So, it’s very difficult, because of COVID and the injuries, to imagine that the basketball could be as good as usual.”
The Lakers have to play their way to a title from the No. 7 seed, but nobody will rule that out with James and Anthony Davis now healthy.
Or, perhaps Popovich is right, and even teams with talent need time.
“I wish it wasn’t true,” Popovich said, “but I think it is.”
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