Stephen Curry has provided the heroics, when he closed his eyes, wary of the long arm of a charging Anthony Davis, and made an off-balance, physics-defying three-pointer as the Golden State Warriors rallied from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime in Game 3 of their first-round series with New Orleans.
Derrick Rose has provided the inspirational comeback story, when he returned from a three-year postseason absence to carve up the Milwaukee Bucks by pushing the pace, blowing past defenders and converting some of those trademark twisting, hanging layups that were commonplace before his knees repeatedly betrayed him.
Rajon Rondo has provided the drama, when the Dallas Mavericks shut down their heralded midseason trade acquisition with a mysterious back injury and Coach Rick Carlisle stated, with certainty, that Rondo would never wear that uniform again.
Paul Pierce has provided the most smug of villains, when he boldly told the Toronto Raptors that they lacked the “it” factor to make him worried, then tormented them with constant reminders that he was simply speaking, well, the Truth.
The first round of the NBA playoffs has generated some compelling individual story lines, and it certainly hasn’t been devoid of entertainment value. The games have been the showcase for breakout stars such as Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, for play-through-serious-pain tough guys like Mike Conley, and even for Curry and Houston’s James Harden to extend the league’s most valuable player debate a little bit longer. But actual competitive series and suspense have been sorely lacking from the first week of what’s supposed to be the league’s most exciting time of the year.
For the first time since the NBA expanded the first round to seven-game series in 2003, six teams won the first three games. No NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series, and only one — Portland, in the first round against Dallas in 2003 — has been able to force a seventh game.
Golden State followed Curry’s lead to dispatch New Orleans in four games Saturday night and three more teams – Cleveland, Washington and Houston – will have a chance Sunday to complete sweeps. If four teams complete first-round sweeps, it would be an NBA first.
The Milwaukee Bucks stunned Chicago with a backdoor pass from Jared Dudley to Jerryd Bayless, and Brooklyn rode Brook Lopez to an upset of Atlanta on Saturday to make sure that San Antonio-Los Angeles Clippers isn’t the only series that will last at least five games.. But this first round could easily wind up being the least competitive in NBA history.
Last postseason was on the opposite end of the competitive spectrum, featuring a record 50 total games. Four series went seven games — the most in any playoff round — and both top overall seeds, Indiana and San Antonio, were taken the distance.
The Eastern Conference playoffs weren’t expected to be very competitive this year, with only five of the eight teams boasting winning records. The fifth-seeded Wizards and fourth-seeded Raptors came in an as two relatively evenly matched teams — one flawed offensively, the other flawed defensively. But after dueling to overtime in the opener, the Wizards are in position to sweep a seven-game series for the first time in franchise history.
Cleveland and Chicago have treated their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time opponents as virtual sparring partners for the main event — a conference semifinal matchup between the two teams favored to reach the NBA Finals for most of the season. The Cavaliers essentially handpicked their first-round opponent, resting their stars in two late-season games against the Celtics to put them in position in claim seventh. Having an inexperienced opponent was the perfect testing ground for playoff novices Irving, Kevin Love and Coach David Blatt. The Bulls needed the easier games against an even younger Milwaukee team to gain more familiarity with Rose, who missed six weeks while recovering from surgery.
The Western Conference had the potential to be more compelling, but injuries robbed Oklahoma City of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka and opened the door for Davis to make his playoff debut. Instead of facing the playoff-tested Thunder, the Warriors were rewarded with a better path against the upstart Pelicans.
The Mavericks were the only team to push San Antonio during the Spurs’ run to the title last season and certainly had the talent — at least on paper — to possibly upset the Rockets. But the continued bickering between Carlisle and Rondo, combined with Harden’s efficient scoring and the return of a rebounding and rim-rocking Dwight Howard, has set the stage for a short series.
Memphis dropped to fifth after a late-season slide but landed comfortably into a first-round series against the fourth-seeded Trail Blazers, owners of the sixth-best record in the West. Portland, which finds itself in a 3-0 series hole after Saturday night’s 115-109 loss to the Grizzlies, has been cursed with injuries all season but has been especially depleted after losing Wesley Matthews and Dorel Wright for the playoffs and starting the series without Arron Afflalo.
Spurs-Clippers offers the most hope for intrigue, since both teams entered the season as possible favorites to reach the conference finals. Chris Paul has been angrier than normal and is desperately seeking to advance beyond the second round for the first time in his career. Tim Duncan turned 39 on Saturday but remains ageless, and it almost feels as if the Spurs won the NBA lottery three times, with last year’s Finals MVP and defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard carrying the team despite not getting customary production from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Though the first-round has mostly been boring, NBA fans can take solace because it could be over real soon — and the rest of the postseason has the potential to be much better.