Playoff Fatigue

The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, but after the very long, sometimes dull, regular season, the playoffs are a test of endurance.

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David Halberstam wrote many great—and long—books, most notably Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, but my favorite of these is The Breaks of the Game. He spends the 1979-80 season with the Portland Trail Blazers. The glow of their legendary 1977 title team had just faded, and what was left was an aging team scrambling to make the bottom rungs of the NBA playoffs.

What made the book so engrossing wasn’t his portrayal of the players but rather the sense that the 82-game regular season is long and grueling. Sports in general, and the NBA in particular, have an air of glamour to them, but this book pulled the curtain back on that myth. While the reality was not enough to put an end to my envy of the pay checks of pro basketball players, Halberstam’s book made it seem like 6 1/2 months of living in hotels or hotel-like conditions wasn’t the healthiest prelude to the playoffs.

The 82-game NBA marathon that concluded on Wednesday night was not without its pleasures, but by early April it did seem Halberstamian in length. Part of the problem was that the haves and have-nots in the league were separated by Christmas with little left to be decided. It was clear by then that the league consisted of four elite teams—the defending champion Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. All other playoff teams were a notch or two below. The quick surge of the top teams meant that for the last 4 1/2 months, the drama in the league centered on where the second-tier playoff teams would be seeded.

Even the individual awards were locked up early. LeBron James established an airtight case for league’s Most Valuable Player before the start of 2009. His statistical profile, 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per contest won every argument about who the MVP should be, and he did this playing fewer minutes per game this season than any since his rookie year.

James’ Cavaliers took a big step forward, winning 21 more games this season than last. Although the improved quality of James’ teammates and the offensive schemes of assistant coach John Kuester are the principal reasons for the gain, James is the public face of a team most likely to win it all in June.

If Harris wins, it will underscore the rise of the Eastern Conference after a decade of inferiority. Teams in the Eastern Conference have the best players, best teams and more of the up-and-coming stars. The bottom of the Western Conference has several teams moving in the right direction, but they have further to go than the risers in the East. The balance of power shifted this season.

It’s because of that shift, however, that the first round of the playoffs will be more interesting in the Western Conference. Neither Boston nor Cleveland should have much difficulty dispatching their first-round opponents. Orlando has lost several key players to injuries; otherwise their first-round matchup would be a cakewalk, too. Only the fourth-seed-versus-fifth-seed tilt between the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat should generate fireworks. Thanks to Dwyane Wade, who reminded everyone that he’s an all-time great when healthy, the Heat has all the star power, but Atlanta is a better team, though not by much.

Aside from the five games or so it will take the Lakers to eliminate their first-round opponent, the Utah Jazz, blood will flow in each of the Western Conference’s first-round series. The second-seeded Denver Nuggets and the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets are on a mission to get out of the first round for the first time in several years. Both should, but it won’t be easy. The Nuggets’ first-round opponent, the New Orleans Hornets, boasts the most electric player in the game, point guard Chris Paul. But Denver’s point guard, Chauncey Billups, is a defensive ace, and his size could diminish Paul’s attack.

The Hornets have declined from last season when they were the No. 2 seed in the West due to diminished production from their role players. The Denver roster is deep and talented, and that should be the difference in a long series. The Houston Rockets face a tougher challenge against the Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams are plodders, finishing near the bottom in the possessions-per-game rankings, yet they are a study in contrasts. Portland is a superb offensive team, and Houston is an airtight defensive unit. The Rockets are a unit of veterans, while the Blazers are one of the youngest teams in NBA history to make the playoffs. This is a series that should go seven games with the Blazers’ youth offsetting their home court advantage.

Fortunately, one Western Conference first-round series will end before midnight in the East most nights—that’s the one between third-seeded San Antonio Spurs and sixth-seeded Dallas Mavericks. These two teams are regional rivals with plenty of bad playoff blood between them. Each is hanging on to their title hopes by a thread; the other would love to cut it. Although it’s hard to imagine San Antonio going out in the first round of the playoffs, it’s equally hard to imagine that this series will not go the distance. And the last time the Mavericks faced a Game 7 in San Antonio was in 2006, and they won in overtime. They could make it two in a row against their intrastate rival.

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