NBA Playoffs: Surprise Party of Four

If there's any sports league with the reputation of playoff predictability, it's the NBA. The modus operandi usually rewards a couple different paths. The first involves teams that work through all of the stages of postseason growth, from initiation infancy through pubescent pain to championship maturity. The trend that's seen more recent traction is combining an amalgamation of superstar players and letting their talent do the talking.

The 2020 postseason was one all unto itself. Occurring after a months-long season break. Confining the games to a single plot of land. Sequestering the participants to a specific city within a city. These were all different from years past. But 2021 was supposed to be a lot closer to what we were used to.

Out East, once James Harden joined the fold with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets became the flavor du jour of the season. The newest star-studded co-op was supposed to lift Brooklyn to sporting heights the borough had not seen since baseball's Dodgers left for Los Angeles. Speaking of the City of Angels, out West, the gold standard of Pacific Coast hoops still had LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster. With that duo of talent, the Lakers still held the belt and would be a tough out as defending champs.

Injuries caught up with both favorites, though, meaning those two title runs ended well short of the intended finish lines. There was never really a time where Durant, Irving, and Harden could find their sea legs as a trio. Davis re-injured himself in the first round and never fully recovered. James couldn't get back to his old self after his regular season injury. With the Nets and Lakers going by the wayside, the path opened up for a couple more ... favorites?

Going into this season, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers were among the betting favorites to hoist the trophy. Come on, though. How many people truly had these two franchises among their top teams to finish the Finals journey?

The last two seasons, the MVP of the Association resided on the Bucks' roster. But no matter how much Giannis Antetokounmpo showed off his talents, Milwaukee couldn't pay them off during the playoffs. They couldn't cash in on being the favorites against Toronto (2019 Conference Finals) or Miami (2020 Conference Semis). Could the tweaks the front office made over this offseason truly equal a deep, deep run?

As much disappointment as the Milwaukee franchise has provided over the last two years, you can expand that to the whole history of the Clippers. This organization began as the Buffalo Braves and made three conference semis during their stay from 1970-1978. When the business moved to San Diego, no success traveled with it. The newly-renamed Clippers had one winning season while there (and no playoff appearances). After relocating up the coast, the Los Angeles Clippers took about 25 years to become a consistent presence in the playoffs. However, in none of those previous 50 campaigns did the organization make it to the conference final round. This surely wouldn't be the year to change that history, would it?

Among the other contenders for this year's championship, there were quite a few that had taken previous lumps. Philadelphia's "process" to win it all kept getting stuck fairly early, including once at the hands of Kawhi Leonard's Game 7 "bouncer-beater" in 2019. In the 2020 Bubble, Denver ran into the eventual champs after coming back twice after trailing 3 games to 1 in two straight series. Utah has the consistency of making the postseason, but the disappointing consistency of making early exits. At least one of those squads could surely make their overdue deep runs, no?

One note about this postseason was the number of young stars getting their chances to shine. Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and Julius Randle were among the stud players pumping some new blood into the second season. Two of the main youngins getting their first bite of the apple were Atlanta's Trey Young and Phoenix's Devin Booker.

The Suns are built a bit similar to last season's Heat. The core of the team is extremely young, with the exception of a couple savvy veterans. Jae Crowder provided outside shooting, presence, and toughness for the youthful roster. But the acquisition of Chris Paul continues to prove the most important of the offseason. Like Jimmy Butler in 2020, Paul gives Phoenix a depth of dimension and confidence this franchise hasn't experienced since the Steve Nash/Amar'e Stoudemire era.

Atlanta is pretty raw. Despite the experience of Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, and Lou Williams, the Hawks are quite young. The team's 25.7 average age is third amongst organizations that made it into the main draw of this postseason. Only the Celtics (a very playoff-experienced 24.7) and Grizzlies (a very inexperienced 24.2) were younger.

In other words, the Suns and Hawks are neophytes in playoff terms. Surely, they couldn't survive one, let alone two series, right?

Well, sometimes the NBA isn't as predictable as you think. The favorites we expected to be around are gone. The favorites we expected to choke are still alive. New fashion is making its debut this late into the playoffs, and it's so new, the price tags are still attached. For the Bucks, Hawks, Suns, and Clippers, someone will erase either generations-worth or an entire history of playoff pain.

Most seasons, yeah, the NBA is pretty predictable. But, sometimes, you have to watch out for the curveball.

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