If we’re going to knock the 2015 Eastern Conference — especially its playoff performance over the past three rounds — the Western Conference can’t be allowed to escape criticism as well.
More to the point, if the East was dogged by the plague of injuries that swept through the playoffs this year — Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Thabo Sefolosha, John Wall, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, among others — the West suffered as well. Chris Paul, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Marreese Speights, and 37 members of the Portland Trail Blazers (that last stat is unofficial) missed at least one full playoff game if not more. If the performances of Eastern teams suffered over the past six weeks, it was little different for Western teams. If one conference is going to receive criticism (albeit adjusted for adverse circumstances), the other should be held to the same standard.
One can ultimately acknowledge that while the Western Conference once again proved to be extremely difficult — such that a 44-win season would not have led to a playoff appearance — it did not put its best feet forward in three rounds of playoff competition. The quality evident in the Western Conference playoffs was conspicuous by how rare it turned out to be.
The Golden State Warriors put an end to the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night, dispatching the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of a wildly volatile and ultimately ragged series. A conference final should naturally represent the best of what a conference has to offer, but Warriors-Rockets did not meet that standard. The Warriors answered every challenge they needed to in this series. Moreover, winning in five spared them the scary possibility of playing Game 6 on the road without a physically suspect Klay Thompson. Golden State, from a purely competitive standpoint, did well to win this series and wrap it up quickly.
However, there’s a difference between competing and performing. Competing is a matter of effort and determination, performance a matter of precision and execution, otherwise referred to as craftsmanship. One can marvel at competitive virtues — the 1990s Miami Heat and New York Knicks competed as well as any two teams could when sharing the same piece of hardwood — but quality is much more a measurement of performance.
Houston and Golden State just didn’t perform very well — not on a regular basis, at any rate.
James Harden and Stephen Curry played like MVPs for most of this series. They were the men who brightened this five-game journey far more than anyone else. Harden’s invidual virtuosity, supplemented by a willingness to patiently set up his teammates, particularly in Game 2, showcased “The Beard” at his best. Curry, before the nasty fall he absorbed in Game 4, was his typically magnificent self, raining down jumpers on the Rockets and creating a 3-0 series lead.
Harrison Barnes played gorgeous basketball in the second half of Game 5 to carry the Warriors to the finish line in this series. Both Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut were highly effective in stretches, as were Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard for Houston. However, this was a series in which neither team kept its best brand of basketball for very long. Golden State maxed out in Game 3, and Houston produced a complete Game 4, but most of the series often elicited the central and most damning feature of any athletic competition: the loser lost more than the winner won.
Game 1 was a complete mess, a jumble of the nerves and uncertainty that rarely left Warriors-Rockets. Game 2, on balance the best game of the whole series, nevertheless ended with a ragged fourth quarter, punctuated by James Harden’s unfortunate sequence in the final eight seconds.
The final minute of Game 2 was pure chaos in a yakety-sax kind of way. The instructive part of Game 2 was that its conclusion undid the good things accomplished in the first three quarters. In that sense, Game 2 was a metaphor for Houston’s playoff run: the ugly, unraveled nature of the ending chapter made the full story look a lot sadder than it could have or should have been. Between Dwight Howard repeatedly losing control and James Harden repeatedly losing the ball, the Rockets — given the gift of an out-of-form Steph Curry and a foul-plagued Klay Thompson — not only failed to take advantage in the second half of Game 5; they faded away. This removed a lot of the luster from their seven-game series win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Funny you should mention the Clippers: Though not in the West finals, they represent — more than any other team or source — the biggest reason why the West playoffs failed to live up to expectations.
The first-round series between the Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs is easily the best of the 14 playoff series we’ve witnessed over the past six weeks. Oh, there were ugly pockets in the series (the Clippers in Game 3, the Spurs in a disjointed Game 6 they’ll regret throughout the offseason), but for the most part, those seven games gave us the luminous, play-above-the-expectations magic we love to see in the world of postseason basketball. Austin Rivers, Glen Davis, Jamal Crawford, and (in Games 6 and 7) even Matt Barnes played above their pay grades, all while Blake Griffin looked like the best player in the NBA and Chris Paul defied the odds with his Game 7 performance in the face of a highly constraining injury.
For the Spurs, Tim Duncan kept Father Time at arm’s length with a string of virtuoso performances. Boris Diaw stitched together the Spurs in multiple moments of crisis. Patty Mills won Game 2, and Kawhi Leonard filled a highlight reel on his own. In Game 7, Danny Green played as well as he could play, with Tony Parker reminding the NBA how great a player he’s been over the years. Clippers-Spurs was basketball nectar, and when the Clippers showed uncommon resolve to win that series, they seemed like a sure bet to not necessarily win, but to continue to perform at a high level.
The immensely disappointing aspect of the Clippers’ seven-game loss to Houston is found not so much in the loss itself (though it was and is and will be damning for the franchise), but in the way the Clippers fell short. The confidence won and earned against San Antonio remained entirely in place through 5.75 games. All the Clippers had to do to dispatch the Rockets was protect a 13-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 6 at home. That lead was still 12 points with just under eight minutes left. Griffin was operating at the height of his powers. Dwight Howard had committed a flagrant foul. James Harden was sitting.
Then the Clippers — handily winning the series at the time — collapsed.
A team with Doc Rivers, a world-champion coach who maximized the abilities of two other non-championship teams (the 2010 and 2012 Boston Celtics), quickly forgot the idea that it had come of age against the Spurs. The Clippers descended into pure panic and lost all focus in those final eight minutes. A 31-7 Houston blitz not only allowed the Rockets to win Game 6, but to do so by a double-figure margin. In Game 7, the Clippers could have lived with themselves (more) if a loss had been the product of a sparkling Houston performance, one good enough to beat Los Angeles’s A-game. However, on a day when the Rockets were a C-plus team at best (and that might be generous), the Clippers were a D-level team, body-snatched by pressure despite two full days off before Game 7.
The Rockets — who looked so feeble in the third quarter of Game 6 — deserved (and still deserve in the present tense) an ample amount of credit and respect for fighting back in that series when few thought they possessed such resilience. Yet, the enormity of the Clippers’ failure — immediately diminishing the value of their triumph over the Spurs — completely recast the way we will remember the 2015 West playoffs. The Golden State-Memphis semifinal series was not allowed to get off the ground due to Mike Conley’s and Tony Allen’s injuries. In Clippers-Rockets, the gruesome nature of a collapse marked the most central feature of a seven-game series that had been little more than a parade of ugly blowouts in four of the first five games.
A postscript on the 2015 West playoffs and the 2015 Western Conference in general:
For all the grief the Atlanta Hawks and the Eastern Conference have received (the Hawks don’t deserve a lot of criticism, but the East as a whole sure does), Atlanta was 22-8 against the West, so it’s not as though the Hawks were overrun by the West in the regular season. Sure, regular-season and playoff ball aren’t the same, but after seeing the craziness and volatility of nerve-addled hoops in the West over the past six weeks, perhaps this conference — though still markedly superior to the East — isn’t quite as overwhelming as previously thought.