This weekend, the National Basketball Association began its Conference Finals. The NBA Playoffs started off with a whimper - as player after player fell with injuries - and things seemed almost to be doomed. However, now that we're down to the final four, the NBA has got to be excited with its prospects for matchups.
In the Western Conference, the Spurs, persistently rumored to be too old to get the job done, yet consistently making deep playoff runs, have mowed over every opponent they've face. They blanked both the Utah Jazz as well as the Memphis Grizzlies. Going 8-0, though, the Spurs would have you believe, means nothing. They are a focused group, led by the coach and player examples of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, both of whom have been around the block more than a few times. The Jazz and the Grizzlies both had a couple opportunities where they could have stolen a game or two, but they were ultimately pushed by the mettle of the veteran Spurs.
In stark contrast to that aged wisdom stand the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the league, no one can make the claim that this group is not experienced. They have made the playoffs for the last three years, and have progressed farther for the last two. This year, they are expected to challenge the Spurs for the Western Conference title, regardless of how good San Antonio looks. The expectation in Oklahoma City is to win an NBA Championship, or the season will be considered a loss. This speaks highly to the atmosphere in the newest NBA market, and shows how committed the coach and players - not to mention ownership - are to the overall goal. The Thunder are led by a three-headed monster of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and super-sub - and Sixth Man of the Year award-winner - James Harden. Their youth and speed will be tested by the Spurs in one of the most highly anticipated series.
In the Eastern Conference, proceedings have been understandably marred by Derrick Rose's absence. If Chicago had been around, most people agree that things might have gone differently. But Rose is out for up to a year with an ACL injury, and the Miami Heat capitalized on that opportunity to roll to the Conference Finals for a second year in a row. After their loss in the NBA Finals last year, the Heat have congealed in the last few weeks of the Playoffs to look as good as any other team. Their being tested physically by the Indiana Pacers was probably a great thing for team unity and to prove to the guys on the team not named LeBron James or Dwyane Wade that they deserve to be in this spot. Like the young Thunder in the West, the Heat will not be satisfied with making these Conference Finals, though. Their goal, remember, is not one, not two championships, but a dynasty.
Standing in the way of that dynasty, fittingly enough, once again, are the Boston Celtics. Last year, when LeBron and company finally beat the Celtics, the moment overwhelmed him. It was cathartic. The same pressure is not there for James or the rest of the Heat, but it definitely is on the Celtics. Dismissed all year as too old, as having only this run left in them, the Celtics have relied heavily on ace point guard Rajon Rondo, who notched his ninth career triple double in closing out the Philadelphia 76ers. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have wavered back and forth from their old, reliable selves to unsure players. The other rock in Boston has been Kevin Garnett who still appears hungry long after pundits predicted he'd be making an impact.
It'd be easy - and wrong - to summarize both of these series as the young, upstart teams versus the grizzled vets, trying to make one last stand. But there's no denying that there is a sea change afoot in the NBA. This year's Conference Finals may see some of those prognostications that merely one or two years ago sounded absurd spring to life. The Western Conference Finals begin with Oklahoma City at San Antonio on Sunday night, and the Eastern Conference Finals continue on Monday with Boston heading to Miami.