NBA

Examining an NBA playoffs that weren’t — and wondering what might have been

The Celtics might have faced Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals this season. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

The last four weeks in the NBA have been spent trying to pin down an elusive calendar, one whose return date has slipped from April to May to June to, well, who knows?

That slow bleed, prompted by the novel coronavirus pandemic, has erased all memory of the league’s original calendar — the one that said the regular season would end on Wednesday and the playoffs would begin the following Saturday. With gyms empty and games postponed, it’s hard not to daydream about what could have been.

In truth, the NBA had not been building smoothly to a classic postseason before its March 11 shutdown. The league’s issues with China spurred by Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong, the deaths of Kobe Bryant and David Stern, and injuries to Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving left the league limping toward a weakened field. After five straight Finals trips, the Golden State Warriors were going to be watching from home. And, unlike most years, the defending champions were cast as underdogs as soon as Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers last summer.

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The great hope was that the playoffs could redeem a season marked by controversy, tragedy and power shifts. There was plenty of history at stake. Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was seeking his fourth title, which would have brought him one step closer to greats like Michael Jordan (six) and Magic Johnson (five). Giannis Antetokounmpo was chasing his first with the Milwaukee Bucks while attempting to outrace speculation about his upcoming free agency decision. Leonard was in pursuit of a third title with his third different franchise.

The game’s biggest superstar (James), its reigning MVP (Antetokounmpo) and its reigning Finals MVP (Leonard) were set to go head-to-head-to-head to claim title of “Best player in basketball.” Their matchups this season had been riveting. Leonard outdueled James on opening night and Christmas. Antetokounmpo crowned himself during a December win over James. James exacted revenge over both in memorable March wins.

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James and Leonard might also have faced off in the first true battle for Los Angeles, given that the Lakers and Clippers have never met in the playoffs. It would only have gotten better from there. If Antetokounmpo and Leonard had faced off in the Finals, it would have been a rematch of the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. If the Bucks and Lakers had met in a “Schlitz versus glitz” showdown, Antetokounmpo and James could have been the modern equivalent to the famed Jordan versus Johnson clash in the 1991 Finals.

On top of those juicy possibilities, ESPN had planned to air “The Last Dance,” its upcoming 10-part documentary about the 1998 Chicago Bulls, on off days during the Finals. Jordan and James – The “Greatest Of All Time” and his chief challenger, respectively – could have been in a nightly competition for viewership and social media attention.

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These playoffs also promised plenty of stories beyond the headliners. Both the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets entered as volatile commodities. Would Philadelphia have gotten healthy in time to salvage its disappointing campaign? Would James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and a revamped small ball approach have succeeded in pushing basketball strategy in a new direction? Would one or both teams have combusted under the postseason scrutiny so badly that coaching changes or blockbuster trades would have followed in the summer?

There were also rising stars looking to make the leap. Jayson Tatum sparkled down the stretch, averaging 29.9 points and 7.9 rebounds after the all-star break. The third-year forward had been poised to be the Boston Celtics’ playoff alpha dog for the first time. Ditto for Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, who ably played the Scottie Pippen role for Leonard during their 2019 title push. And, fresh off his first playoff series victory last year, Nikola Jokic had the Denver Nuggets positioned as potential spoilers for the long-assumed Lakers/Clippers showdown.

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Go even younger, and there were some tantalizing playoff debuts on deck. Luka Doncic spent most of the season as a top-five MVP candidate, leading the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA’s most efficient offense. The 21-year-old playmaker was set for his first taste of the postseason and, possibly, for his first exposure to backlash if the Mavericks’ joyride stalled out early.

The West’s final playoff spot hadn’t been set, but projection models pegged the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies as the leading favorites to round out the field. Either way, a thrilling rookie sensation – Zion Williamson or Ja Morant – would have been thrust to center stage for a first-round date with James’s Lakers.

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Past and future chess moves hung in the balance too, awaiting rendered verdicts. Would Anthony Davis’ sharp-elbowed move to the Lakers pay immediate dividends? Would Leonard’s plan to team up with Paul George steal the show? Would Harden’s swap of Chris Paul for Westbrook blow up in his face? Would the Bucks advance far enough in the playoffs to convince Antetokounmpo to re-sign?

All those questions, story lines and career arcs hang now, like a jump shot paused in midair. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t yet canceled the playoffs, holding out hope that they can be rescheduled and played in empty arenas later this summer.

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“I don’t think I’ll be able to have any closure if we do not have an opportunity to finish this season,” James said on a conference call this week.

He spoke for everyone.

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