The 2015 NBA Playoffs have been a bust.
That short, blunt, inelegant sentence matches the cadence of these playoffs as well as the level of quality they’ve (not) attained.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will notch a successful season when they officially seal their Eastern Conference championship in the coming days, but unless Kyrie Irving and LeBron James can substantially heal their bodies in the week off they’ll have before the NBA Finals, these two conference finals are likely to be followed by a similarly brief world championship series.
Unquestionably, injuries have shaped this reality, but then again, LeBron has overcome the absence of Kevin Love and all of Kyrie’s missed games to lead his team to the Finals. The way in which these playoffs have unfolded — with a first-round series (Spurs-Clippers) being the non-debatable high point — is the product of more than injuries. This playoff progression is the product of the forces that have turned Mike Scott into an utterly impotent player in the Eastern Conference finals. They’re a product of the forces that have defined the NBA for decades.
If you’ve read it once, you’ve read it a million times: The NBA, more than any other pro sports league in the United States, consistently demands one year’s failure before a team is able to rise to the next level.
The ascension of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics; the ascension of the Lakers in 1985 after losing to the Celtics in 1984; the rise of the Detroit Pistons after losing to the Celtics in the 1987 East Finals and the Lakers in the 1988 NBA Finals; the breakthrough of Michael Jordan’s Bulls against the Bad-Boy Pistons; the Indiana Pacers making the 2000 Finals after rough playoff losses late in the 1990s; the 2004 Detroit Pistons putting it all together after the 2003 version was undressed in the East finals by New Jersey; the 2006 Miami Heat winning it all after losing in seven to Detroit in the 2005 East Finals — the flow of “lose so you can then win” progressions in the NBA has been constant since the early 1980s.
This year, of course, the playoffs have broken from that traditional mold.
The Los Angeles Clippers, after beating the San Antonio Spurs in that epic seven-game first-round series, would have reached the West finals if history was any sort of guide. When they led by 19 late in the third quarter of Game 6 at home against the Houston Rockets, history was about to be affirmed. However, all the toughness and composure the Clippers had displayed in 12.75 playoff games promptly evaporated in the final 1.25 games of their 14-game playoff run. As a result, the Golden State Warriors — not accustomed to playing this deep into the playoffs — faced a similarly inexperienced Houston team, not the Clipper club which had been knocking on the door in recent years.
In the East finals, most of the players on the floor did not bring prior conference finals experience into this series. You can plainly see that LeBron’s familiarity with this stage — augmented by his singularly luminous skill set (no one else does what he can in one package) — has made the difference for Cleveland against Atlanta. To be clear, LeBron has lifted the Cavs above the Hawks. That should be the way this series is remembered, more than the Hawks faltering.
Why should such a view hold sway? First, LeBron is about to win a fifth straight East title. He’s doing something he’s done many times before, only with more injuries on his own roster. This is the case of a great champion reaffirming his greatness. LeBron deserves that kind of credit, in terms of its primacy and lavishness.
The other reason why the East finals should be viewed more through the prism of LeBron’s excellence than through the lens of Atlanta’s failures is that the Hawks didn’t become rattled in this series alone. The Hawks were damaged before the playoffs began, due to injuries befalling Thabo Sefolosha and Paul Millsap. Then, they faltered on multiple occasions in their first two playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards. They fought through those battles, to their great credit, but it was apparent since Game 1 against Brooklyn that “Playoff Hawks” were very different from “Regular Season Hawks.” Within the context of the postseason, the Hawks did not step out of character versus Cleveland; that process had begun weeks earlier. Therefore, the Hawks did not suffer a “letdown” in this series. Cleveland — LeBron in particular — was able to prevent “Regular Season Hawks” from re-emerging.
Why, though, were the “Regular Season Hawks” not able to emerge in the playoffs? Why was this team not able to gel, other than for the most obvious reasons, such as the Sefolosha and Millsap injuries; Kyle Korver’s Game 2 injury against Cleveland; and the other Murphy’s Law moments that have hounded Atlanta?
Let’s look at Mike Scott, the player who stood at the center of the Hawks’ loss on Sunday night in Game 3 against the Cavs.
In the 2014 postseason, the Atlanta Hawks were a 38-win team, a No. 8 seed with absolutely nothing to lose. Mike Scott was a free-flowing gunner in Atlanta’s first-round series against the heavily-favored Indiana Pacers. He wasn’t brilliant, but he made a positive difference in multiple games for the Hawks, and he was a central engine behind a Game 5 road win in a 2-2 series. Scott scored in double figures four times against Indiana. He hit just over 32 percent of his threes, averaging 9.4 points per game. He made himself a valuable role player and justified his presence on the floor.
In Game 3, Atlanta’s new injuries (Korver) and ejections (Al Horford) forced Scott to be on the floor late in the game, as did coach Mike Budenholzer’s belief that Scott spaced the floor more than Mike Muscala. Scott, however, went 0-for-5 from three-point range in Game 3, and despite scoring eight points, he made the game’s biggest mistake: He watched the ball go out of bounds off the Hawks when he had a chance to grab the rock with 30 seconds left in overtime, trailing 112-111.
Scott is shooting 18 percent from three-point range in these playoffs. He’s never scored in double figures. He was relegated to the bench for most of the Washington series. He took shots late in Game 3 when multiple teammates had a hotter hand. Scott has shown that it’s a lot easier to play fluidly and with a relaxed mindset when you’re on a 38-win team with nothing to lose, or a team nobody expects much from.
It’s not so much that the Hawks need a superstar; that line of thought is overrated and, moreover, debatable. The key insight to make with respect to the Hawks is that this playoff run and this East finals series against the Cavs have represented their playoff baptism, as a team with genuine championship expectations. Much as Houston has learned a thing or two about competing at a higher level in the West finals against Golden State, and much as the Warriors — happily (from their point of view) spared playoff encounters against the veteran Spurs and Clippers — have wobbled at times despite their many wins, Atlanta has run smack into the different reality of playoff basketball this spring. While Cleveland has LeBron to guide the Cavs through all sorts of storms, Atlanta has no player with that level of awareness. That’s not so much a criticism of any one player as it is a mere reflection of the newness of this journey for the Hawks. Mike Scott is simply the foremost example of how new pressure-packed circumstances can hijack player performance, creating challenges that generally require more than one season to fully prepare for.
As a point of comparison with Scott, notice how Matthew Dellavedova — while not lights-out in every game — is certainly making important contributions to the Cavs in every other game, or something close to it, in these playoffs. Dellavedova, like him or not, is a survivor in the NBA. He’s doing anything he can to make himself useful on the court. Atlanta fans will understandably feel Delly’s going too far, but even his harshest critics can’t deny that Delly has helped Cleveland win playoff games, making an impact which exceeded most expectations heading into the 2015 postseason.
Here’s the money line on Delly within this specific conversation about handling major playoff pressure in a first encounter, something Mike Scott has failed to do: If LeBron was playing with Scott and not Delly, would anyone want to challenge the assertion that Scott and Delly would change places in terms of 2015 playoff performance?
Mike Scott, newly thrust into a playoff pressure cooker without a LeBron-level veteran to anchor him, is lost at sea. An Atlanta team that got so much from its bench during the regular season was not able to get a lot from its reserves in these playoffs.
Cleveland and Dellavedova — much like LeBron’s Miami teams with the likes of Norris Cole making crucial and timely contributions — are relying on a central superstar to find safe harbor in the NBA Finals. Atlanta’s inability to match Cleveland is not so much a matter of player quality as it is a product of playoff experience possessed by a central star.
The 2015 East Finals show that Atlanta will have no excuses next year, should it return to this stage of the playoffs. The 2015 playoffs, as a whole, have shown us that in a new landscape free of the Spurs, the Heat, the Thunder, and the veteran Indiana Pacers, volatility in both player and team performances — usually for negative reasons — will continue to be a defining aspect of competition.