The NBA took a year off from its historical arc last season, when Dallas and Miami made their cameos on the NBA Finals stage and thus were certified Dirk Nowitzki and Dwayne Wade as important players rather than mere stars. Sadly, the series didn't live up to what little hype two barely known teams could produce.
Dallas took a 2-0 lead and looked to be locking it up with a 13-point advantage as six minutes remained in Game 3. Rather suddenly, though, the Mavs ran out of tread, the grind of the Western Conference playoffs broke them down and Miami, relatively rested and refreshed, rallied to win Game 3, then the next three games.
The Heat's title defense this year might charitably be characterized as tepid. Shaquille O'Neal missed more than 30 games with a knee injury, Head Coach Pat Riley took a leave of absence during the middle of the season and Wade missed 23 games with a shoulder injury. All returned in time for the playoffs, then disappeared in a 4-0 first round loss to the Chicago Bulls, the first time a defending NBA champ was swept out in the first round.
After coming to within less than an hour of winning the title last year, the Mavericks played this regular season in avenging mode and won 67 games. But how little that matters in the NBA, where 16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs.
The Mavs don't have a lot of weaknesses, but one of them is the lack of a player who can man up a power point guard like Golden State's Baron Davis.
The Mavericks fell to the Warriors in the first round of playoffs.
In light of this year's playoffs, then, last year's are a blip on the screen, an unsatisfying deviation. NBA title contenders aren't supposed to come from nowhere and then disappear. They're supposed to fight their way to the top, then fight to stay there.
Though Dallas and Miami deservedly won their playoff games last year, they just as deservedly lost them this year.
And now we're back to reality, back to the league we knew two years ago, when the movement of history set Detroit and San Antonio as the leading contenders. The story began in 1999, when San Antonio won the first NBA title post-Jordan. In 2000, Joe Dumars became general manager in Detroit and began building a contender.
A Los Angeles Lakers dream team anchored by O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson won three consecutive titles from 2000 through 2002, but the Spurs offed Los Angeles on the way to the 2003 title, then Detroit beat the Lakers in the 2004 Finals. Finally, the Spurs and Pistons met in the 2005 Finals, with the Spurs winning. Then came last year and that blip on the screen.
We're down to the conference finals in the NBA, with every probability pointing to Detroit and San Antonio in the NBA Finals. The Spurs, considerably gifted this spring, need only to finish off the Utah Jazz after taking a 1-0 lead in their series on May 20. The Pistons are up against an emerging threat in the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, the prodigy who once put high school basketball on ESPN.
Steadily, the Cavaliers progress with James at their center. During his first season, 2003-04, they more than doubled their win total from 17 to 35. During his second season, they had a winning record, 42-40, but didn't make the playoffs. Last year the Cavs won 50, made the playoffs, won their first round, then lost to Detroit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This year the Cavs again won 50, then won two rounds of the playoffs before finding themselves in the conference finals against the Pistons.
The Pistons are energized by Chris Webber's return to Michigan, for his presence instead of Ben Wallace gives the Detroit offense five moving parts instead of four. The Pistons will base their offensive game on screening for Rip Hamilton and moving Rasheed Wallace all over the floor, where Cleveland power forward Drew Gooden can't keep up with him.
On the Cleveland side, all offense will run through James, who has led the Cavaliers in assists for every playoff game this year. Any possession in which he doesn't touch the ball is a mistake.
No one can guard James one-on-one because no one combines quickness and size in similar proportions. He'll probably see a lot of Detroit's Tayshawn Prince guarding him, which might mean Prince has little left at the offensive end.
Meanwhile, the Spurs gallop through the West, where the worst is over. Golden State took care of that, upsetting Dallas in the first round and ensuring a fairly easy path through the conference finals. First, though, the Spurs needed to take care of Phoenix, the annual flash that never finds a way to the Finals.
Despite three NBA titles in the past eight years, the Spurs often are put down as a dull team without fight. But they suddenly turned villainous in the media imagination when they determined to handle Suns point guard Steve Nash by whatever means necessary, beating on him at every opportunity. Next, the Suns are telling the media the Spurs are a dirty team.
Knowing they had taken up residence inside the Suns' heads, the Spurs just kept it working until Game 4. Playing on their own floor with a 2-1 lead and a 10-point advantage for most of the second half, the Spurs let Phoenix back in to even the series. But San Antonio wouldn't let it go so easily.
When San Antonio's Robert Horry hip-checked Nash out of bounds at midcourt, the Suns fried up mentally and almost immediately lost whatever advantage they gained. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw jumped from the Phoenix bench to join the fray. Dumb. Suddenly, it's not just Horry who is suspended for a game but Stoudemire and Diaw as well.
The NBA wants no part of fighting after the fiasco two years ago in Detroit. The Suns simply lacked the composure to stay put and paid for it the way they always pay in the playoffs. They lost the next two games.
It's nothing new, which is fine. Order is restored in the NBA.
The Spurs and Pistons are gunning for the Finals as LeBron James takes Cleveland deeper into the competition. The story continues. Finally.