The playoff series that concluded last night will be remembered as much for what was missing from them than how the team’s who won were able to overpower their opponent.
Injuries are a normal part of an NBA season, but the circumstances that led the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder down their path to oblivion were extraordinary and painful to watch.
With Chicago, it was watching a team of dead legged, utterly exhausted players give every ounce of heart that could be humanly mustered in a futile effort to top the NBA’s best team, with all of its depth and talent, by using a cast of characters that under a lesser coach than Tom Thibodeau would have never made it past the first round.
The group’s efforts were even more admirable when you consider that they did it without the help of a player they were able to depend on all season in Luol Deng, without their best defensive guard in Kirk Heinrich or the former MVP in Derrick Rose, whose return from an ACL injury last year loomed over their entire season and failed to launch despite all the rehab boxes being checked.
Watching the Bulls scrap and carry themselves with such pride that Miami was pushed to their limits to end this series in five games was the most inspiring thing we’ve seen this postseason. Chicago’s unwillingness to make excuses and refusal to cower to circumstance is a model for team’s everywhere.
In an age of pre-Madonna athletes where bad attitudes amongst athletes are rampant, the Bulls stood as an example of what positive thinking can achieve. They went from an ordinary five seed to the darling of the playoffs in style and now that their ride is over, the playoffs are just a bit more predictable.
In Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant and his heartfelt effort to carry his team single handedly in the absence of Russell Westbrook fell short against the best defensive team in the league. For his critics, it will be in their memories that Durant created a wide open jumper to tie the final game and couldn’t hit it, but what they should be thinking about is that he tested the limit of what a single superstar could achieve this postseason, much the way LeBron James did during his entire Cleveland career.
Considering that Durant averaged 45 minutes per night scoring 29 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.2 blocks and steals during the series, it’s tough to imagine that he could have done much more. It just highlighted how crucial Westbrook is to Oklahoma City’s offense and general game plan. It brings to light what they lost in the James Harden trade and shows that not even Kevin Durant at his best is enough to support the notion that one superstar is all it takes to seriously compete in the Western Conference.
Truth be told, the Thunder and Bulls losing is good for the NBA and the playoffs in general. It hurts the suspense of this time of year to have games where you find yourself thinking about how different it might be if so and so were healthy. It doesn’t do the league any good to have Rose’s inability to mentally recover from an injury in the spotlight any longer or to watch a clearly handicapped OKC team try to cling to some hope that they can manage without their star point guard. It kills some of the enthusiasm you feel for the game and puts an asterisk in people’s minds that says they couldn’t win because pieces were missing.
While Durant’s star power will be missed and Chicago’s blue collar efforts not forgotten, these two series coming to an end certainly doesn’t make the playoffs less interesting and I would argue actually helps us move past two story lines that needed to dry up in the best interest of making this postseason more watchable and unpredictable.