There are five teams left in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, as of Friday, May 17th. I’d like to write “four,” but the New York Knicks had to save face by winning at MSG last night, and will live to see Game 6 in Indianapolis on Saturday night. More than any other year I can recall, this year’s NBA Playoffs are about one word: attrition. We hear cliches about how teams or players are always “fighting through injuries,” using “no excuses.” Doc Rivers likes to say, “Nobody is healthy at this point” about playoff basketball, which brings us to one word: attrition.
attrition – nounthe good people at Merriam-Webster.com give us a sense of the word’s origin as well as how it is used today.In Middle English, the word attricioun meant sorrow for one’s sins that arises from a motive other than that of the love of God. The later definitions are the ones that apply to the way in which several of this year’s playoff teams have simple run out of energy (gas or steam, if you like):: the act of rubbing together :friction; also: the act of wearing or grinding down by friction: the act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack <a war of attrition>: a reduction in numbers usually as a result of resignation, retirement, or death <a company with a high rate of attrition>
Attrition: Yes or No?
Milwaukee Bucks – nope. A mediocre team that relied on undersized offense (Ellis and Jennings) and one or two very good individual defenders (Sanders, Udoh, Mbah a Moute)
Boston Celtics – yes. A resilient team that limped into the playoffs (Garnett and Pierce) without its facilitator (Rondo) and the best rookie rebounder they’ve seen in a while (Sullinger), the Celtics fought hard before bowing out in 6. Players that defined this year’s battle through their own recovery from injury and will help define the future in Boston: Avery Bradley and Jeff Green.
Atlanta Hawks – yes, kind of. Losing Louis Williams early in the year had a significant impact on the offense, and potentially kept them from being a 4th or 5th seed. Indiana’s defense certainly ground them into the kind of pulp you don’t want in your orange juice.
Brooklyn Nets – nope. Lacked the necessary ingredients to win in the playoffs: cohesion, defense, understanding of roles, and coaching. Nice and shiny no arena, but they collapsed when faced with their biggest test.
Los Angeles Lakers – yes/no. Yes in the sense that injuries throughout the year, some predictable (Howard coming off of back surgery and Nash’s age), some less predictable (Kobe’s achilles) depleted them. No in the sense that for the first 65 games of the season, the team had zero fight in them, weren’t well-coached, didn’t buy into the system, and beat only the lesser teams in the league through talent and Kobe’s determination/selfishness alone.
Houston Rockets – yes, in a sense. Kevin McHale was grieving throughout this season, as his daughter, Sasha, died in November of an auto-immune disease. The Rockets were not known as a defensive team, played a chaotic but successful brand of open court basketball this year, reinvented themselves on the fly after they traded for Harden. In a sense, their season was born out of these big events. The team, with a new superstar scorer and a new rebounding/defensive force (Asik) rallied around its coach. The determined play of global travelling point guard Patrick Beverley helped keep the Rockets within striking distance of OKC.
Golden State Warriors – yes. Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut, the team’s offensive and defensive leaders, helped Golden State surprise Denver and San Antonio (at least for the first four games, until that awful attrition thing hit) in April and May. The Warriors were the epitome of a team, playing unselfish, free-flowing, offensive basketball on one end and holding opponents to forced jumpers and shot-clock-aware possessions on the other end.
In the end, the Spurs exploited the Warriors weaknesses in ways that Denver never could: forcing the ball out of Curry’s hands, while making Steph work to recover, by closing out at the 3-point line on his injured ankle, eventually running Thompson out of his comfort zone (corner 3’s and long-wing jumpers) and making Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack the play-makers. Bogut, who fought through the nagging ankle pain against Denver and the Spurs, could barely move by Games 5 and 6.
Los Angeles Clippers – no. Yes, Blake Griffin’s accidental ankle-injury played a small part in the Clippers losses in Games 5 and 6 to Memphis. However, they were basically a healthy team that couldn’t figure out how to score against the Western Conference’s most stifling defense. Blame Del Negro’s lack of a system as well as the lack of a post-game in the aftermath of Griffin’s ankle. The bench was the Clippers strength all year. In the playoffs, they were neutralized.
Denver Nuggets – kind of. Yes, Kenneth Faried was less than 100% for the first 3 games of this series, and yes, Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated Golden State in the regular season on the glass. Yes, losing Danilo Gallinari to a season-ending ACL tear was a problem. In his absence, Wilson Chandler’s playoff performance paralleled his entire career: moments of greatness thrown in with huge stretches of lackluster energy and uneven shooting. Andre Miller’s 18-point 4th quarter in Game 1 proved as unsustainable as it seemed at the time. Stephen Curry got whatever he wanted against Denver. That becomes clearer when you consider how San Antonio adjusted. Kawhi Leonard is one of the league’s best at intercepting cross-court passes with those out-stretched arms. Those assists to Thompson in round one became turnovers in round two.
Oklahoma City – yes. Russell Westbrook’s knee. You’ve probably read enough about how that one changed the playoff picture in the West.