Wiedmer: Without LeBron, NBA playoffs have lots of storylines

Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts after a foul during the second half of his team's playoff game against the Utah Jazz on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
photo Mark Wiedmer

If you're really bored tonight or you just want to glimpse the two teams that might eventually meet in the NBA Finals, you might want to check out the Milwaukee Bucks' attempt to sweep the Detroit Pistons out of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, followed by the Houston Rockets' goal to do the same to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference. The first game starts at 8, and TNT will televise both.

Whether you watch those games or not, these playoffs are already remarkably different from the 13 straight that came before them because of the absence of LeBron James, whose self-centered move to the Los Angeles Lakers spectacularly backfired this season, if for this season only.

So in his place we have a slightly more intense focus on teams rather than individuals, though when the Rockets' James Harden can start out 0-for-15 from the field - as he did in Saturday's 104-101 win against the host Utah Jazz - but still keep shooting enough to finish with 22 points while making just three of 20 field-goal attempts (he hit 14 of 16 free throws), individual talent is still at the core of what wins in the pros.

Or as Utah coach Quin Snyder said about Harden after Saturday's setback: "You're going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there's times where he's going to make plays."

This is not to say talent alone will get you to the postseason (see James, LeBron, in paragraph two of this column), but it hugely beats the alternative.

Unlike college - where coaches are most often the big draw - bench jockeys mostly come and go in the NBA about as often as the weather changes. You're either in the playoffs or you're likely out of a job. And even then, anything but a deep run can earn you a pink slip.

The outlier is San Antonio coach extraordinaire Gregg Popovich, who rarely has time for sports journalists but in his 23 seasons on the job has had plenty of time to lead the Spurs to five NBA titles and win more games than any coach in league history. He also somehow finds time to become a wine expert, though he sometimes sounds like a whine expert after particularly frustrating defeats.

Consider this response from Pop after the Spurs lost to the visiting Nuggets over the weekend to erase the home-court edge they'd earned by winning the first game of their best-of-seven series in Denver: "The Nuggets competed, and we did not. Their physicality was obvious from the get-go. You knew that was going to happen, and we did not respond. So, it was a very disappointing loss."

For those who still believe basketball is played best when the ball moves enough that no one would be allowed to miss his first 15 shots because the coach would demand someone else shoot the ball after the first five or six misses, the day the 70-year-old Popovich retires will be a very disappointing one for the sport.

Yet the Spurs are far from the only team in these playoffs that plays the game the right way - with everyone involved, any of six or seven players capable of becoming a star on a given night. The Boston Celtics, the Bucks, the Nuggets, the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers - along with the Golden State Warriors, the reigning champions - are all capable of turning a tight game into art at a moment's notice.

Throw in the Rockets because they have so much talent and this has the makings of a fantastic postseason once the first round mercifully concludes for teams such as the Indiana Pacers, who were swept by befuddling Boston on Sunday.

Deemed by most experts to easily reach the NBA Finals before the season began, the Celts looked listless and out of sorts through much of the regular season. When Philadelphia acquired former Tennessee Volunteer Tobias Harris, it seemed as if the East's balance of power had shifted to the 76ers, which it may have.

But if Boston can rediscover the chemistry it had a year ago, when its injury-riddled roster almost took it to the title series, the Celtics might yet represent their conference rather than the Bucks, Sixers or Raptors.

That said, as long as Milwaukee can keep its Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court, it may be the Beast of the East and the team most likely to thwart a Warriors three-peat. Of course, if Harden could string together two or three games in which he hits his first 15 shots or 17 of his first 20 instead of missing 17 of 20, Houston might yet become the Best of the West instead of Golden State.

If nothing else, "Hoist 'Em" Harden seems determined to keep launching shots nonstop until they drop.

"Keep shooting," he said after Saturday's performance. "Keep being aggressive. My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes."

Hard as this is to write, however much it goes against the accepted standards of winning basketball, as long as his coaches and teammates don't object and as long as the Rockets keep winning, who are we to judge that mindset? In the new NBA, the one at least momentarily free of LeBron, perhaps there's method to such madness.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.