There’s something missing from the Eastern Conference Finals.
During the Western Conference playoffs, the only sound that could be heard was constant rejoicing. People were in rapture over the evenly-matched teams, the high level of play, the sexy and complex brand of basketball. The superstars, i.e. Kevin Durant, Tony Parker, Russ Westbrook, and Tim Duncan, all looked super, but even still, the teams behind them operated cohesively and with definite purpose. No hero-ball in the West, no sir — the players who tried that, mainly Kobe Bryant, went home early.
The Eastern Conference playoffs, meanwhile, have been met mainly with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Even in the circumstances of LeBron James exerting deity-like control, as he did last night, or Rajon Rondo being the basketball equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, which he’s looked like more than once throughout this series, the prevailing mood has still been, “Make these low-scoring games stop and just send one team to their Thunder-brought execution already, please.”
Is that appropriate, though? It’s true that the series hasn’t been a the highest-scoring affair; Miami’s averaging 96 points per game, 2.5 points below their season average, and Boston’s averaging just under 93 points per game, or about a point above their season average. But we’ve so far been gifted two overtime games and a game 7, not to mention 40-point games from LeBron and Rondo. Ostensibly, these are fun things — Kevin Garnett is a fun thing, because he yells often. And yet, it hasn’t been that fun. Something seems wrong.
A ghost hangs over the East, and it’s one we haven’t talked about in almost a month now. It’s easy to forget that during the regular season, the best record in the NBA didn’t belong to the Heat or the Thunder or the Spurs or the Celtics. Back in January, February, March and April, the Bulls were the team to beat, and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, when he played, did unaccountable, championship-worthy things. And then that first, terrible game against the 76ers in which Rose seemed like a marionette in control of everyone until he couldn’t control himself, and his knee shattered, and the East fell into a depression.
With Rose having sat at home through the entire playoffs, and the hamstrung Bulls, emotionally and logistically dilapidated, losing in a huff to an inept Philadelphia team, the East has been missing something. You can sense it in the conference finals, in which neither team seems good enough to beat the other. The Bulls should be here, one way or the other; Derrick Rose should’ve gotten to duel with LeBron and/or Rajon Rondo. Rose’s absence has cast a notable pall, and despite trying to fill that gap with talk about LeBron’s historical significance or the true gravity of Rondo, it’s been like eating empty calories, or arguing with yourself.
Whether the Heat or the Celtics earn the right to face the Thunder in the Finals, it will still feel wrong. (Ironic because of how inevitable Miami dominance seemed when the basketball Zoltron assembled two summers ago.) And if whichever team comes out of the East does manage to beat OKC, then the whole postseason will seem like a sham — at least, if the Thunder win, there will be some semblance of closure. I miss Derrick Rose, and he has become an integral member of the basketball elite. It just wasn’t the same without him.