The Big Three era is dead and the Knicks are back: 20 things we learned from the NBA playoffs

<span>The <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Boston Celtics;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Boston Celtics</a> celebrate their record 18th NBA championship.</span><span>Photograph: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images</span>

Take big swings

This particular trade deadline was a bit of a snoozefest, as many teams opted to roll with the status quo. But the two teams that made the biggest swings, Indiana (in a move for Pascal Siakam that actually came shortly before the deadline) and Dallas (who acquired PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford and shipped away cantankerous Grant Williams) both were rewarded mightily for their gumption: in the form of surprise Eastern Conference finals and NBA finals appearances, respectively.

Related: Boston’s brilliant technocrats micromanaged their way to the NBA title

The Knicks are back, baby

The Garden is rocking again, just as the basketball gods intended. An avalanche of injuries ultimately spoiled the party for New York’s favorite sports children this year, but ask any Knicks fan: this team hasn’t been this fun or beloved in eons. And ask any basketball pundit, they’re damn good, to boot.

Luka has some maturing to do

The title for best player on the planet was there for the taking. Nikola Jokić had a second-round exit at the hands of young Anthony Edwards, who some hyperbolically posited might take the throne were he to lead his team to the promised land. Luka Dončić was afforded the same opportunity to dethrone his Serbian pal, but his tendency to lose his composure and rail against referees, and neglect the defensive end, reared its ugly head during the finals. He’s supremely talented and may very well mature into the best player alive – he certainly showed flashes during the Mavericks’ charmed playoff run – but he’s not there yet.


Best-of-seven series. All times US eastern time (EDT). 

Thu 6 Jun Game 1: Celtics 107, Mavericks 89

Sun 9 Jun Game 2: Celtics 105, Mavericks 98

Wed 12 Jun Game 3: Celtics 106, Mavericks 99

Fri 14 Jun Game 4: Mavericks 122, Celtics 84

Mon 17 Jun Game 5: Celtics 106, Mavericks 88

Inside the NBA is the last true uniting force

In the polarized times we currently inhabit, it’s rare when everyone can come together over a common cause. But one such communal force united the entirety of the internet this spring: no one, and I do mean no one, wants Inside the NBA to go off the air. The NBA TV rights deal is one of the most boring talking points imaginable, but if it costs us Ernie, Kenny, Shaq and Chuck (as Barkley himself recently insinuated with the announcement of his retirement), it will be a declaration of war.

The Suns are screwed

New owner syndrome hit the desert like a flaming asteroid this year in the form of mortgage magnate and Dan Gilbert foe Mat Ishbia. He came into the picture with no shortage of enthusiasm, which might have been a good thing, in theory. Except that his flashy spending and big swings likely warranted more forethought: Phoenix now have an allegedly disgruntled star pair in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, a $50m-a-year player who averaged 16 points per game in the playoffs in Bradley Beal, and limited depth and future assets to speak of. Yikes.

Related: Luka Dončić, basketball’s most effective derriere, strikes back in the NBA finals

The Cavs need to shake things up

The Cavs have an embarrassment of riches: two star point guards in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland along with two star big men in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. But it’s a bit “water water everywhere”, because all of them are on slightly different timelines and provide certain redundancies. They already made the (right) move to move on from their head coach, but it’s time for Cleveland to shake up the roster, too. Expect at least one of Mitchell and Garland, if not also Allen or Mobley, to be on the move this summer.

Nothing beats a buzzer-beater

There are plenty of high-entertainment-value plays on an NBA court: a thunderous dunk, an ankle-breaking spin move, a half-court hail mary. But whether it was Jamal Murray with Anthony Davis in his face at the end of Game 2 of Denver’s rematch with the Lakers in the first round, or Andrew Nembhard’s prayer of a three-point game winner for his Pacers against the Knicks in the conference semis, one thing is clear: a dramatic buzzer-beater remains undefeated.

Anthony Edwards is next up

There was a fleeting moment, after the Timberwolves dethroned the defending champion Denver Nuggets on their home floor at altitude in Colorado, that the NBA proletariat were ready to crown Edwards as their new king. His shakiness in the following series revealed he’s not quite ready to rule, but based on what he showed in the first few rounds of the playoffs this year, it feels inevitable that, eventually, he will.

Every team needs a TJ McConnell

No one would mistake him for a superstar, or a star, even, but McConnell would have a lot of suitors if he were to hit the NBA open market after his work with the Indiana Pacers this year, playing an integral role in their Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals (and the In Season Tournament Finals, for that matter). A spark plug workhorse who does the dirty work: who says no?

Related: In a golden era of older NBA talent, LeBron James remains one of one

No lead is safe

In the era of the three-point shot, leads can evaporate quickly. But it feels like a double-digit cushion is less, well, cushiony than ever. Case in point: the defending champion Nuggets were on both the winning end (against the Lakers in round one) and losing end (against the Timberwolves in round two) of a blown 20-point second half lead, the latter of which occurred in highly dramatic fashion on their home floor.

LeBron might’ve missed his last best chance

Speaking of the aforementioned blown 20-point lead against the Denver Nuggets, that represented one of several “what if” moments for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. Head coach Darvin Ham, understandably, ended the season as Darvin Spam (Canned ham, get it? I’m sorry), after his turn at the helm of a disappointing first-round exit. But it wasn’t all his doing: the Lakers’ front office didn’t make the aggressive deadline moves that proved fruitful for the Western Conference champion Mavericks. LeBron James had a sensational and miraculously healthy 21st campaign, but as he turns 40 this year, the what-ifs of this year might prove more profound in hindsight.

Watch at a bar, if you can

You’re under zero obligation to imbibe, but it’s easy to forget how enhanced the playoffs viewing experience can be when surrounded by passionate, rowdy, and potentially on-the-verge-of-a-mental-collapse fellow fans. Of course, nothing beats being there in person, but hearing a Mike Breen “BANG!” reverberating through a shoddy television speaker system while some guy spills a little beer on your shoulder is a true close second.

The east and west need balancing

Boston were the best team all year long, and were deserving champions. But their Eastern dominance shone a light on an NBA problem that has been present for years and is, perhaps, at the height of its nuisance: not all conferences are created equal. Sure, there are a few good teams at the top of the East who ran into injury issues, but the bottom half of the conference is patently awful. The West, on the other hand, had nearly 50-win teams missing the playoffs entirely. Expansion, or some form of realignment, can’t come soon enough.

The youngins are here

Related: Vintage performance: what’s behind NBA stars’ wine obsession?

While I stay steadfast in my assertion that the old guard aren’t quite dead yet, it’s clear that the next generation aren’t going to be waiting for any seats to vacate before they snatch the reins. Whether it was Luka, Ant, Shai, or Tatum and Brown, it’s clear that Gen-Z hoopers aren’t content to wait their turn any longer.

Bits only in moderation

I’m not saying that the reason the Timberwolves ended up getting their behinds handed to them by the Dallas Mavericks in Minnesota’s first Western Conference finals appearance in 20 years is, karmically, because they ran the Anthony Edwards’ instant-classic “Bring Ya Ass” quote into the ground, but I’m not not saying that, either. When even the local sheriff’s department (yes, really) is jumping on the bandwagon, it’s safe to say the bit has run its course, and then some.

No award is more contentious than DPOY

Whether it was the reaction to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert’s flambéing by Luka Dončić in the conference finals, or the inarguable truth come to light that the Boston Celtics were, in fact, fine without “soul of the team” and former DPOY Marcus Smart, it was a rough few months for current and former Defensive Players of the Year. And our collective inability to agree upon what qualifies someone to have the award bestowed upon them seems primed only to deepen.

Jokić is still the best player on earth

Is Luka the best player alive? Is it Ant?” As aforementioned, we had good fun speculating, as an NBA proletariat, as to who would snatch the crown from Jokić after the Serbian enigma faced an untimely second-round exit and his road to defend his championship title was cut short. But the longer the playoffs wore on, the more warts showed on his competition, and a truth (for now, at least) came to light: it’s still Jokić.

We’re due for a good NBA finals

No shade (OK, maybe a little) to the Boston Celtics or the Denver Nuggets, but the presumed experience of superfans of those teams aside, the last two NBA finals have been a crashing bore. Sure, we may have been spoiled by years of high-octane rematches between Steph and LeBron in years past, but surely the NBA can do better than this.

The Big Three era is dead

Remember in the not-so-distant past when every team was clamoring for a Big Three, trying to bring big names together like Voltron at any cost to their depth? Yeah, those days are done. Kaput. There isn’t even a unanimous consensus as to which of the championship-winning Celtics’ big two was actually the best player in the series, and neither of them are consensus top-five play in the league. A couple of stars at the top of the roster is still key, but depth is king. Long live the role player!

Good things take time

If there’s to be one general, all-encompassing thesis to take home from this year’s playoffs, it surely must be this one. Practically every team that achieved any level of success this postseason has ridden out at least a year (if not several) of doubts about its core. Whether it’s Dallas’s Luka and Kyrie missing the playoffs entirely last year, the written-off Towns and Gobert supersized lineup in Minnesota, or, perhaps most notably of all, the duo of Tatum and Brown in Boston: a pairing whose breakup has been speculated annually who finally got over the sisyphean hump this year. Not all successes come overnight.

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