Three of the four series are guaranteed to last at least six games. The exception is the Golden State-Memphis tussle, in which the Warriors have the closest 3-1 lead you could imagine. They have claimed two of their victories by a combined four points. The young Grizzlies, emblematic of a league showcasing the advantages of having a deep roster instead of a top-heavy superstar construction, have given the Warriors trouble both with Ja Morant averaging almost 40 points and without their all-star point guard, who missed Game 4 with a knee injury and is doubtful to return this postseason.
If Memphis can fend off elimination at home in Game 5, all four conference semifinal series will be assured of going at least six games for the first time since 2015. Before that, it hadn’t happened since 2004. Before that, it hadn’t t happened since 1995. This level of second-round competitiveness is kind of like the NBA’s version of the periodical cricket, minus the creepiness.
History shows that parity isn’t necessarily the gold standard for NBA interest. It’s the strange thing that crops up for short periods between dynasties and repetitive Finals rivalries. But variety is good for the game, and it always indicates something greater at play. Look back at the past three times the postseason was so good this early, and you can track how the league’s tectonic plates move.
The 2015 playoffs occurred the year after San Antonio won its fifth and final championship with Tim Duncan. That was also the year after LeBron James returned to Cleveland, leaving Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh behind in Miami after two championships and four straight Finals appearances. Stephen Curry and Golden State won their first title in 2015, igniting a run of three titles, five consecutive Finals berths and a free-flowing style that changed the game.
The 2004 playoffs turned out to be the end of the Shaq and Kobe era in Los Angeles; the Lakers lost in five games to Detroit in the Finals.
About a month before the 1995 playoffs, Michael Jordan had come out of his first retirement, which would lead to another Chicago Bulls three-peat starting the next season. But as he worked his way back, the Bulls lost to Orlando in the second round. The Magic wound up advancing to the Finals, but Houston prevailed to repeat as champion. As a No. 6 seed, Rudy Tomjanovich’s “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion” Rockets became the lowest-seeded team to win the tournament.
What’s the NBA transitioning to and from this time? If you’re looking for a clear trendsetter, it’s probably best to wait out the remainder of this postseason. As the defending champion with a good chance to earn ring 2, Milwaukee still deserves to be considered the standard because of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominant presence, Jrue Holiday’s versatile defense and how well the team has covered for the absence of injured all-star forward Khris Middleton.
The Bucks don’t seem to be an emerging dynasty, but who cares? It’s a special era for the franchise. And Milwaukee’s balance epitomizes the direction the NBA seems to be going. The Bucks can win with their offense or defense. They have enough shooting around the Greek Freak to dominate in the paint and get hot behind the arc. They play big with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, but they can take Lopez off the floor and play with Antetokounmpo as the lone big man without hesitation. They may be the most flexible team in the NBA.
Of course, Phoenix would dispute that. And Memphis would point to how extraordinary it has performed all season when Morant has been unavailable. And Golden State specializes in winning with exotic, small lineups. And for as much as Luka Doncic carries Dallas, the Mavericks have been adaptable without him.
And Miami finds talent everywhere and uses all of it. And Philadelphia has persisted through chaos because of Joel Embiid and a lot of player development and tricks along the way. And Boston has an innovative rookie coach in Ime Udoka who has figured out how to maximize a roster that seemingly didn’t fit together.
So here’s what binds this group of eight: elasticity. There’s a resilience to all of these teams, and it’s not just because they have plain ol’ tough players. They are teams that didn’t — or couldn’t — stockpile future Hall of Famers. (Or, in Golden State’s case, a team that lost its invincibility.) They’ve all been through something: repeated failure, poor franchise history, bad luck, growing pains, the need for reinvention. And though there doesn’t appear to be a historically great team in this bunch, the champion may provide a pertinent example of success in today’s game.
Look at this as the post-Super Warriors era, which is funny to think about because Golden State might win a fourth championship by returning to the mortal version of itself that started this run. That era started in 2019, when Toronto won the title during a Finals in which Kevin Durant tore his Achilles’ tendon. You keep seeing traces of that Raptors team — a nice roster, full of player development, that constantly ran into a LeBron James playoff wall before making a trade for Kawhi Leonard — in the years since.
In the 2020 bubble, the Lakers won it all. They weren’t a superteam, but they used a variation of that model: acquiring James in free agency, exchanging players they had drafted for Anthony Davis and freeing up salary cap space to make more free agent acquisitions. If Leonard had wanted to become a Laker in the summer of 2019, they would’ve been in position to create a three-star superteam. He didn’t, and instead the Lakers turned the money into complementary free agents to build enough depth around James and Davis to help Los Angeles put up another banner.
Then the Bucks, after several seasons of chasing, finally had their moment in 2021, and they did it with a balanced roster. In about five weeks, when the NBA crowns its 2022 champion, the winner is already certain to feature another elastic, balanced roster that wins in multiple ways and survives even when top players aren’t available.
In a league struggling to keep players healthy for 82 games and a two-month postseason, depth is fashionable again. Culture and coaching ingenuity aren’t so obscured by the pursuit of top-level talent. The Suns went 64-18 in the regular season and ran away with the league’s best record, but that hasn’t made the journey to win 16 playoff games any easier. In terms of the viewing experience, it has been refreshing to see both 1 seeds, Phoenix and Miami, squirm and adjust.
Don’t expect the parity to last for long. But when the next alpha franchise emerges, it will have to overcome more than a fleeting standard set during a single season. In reality, the NBA has been tilting toward this kind of balance for four postseasons now. It makes for a more rigorous prerequisite to own this league.